Almanac

News - January 13, 2010

In defending police suit, city runs tab to about $350,000

• All but $11,500 goes to attorneys' fees, costs, other trial-related expenses; insurance covers full sum.

by Sean Howell

In a lawsuit that may have revealed more about our litigation-happy society than about the law enforcement abuses it sought to expose, the city of Menlo Park and five of its police officers have successfully defended all but one of 23 claims resulting from a 2007 incident in which the officers broke up a party.

Still, the city's tab for the civil case ran to nearly $350,000 in payments to plaintiffs and their attorneys, and in costs to defend the city and its officers, according to Finance Director Carol Augustine. The city burned through its $250,000 per claim self-insured retainer, and an insurance pool made up of Bay Area cities covered the remainder, Ms. Augustine said.

The jury returned its verdict in U.S. District Court on Aug. 25 after a two-week trial. A hearing followed to determine appropriate fee awards for the seven attorneys representing 10 plaintiffs, and for the city's attorneys.

The jury found that Nicholas Douglas, a Menlo Park police officer, had used excessive force against Maria Medina, one of 10 people to sue the city in the wake of the Sept. 1, 2007, incident at her home. Officer Douglas reportedly choked Ms. Medina with his baton, using her as a "shield or 'buffer' against possible assaults," according to court documents.

Another plaintiff, Rodolfo Medina, accepted a settlement offer of $1,500 before the case went to trial.

But attorneys hired by the city successfully defended 22 other claims against the officers and the city itself, including allegations of unlawful seizures, unlawful entry, malicious prosecutions, and inadequate officer training.

After refusing the city's settlement offer of $15,000, Ms. Medina asked for $34,000 in future medical expenses in addition to a "significant" but unspecified sum for general damages. She was awarded $10,000. The other eight plaintiffs who elected to go to trial received nothing, after declining what Mr. McClure characterized as "nominal" sums in settlement offers.

The case was filed in federal court because it involved claims of civil rights violations, according to Mr. McClure.

The civil suit followed a criminal suit decided in May 2008, with five of the partygoers accused of resisting or obstructing police officers. Four were acquitted; Rodolfo Medina accepted a lesser charge of disturbing the peace.

In addition to Officer Douglas, four other members of the Menlo Park police force were named in the civil suit: Sgt. Ron Prickett, Officer Thomas Crutchfield, Officer Ron Venzon, and Reserve Officer Jonathan Baxter. The city successfully defended all claims against those officers. All five officers named in the case are still working for the department, according to police spokeswoman Nicole Acker.

Mr. McClure said he could not comment on "any personnel actions that may or may not have been taken" as a result of the case. In general, he said, the city tries to learn from lawsuits like this one in the hopes of avoiding a similar situation in the future. "I can only assume that this case was no exception," he said.

The police department referred all questions to Mr. McClure.

Other costs

On Oct. 2, U.S. Magistrate Judge Wayne Brazil ordered the city to pay Rodolfo Medina and Maria Medina $99,000 in attorneys' fees and costs related to the excessive force claims they prevailed on.

He ordered plaintiffs to pay $20,000 in fees and costs the judge awarded the city for the charges it successfully defended.

The award to the plaintiffs was a far cry from the $759,000 their attorneys had requested. The lead attorney, Arturo Gonzalez, sought $181,000 for his time, arguing that the court should award attorneys high fees in order to compel good lawyers to take civil rights cases. He received $12,000.

"By any reasonable measure, Plaintiffs' success in this litigation was extremely limited," Judge Brazil wrote. "This petition for fees and costs is unreasonable on its face — and remains thoroughly unreasonable after careful analysis."

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