In defending police lawsuit, Menlo Park runs up tab of nearly $350,000

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

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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Like this comment
Posted by enough police brutality
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 12, 2010 at 10:22 am

The police are out of control. Seems as though I am hearing more often about this kind of thuggery: police break into private home, often because a neighbor has complained about noise, and proceed to use physical force, even tasers, to subdue partygoers who presented no threat to anyone. Anyone who speaks up to complain is likely to end up injured or even hospitalized. The police then confiscate and destroy any incriminating evidence such as photos or videos taken by witnesses.

The partygoers are almost always members of minority groups.

We have a very expensive police force. I am sure this is not the only case that Menlo Park is currently litigating, and when you add in the retirement benefits we pay these people, you have to ask if Menlo Park is getting adequate value for its investment.

Like this comment
Posted by Chuck
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jan 12, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Much talk, time and expenses have been spent on discussing and debating our "disfunctional" medical system. However, from my experience the real "disfunctional" system is our legal/attorney and judge system. I note there is no tort reform in either the Senate or House Health Care reform pending bills. Why is that when our legislators are looking for ways to reduce costs?

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Posted by thug partygoers
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jan 12, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Too bad the lies that the thug partygoers told in court convinced the jury to find that one officer at fault for something that didn't happen. If only the police or someone had video of the call, the party goers wouldn't have wasted the City's money and time.

Like this comment
Posted by WhoRUpeople
a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2010 at 2:16 pm

EPB and Chuck--let's think for a moment. The article clearly states that all except one minor charge was BS. The party-goers who were offered small dollar settlements, but refused them, got NOTHING. The judge, in awarding legal fees and damages to the one individual who apparently had a legit complaint said the issue was minor and only awarded the plantiff and her lawyer a minor fraction of what they were seeking. From that, you two conclude-our police are out of control, our judicial system is disfunctional, and this was an attack on minorities! yeah, right! Seems to me justice was served. My compliments to MPPD, the City Attorney and his legal team, and, in particular, the judge who saw this case for the sham it was. Too bad we tax payers can't now sue the "party-goers for our $350K!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 12, 2010 at 3:16 pm

None of those commenting (including myself) was there when this happened, so we can only speculate as to what really occurred. My experience with MPPD has been 100% positive so far. This case sounds like one where self-righteous, "take no responsibility" types get a hold of lawyers of the same caliber, and go sue-crazy for deep pockets. They refused settlement offers that they probably should never have been offered and end up being awarded less or nothing in court. Just because one officer was deemed to have used excessive force does not mean he did so. Mistakes occur all the time in the courts, and improper verdicts against police who follow their training is not uncommon. Had the police responded to this party call and left without doing anything, the neighborhood would be in an uproar and would not tolerate it.

People have to remember that these frivolous, wasteful lawsuits cost money that could be used elsewhere. Roads, libraries, more police officers, fire-fighters, etc. All these necessities take a back seat when greedy lawyers and plaintiffs abuse the system with such cases. Cities should not settle lawsuits to save money. Doing so is like negotiating with terrorists. The more you settle, the more sleazy lawyers make more unfounded claims.

And EPB, don't stress too much about the retirements you pay your police. Their average life expectancy is about 20 years less than yours (in part due to lawsuits like this and unsupportive community loud-mouths), so you won't have to pay them long.

Like this comment
Posted by epb
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jan 12, 2010 at 4:25 pm

And what would you suggest law-abiding people do when the police invade their house without cause and use their weapons against ordinary citizens who have committed no crime and offered no resistance?

I am not familiar with the facts in this case, but I do know of similar cases. My own observation, as someone who has never broken a law and who has a pristine record, is that many members of the MPPD are power-drunk jerks. A friend who was married to a police officer for many years has always called them "criminals with badges" and, unfortunately, I'm inclined to agree.

I hope this lawsuit served as a big enough slap on the wrist that the police think twice the next time they want to have some fun roughing up some people. And please don't make me cry over life expectancy. I believe that only one MP police officer, Jack Lyle, was killed in the line of duty, and that was in the 1960s. Maybe they should try not to eat so many donuts and get some real exercise!

Like this comment
Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jan 12, 2010 at 6:34 pm

I am a 15 year Menlo Park resident from a minority ethnic group. Despite being completely law abiding I have been harrassed on multiple occassions by the police with no grounds whatsoever. My friends have also experienced police questioning them in their own front yards and randomly stopped while driving.

I have no doublt that the city police are racist with an inflated sense of power and entitlement. Unfortunately, they seem to have no accountablility for the tax dollars they spend freely.

Like this comment
Posted by Bash The Police
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Jan 12, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Great comments. Keep bashing those police officers. It's a known fact throughout the city that we have a bad police force, one that is nationally recognized as bad, bad, bad. C'mon folks, where are the DETAILS, the EXAMPLES of where anyone experienced an overwhelming use of force or abuse?? The ridiculous examples above are just that, ridiculous. How about helping our security force, or supporting them and not going out of your way to increase the stress and turmoil these city employees experience every day? I think it is extortion to think that we, the tax payer just got charged: 30,000 residents X 60% Adults =18,000 tax paying adult resident/$350K = $19.44 paid per US the tax payer. Thank you to those that won't hold themselves accountable and create frivolous lawsuits. Would anyone on this blog want to fork over $19.44 to this gang of thieves? Willingly?

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Posted by epb
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 13, 2010 at 8:28 am

If $19.44/person is all it cost to keep us from becoming a police state, then I think it's a pretty good investment. Frivolous lawsuit? I'd encourage anyone brutalized by the police to do the same. How else do we help the PD understand that there are limits to their authority?

Like this comment
Posted by Bash The Police
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Jan 13, 2010 at 9:19 am

"becoming a police state", brutalized by the police", "limits to their authority"? So, in order to make this a somewhat intelligent discussion, can we at least get some verified examples of this occurring in MP? I would truly guess there are no examples of this in MP. In fact, I would guess, and it's just a guess, that in majority of these national lawsuits the police did NOT overstep their bounds, but instead have to deal with a litigious society, coupled with people that can't hold themselves accountable, and everyone running around with video cameras. Again, we have to give them the benefit of the doubt, hold them in check, but we should assume as a society that majority of our security force does a great job.

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Posted by no winners
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jan 13, 2010 at 10:15 am

Someone asked for details of MPPD abuse. I don't have that but I had an experience when I first moved here that really colored my view of the MPPD. I left a small dog in my new house (Linfield Oaks) and he barked while I was away, disturbing the neighbors. My bad. I've never done this before or after. I didn't know he would bark or that the neighbors could hear it. I wasn't home when the MPPD showed up, so they returned at 3AM. There's no doubt in my mind that the only reason for this visit was to "teach me a lesson". If they really just wanted to contact me a note would have sufficed. Whether or not you think I deserved this or not, I personally don't think it's the role of the police to make these decisions and take these actions. For me this casts doubt on their overall professionalism and I would expect it to carry over into other areas.

That said, I don't envy them for the situations they are forced to confront. There are serious violent crimes that take place in our vicinity with disturbing regularity (e.g. the 76 station on Willow was just robbed). It's really a shame for all the wasted energy and resources that went into this court case. I would have no trouble believing that the attitude of the partiers contributed to the course of events that night.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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