Tuesday, December 19, 2000

City's claims bill: $3.2M over 2 years




By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Lawsuits and claims against the city have cost Cincinnati taxpayers more than $3.2 million in the past two years.

        The bulk of that was paid out for disputes involving city employees and complaints of police misconduct. The payouts included $500,000 to an assistant fire chief terminated for a medical condition and $600,000 to a woman permanently injured when a police officer drove across the center lane of traffic and hit her car.

        The payout figure could not be compared to earlier years because the city has not previously disclosed the amounts.

        Since 1999, the city has paid from $25,000 up to $600,000 to “resolve” 28 cases, according to a confidential letter from the city's top lawyer obtained Monday by the Enquirer.

        Of those, 12 were for employee claims of sexual discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination and work injuries, and 10 were claims against the police department for wrongful death, excessive force, false arrest and an illegal search.

        City Solicitor Fay Dupuis wrote in her letter that more than 650 cases or legal proceedings are pending against the city “... in virtually all state and federal courts and various tribunals, claiming damages in

        the hundreds of millions of dollars.” She said many of those cases would be resolved in the city's favor.

        Although all of claims have been paid with taxpayer money, city lawyers said Monday that the list should be kept private.

        They told members of the City Council's law committee that disclosure of the list — and a forecast of potential lawsuits — could hinder the defense of future claims.

        Eight cases are listed as “threatened lawsuits” against the city.

        Among those are the case of Roger Owensby, who died Nov. 7 after being arrested outside of a Roselawn gas station. The Hamilton County coroner says the cause of death was from a choke hold gone bad or from officers piling on top of Mr. Owensby.

        Another potential suit involves a claim of false arrest of a janitor by a police officer who was denied access to a restroom that was closed for cleaning at the courthouse.

        Lawyers also warned that several civil rights organizations could be filing a class action lawsuit against the city for racial profiling, or targeting citizens for searches and traffic stops because of their skin color.

        Despite arguments that public disclosure of the cases could hurt the city, several council members said they wanted to make the information public, and the city manager later agreed.

        “This is horse-fiddles,” said Councilman Charlie Winburn, who chairs the committee. “The public has a right to know who sued the city. We need to know who the city has paid.”

        Mr. Winburn, who requested the list, said he wanted to get a handle on the amount of payments and the kinds of suits facing the city.

        “It seems like we have a training and development problem here,” he said. “The administration needs to get on top of its personnel. It appears the administration has created a hostile work force by not training its people to be kind and behave themselves.”

        Many of the payments were made after very public court battles such as the Lorenzo Collins case, which ended in February when the city agreed to pay $200,000 to his family.

        Mr. Collins of Avondale, who had been admitted to the hospital for mental-health treatment, was shot to death in 1997 after 15 armed officers cornered him in a Corryville yard. Police said he threatened them with a brick and refused to put it down despite repeated orders from the officers.

        Mr. Collins' family sued the city in federal court, claiming that police used excessive force and were not adequately trained to handle mentally ill suspects.

        But other cases were settled, or resolved, with little or no public knowledge. Many of those involved public employees who filed grievances against the city, including several alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

        Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Voegele sued after being “medically separated” for a condition that officials alleged was affecting job performance.

        Deputy City Solicitor Pete Heile said a jury awarded Mr. Voegele $1 million, but after it was reduced on appeal the case was settled in October for $500,000.

        Mr. Heile said the amount of lawsuits involving disability claims has been on the rise, along with the number of suits being filed in general. In 1998, 200 new cases were filed against the city; 255 were filed in 1999 and 273 in 2000.

        “I think you would find this trend nationally,” he said, adding that the amount of the payouts do not reflect a problem. “It is safe to say that this outcome is considerably better than what could have occurred in the hands of a jury.”

        The city law department has an annual budget of about $1.5 million to pay judgments and settlements.

        While Mr. Heile is confident there is plenty of money to cover claims, Mr. Winburn is not so optimistic.

        “You see the list? It seems to say there's good money to be made in coming after the city,” he said. “If all the cases came due, I want to know if it would send the city into financial crisis.”

       



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