Chicago Tribune (Illinois)
BYLINE: David Heinzmann and Hal Dardick, Chicago Tribune
When Chicago aldermen got the final bill Monday for settling a wrongful arrest lawsuit over the Police Department’s handling of a 2003 anti-war march, the $11 million figure was nearly double the award announced in court.
The difference: nearly $5 million in lawyers’ fees, the result of litigating the case for nine years since the mass arrests at the end of a March 20, 2003, Iraq War protest march. Finance Committee members approved the payout, which includes $6.2 million to compensate some 900 people who were detained or arrested on charges that were later dropped.
The aldermen also signed off on another $1.14 million for a related lawsuit brought by 16 plaintiffs who did not join the class-action case.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s corporation counsel, Steve Patton, said the decision to settle came after a harsh Appellate Court ruling last year made it clear the city was “unlikely to prevail” at trial, which could have cost even more than the settlement.
While the legal fees in the class-action suit totaled $4.8 million on a $6.2 million settlement reached in February, the fees in the smaller case were nearly triple the settlement. That case was settled for $280,000, but legal fees came to $855,000, city officials said.
The full City Council is expected to vote on the payments Wednesday.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs confirmed that they would have sought much higher damages if the case went to trial, including higher legal fees. Joey Mogul, one of the lead plaintiffs’ attorneys, said the cost of years’ worth of work was regrettable, but she placed blame for that squarely on the city for “defending the indefensible.”
“The city chose to defend this case and waste taxpayers’ money,” said Mogul, a staff attorney at the People’s Law Office.
Once the city’s own legal costs are figured in, the total cost of the cases actually exceeds $15 million. For several years the city hired an outside firm to handle the cases at a cost of about $3.5 million, Patton said. Taxpayers and city insurance will foot the bills.
Since acknowledging the settlement in February, city officials have repeatedly said they learned valuable lessons from the case, in which more than 500 people were arrested and hundreds more were detained. City officials have pointed out that in recent protest demonstrations, police have been careful to not make arrests unless there were absolutely necessary.
City lawyers in former Mayor Richard Daley’s administration battled the case for years until a scathing March 2011 appellate ruling from Judge Richard Posner, who authored an opinion from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that called the city’s policies for handling demonstrations “idiotic.”
When Emanuel took office in May 2012, his administration inherited the case, including the Posner ruling.
“Both of these cases have been pending for more than nine years at this point, and the city’s ability to successfully defend these cases was severely undermined last year with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal court of appeals hearing these cases, issued a decision which was widely reported, extremely critical of the way these arrests were handled and the way these detentions were handled,” Patton said.
While the Posner ruling, which hinged on the fact police did not give protesters an opportunity to disperse, has been repeatedly cited as the turning point in the case, Mogul said it should not have been.
“It was clear from the get-go they did not have a right to arrest people for marching,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer said of the police. “It was clearly evident that people have a right to disperse.”
The settlement in the class-action case will cover awards ranging from $500 for people detained by police but not arrested to $15,000 for people who were arrested, held for more than two days and prosecuted. The 16 plaintiffs in the other case will each receive $17,500. All the arrests and charges were later dismissed.
Copyright 2012 Chicago Tribune