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02-14-08, 11:35 PM #1
The Strong Arm of the Law: Firm gets millions to defend cops
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Last updated 3:10 p.m. PT
The Strong Arm of the Law: Firm gets millions to defend cops
Private practice lawyers get call when city or its officers are in trouble
By DANIEL LATHROP, ERIC NALDER AND LEWIS KAMB
P-I INVESTIGATIVE REPORTERS
Stafford Frey partners Ted Buck and Anne Bremner defend the city of Seattle and its police officers.
Claims of excessive force, false arrest and other police misconduct have been a booming business for a law firm that has defended Seattle police for nearly four decades.
The firm has been accused of using its clout to kill internal investigations, an allegation it denies. The city of Seattle has paid more than $6.3 million since 2002 to Stafford Frey Cooper and millions more before that, while still paying out settlements in many cases with the highest legal bills. The city has never put the contract for legal services out to bid and may not be able to because of a long-standing arrangement with the Seattle Police Officers' Guild.
"They're good at it, and their rates are quite competitive," Sean Sheehan, head of the city's torts section, said of the law firm.
While Seattle's payouts to alleged victims of misconduct are generally lower than some other cities', critics say the relationship between the city and the firm is too cozy.
Michael Schwartz, a plaintiff's lawyer who has tangled with Stafford Frey, said that the city's practice of using the firm to represent both the city and police officers raises questions about whether anyone is representing taxpayers.
"Stafford Frey is representing the city and the individual cops in these cases, and I don't know that the city's interests are exactly the same as the cops' in these individual cases," he said.
Sam Pailca, former director of the department's Office of Professional Accountability, said Stafford Frey has given the city and its officers "excellent representation" and "they are great litigators."
But early in her tenure, she recommended a review of the practice of referring all civil rights issues to Stafford Frey for representation, and she raised the matter a number of times. She noted in public reports that before the creation of her office, internal investigations of misconduct complaints were often "aborted at the request of outside counsel representing individual officers," primarily Stafford Frey.
Public reports indicate that she halted that practice within the first year of her tenure at OPA, in 2001.
Police officials and lawyers at Stafford Frey dispute Pailca's statements.
"I don't have a perfect memory, but I don't remember anything like that," said Police Department legal adviser Leo Poort, who has been with the department since 1977. "I don't recall any cases aborted at the request" of Stafford Frey.
Stafford Frey partner Ted Buck said all he can remember doing is cautioning the department about an OPA recommendation that an internal investigation be opened any time a claim or lawsuit is filed.
"I told them you can do that if you want to, but the risks are it can create information we are not aware of that can harm our case," he said.
Lawyer Paul Richmond, who has represented plaintiffs against the Police Department, says the policy of dealing almost exclusively with Stafford Frey "encourages the worst by the police, if the police believe there is complete impunity in what they do."
Poort hotly disagreed.
"I don't think officers come to work, ever, expecting that they are going to engage in misconduct," he said.
Richmond is a relatively new lawyer who has had poor success representing low-income clients in complaints against the city and Stafford Frey.
The city sometimes hires other lawyers to represent police officers when there is a conflict of interest, but plaintiff's attorney Schwartz said that in most cases, the city does not do enough to separate the interests of the citizens from those of police.
That leads to "scorched earth litigation," something for which he faults city administrators and the City Attorney's Office more than Stafford Frey.
In one case, the city paid Stafford Frey close to $430,000 in a case that it still had to settle on unfavorable terms with an additional $185,000 payout. The settlement went to Maikoyo Alley-Barnes, an artist who accused police of brutality and wrongful arrest. An additional $175,000 went to lawyers to represent the arresting officer, a sergeant who was found by the department to have acted improperly.
Seattle lawyer Fred Diamondstone was particularly critical of the huge bills generated by the city's defense of the lawsuit. His client was arrested on a variety of misdemeanor charges, including obstructing police. He was then lifted onto a patrol car by the crotch, punched and kicked, according to witnesses. The confrontation began because Alley-Barnes had argued against a sergeant issuing a friend a littering citation.
Diamondstone said he gave the department plenty of early opportunity to settle the case, but Stafford Frey dragged it on, offering too little and running up a huge bill. He said neither the city nor the officers were well served by the delay.
"This didn't serve anybody's interest, really, except for maybe folks who get paid on an hour basis," Diamondstone said.
Buck, the Stafford Frey partner, blamed Diamondstone for the delay. He said the city offered Alley-Barnes a $70,000 settlement three months before the final deal, and he wouldn't accept it. Buck estimated that by that time Diamondstone's fees had reached around $100,000, the deal would have included those fees on top of the $70,000 payment.
"The amount the city had to pay in the defense of the Alley-Barnes case was due to one factor and one factor alone: Fred Diamondstone," Buck said.
In another case, Stafford Frey was paid $96,000 by the city for defending officers accused of wrongfully detaining Langston Gossett, the son of King County Councilman Larry Gossett. After about a year, the city settled in 2007 with the younger Gossett for $11,151. According to Larry Gossett, his son never sought nor expected a large payout and would have settled on similar terms at the outset.
When told of the legal bill to taxpayers, the elder Gossett was flabbergasted.
"I thought it would be a low-level case," Gossett said. "The only thing that essentially happened was there was a deposition from both sides."
In a third case, the city spent $124,000 defending itself and a Police Department spokeswoman in a fender-bender it later settled by paying $8,400 to the plaintiff. In her suit, filed in 2005, Anne Wardell had asked for $1 million and claimed civil rights violations, while the spokeswoman, Officer Deanna Nollette, claimed that Wardell had rear-ended her department SUV.
While her suit was filed as a $1 million claim, Schwartz, who represented her, said he knew that getting that kind of money in a settlement was unlikely. The suit always could have been settled on terms similar to the final payout, Schwartz said. He was stunned to learn that the city had spent $124,000 in legal fees. "I would have settled for a fraction of that," he said.
He called it an illustration of the problem with one firm representing both the city, which has to foot the bills, and officers, who want to feel supported by the city.
"I'm not sure it's in the interest of the city to pay out $124,000 to achieve that on behalf of the officers, but I don't work for the city, and that's not my call," he said.
The city's Sheehan concedes that it often costs more to litigate the cases than it would to settle them, and sometimes the city must do both, but he said the citizens get more out of it than that arithmetic suggests.
"In police work, we don't do it just that way. We recognize that we don't want our police services to be artificially distorted by this litigation, so we're tougher in that litigation than we would be in the routine fender-bender case."
Stafford Frey was initially hired back in the late 1960s by the Police Department's insurance company, said Poort, the department's in-house attorney. The city became self-insured in the early 1980s, and the relationship continued in part because language in the contract with officers union requires the city to follow "past practice," which many view as a coded reference to using Stafford Frey.
Buck, the law firm partner, said the city pays him an hourly rate, which is the lowest rate he charges insurance companies, around $275 an hour. He charges other clients as much as $350 an hour.
"We certainly are not paid generously for the rates that are out there. If anything, you could say that what we do is a labor of love," he said. Buck said defense of police officers makes up less than half of his practice, which is primarily lawsuit defense.
Stafford Frey represents both the city and the officers in most cases, except where a conflict of interest might arise. In cases involving shootings by police officers, the officers' relationships with Stafford Frey begin as quickly as the aid cars arrive. Stafford Frey partner Anne Bremner has been known to arrive on a scene before department investigators.
Poort said Stafford Frey does in-house training to improve officer conduct, and officers are encouraged toward better, not worse, behavior because they have stable representation they can depend on. Buck said the long-term relationship gives his firm intimate knowledge of the city bureaucracy and the ability to "know quickly whether a case is worth a lot of money or not."
Seattle Police Officers' Guild President Rich O'Neill said Wednesday night that he did not have time to speak to the Seattle P-I for this report.
With some exceptions, Seattle's arrangement with Stafford Frey differs from how several other large cities defend police officers. The cities of Tacoma, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., and Minneapolis all generally rely on in-house lawyers to defend suits against police officers. Officials for each of those cities say it is the rare exception -- generally owing to workload or conflicts of interest -- that private-sector lawyers are brought in to litigate such cases.
The amount spent to defend and settle such lawsuits in some of those cities also varies dramatically.
Seattle's average of $150,000 in settlements and judgments each year compares favorably with San Francisco, San Jose and Minneapolis.
Although Seattle's arrangement with a private law firm is unusual, it isn't unique.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, an agency that serves both city and county areas, does "not handle the litigation in house," said Mary-Ann Miller, county counsel for the Clark County, Nev., District Attorney's Office. "They contract with a couple of local firms."
Many Washington towns and small cities with fewer resources also rely on private law firms, but do so through a risk management pool through the Association of Washington Cities, said Janice Howard, director of that group's risk management services.
A private lawyer who represents local governments in the 120-member Washington Cities Insurance Authority said he saw nothing unusual about Stafford Frey's practices or its fees.
"This is a very emotionally volatile area where the police officer is accused of violating their oath and violating the Constitution. In the plaintiff's mind their constitutional rights have been violated and they're angry," said Stewart Estes of Keating Bucklin and McCormack, a Seattle firm.
"In more than half of the cases that I handle, one of the elements of the settlement is that the officer shall apologize. ... If the officer feels he hasn't done something wrong and is not going to apologize, then no amount of money will meet that demand."
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