SPECIAL REPORT: Taxpayers on hook for nearly $10 million in lawsuits filed since Christianson elected

gstapley@modbee.comSeptember 21, 2013 

— Lawsuits against the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department have cost taxpayers $9.4 million during Sheriff Adam Christianson’s tenure.

County attorneys defending the department say legal costs incurred while Christianson has been in office seem no better or worse than those under previous sheriffs or in other counties, and some civil litigation experts agree.

County attorneys also noted that many of the lawsuits had nothing to do with Christianson’s leadership and would have occurred no matter who was in charge.

But several attorneys with experience suing other police and sheriff departments are critical of his administration, some saying his style exposes taxpayers to legal challenges.

And two department officers who say they will run against their boss next year are making the lawsuits a campaign issue, primarily because one-fifth were brought by the sheriff’s own employees.

Christianson refused an interview request for this story, saying in an email, “It’s not appropriate for me to comment on any litigation involving the Sheriff’s Office.”

A Bee review found that 41 cases have been lodged against the department since Christianson took office in July 2006, not counting a few holdovers from previous sheriffs.

In the past seven years, legal claims have ranged from deputy brutality and K-9 bites to serious accidents involving patrol cars and several deaths of people in custody. Internal lawsuits alleged sexual harassment, racial prejudice and abuse of disabled workers.

Nine still are winding through the courts and another is on appeal.

Of the rest:

•  Half of those who sued, or 16, ended up with money.

•  Among those, the county settled 13 cases and lost three trials.

•  The average payout: $369,403.

•  Combined with fees paid to outside attorneys defending the county, the average cost to taxpayers for cases that ended in payments comes to $472,443.

•  The four most expensive lawsuits cost taxpayers more than $1 million each.

•  Lawsuits by employees have been more expensive, costing $5 million total, with an average of more than $624,000, and two are still pending.

For each case, the county covers the first $250,000 in total costs, including attorney fees, settlements and judgments. If expenses mount beyond, insurance pays the rest.

The county maintains a general liability fund for such deductibles. Administrators more than tripled the amount set aside for all 26 county departments in that fund during Christianson’s first term and pointed to the Sheriff’s Department as the primary cause.

But county attorneys recently said they see such expenses as the cost of doing business and laid no blame at Christianson’s feet.

“There is nothing under Adam’s leadership that causes me to say he somehow contributed to increased liability,” said Dean Wright, deputy county counsel, who has worked in the office since 1984.

County Counsel John Doering said worker compensation costs have dipped under Christianson’s leadership. Remembering previous sheriffs and networking with attorneys in other counties, Doering said, “My gut tells me there isn’t anything unusual or different.”

Comparatively ‘pretty cheap’

Some attorneys with experience suing various agencies said the $9.4 million cost seems within reason for a county of 514,453 people, and a bargain compared with hefty judgments seen much more often in bigger cities and counties.

Carol Sobel, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in civil rights lawsuits, said some large agencies face “dozens every month.” Plaintiffs often walk away with more than a million dollars, and many times that amount in some cases, she said.

“I think it’s a relative experience to what money means in a more rural area,” she said, calling Stanislaus’ legal costs “pretty cheap” and 41 lawsuits over seven years “nothing.”

John Burton, a Pasadena-based attorney known for expertise in cases involving Tasers, assisted in a Stanislaus lawsuit brought by the parents of a man who died after deputies mistook his post-epileptic seizure for intoxication and subdued him with a Taser. The county paid $200,000 to settle the case.

Having studied similar incidents across the nation, Burton said officers typically choose force over patient reasoning, and Christianson’s department is no different.

Professor Laurie Levenson of Loyola University Law School said Stanislaus’ cases do not represent “huge numbers.”

However, there could be “room for significant improvement,” Levenson said, because those who sue prevail half the time and defending the department has cost taxpayers more than $1 million each year. “Stanislaus is not going to win the prize for being the worst county,” she said. “Nor are they the best.”

Oakland attorney John Burris handled two of the 16 successful lawsuits against Christianson’s department. He represented Valine Sarmas, an employee who claimed sexual harassment and accepted a $42,500 settlement, and the the family of Craig Prescott, who died after custodial deputies used a Taser and pepperball gun to subdue him as they tried to move him to a safety cell. The county paid $565,000 in addition to $358,000 for expert lawyers.

“Frankly, I don’t really view that I did exceptionally well in either one,” said Burris, who factors Valley juries’ conservative reputation in decisions to settle. “I didn’t walk away smoking a cigar.”

Woodbridge attorney Randy Thomas persuaded Stanislaus jurors to award $63,750 to his client, whose feet were badly burned by hot asphalt because deputies refused to let him put on shoes during an arrest. It’s one of two losses in a jury trial during Christianson’s administration; the third loss was decided by a judge.

Said Thomas, “It’s like anything in the world, you get good ones and you get bad ones. Once some guys put a badge on, they become real good people, while others are downright evil. I’ve seen some cops treat people with such respect it’s remarkable, even when they’re guilty. Others are treated with such disrespect and inhumanity that it’s outlandish.”

Others who have crossed legal swords with the sheriff or his lawyers came away with little respect for his department.

Anthony Boskovich, who specializes in police misconduct lawsuits, was chairman of an ad hoc panel in Santa Clara County whose work helped establish an independent police auditor. He won a $160,000 settlement in a brutality case against some Stanislaus deputies, concluding in a 2010 interview that Christianson’s was “the worst-run department I’ve ever seen. It’s run in a very slipshod way and it’s going to end up costing the county a ton of money,” he predicted.

Sonora attorney David Axelrod, who lost two brutality cases against the department, said the justice system’s basic design makes it “very difficult to get a fair shake” when suing the most powerful law enforcement agency in the county.

Judges rely on bailiffs for their own security and general order in the court, and bailiffs in this county are deputies working for the Sheriff’s Department. “Judges might be unable to enforce any orders but for the cooperation of the sheriff,” he said. “Conscious or not, there is a naturally occurring conflict of interest between any court and the county sheriff.”

Jeffery Hubins, who won a $545,000 settlement for three female employees but lost another lawsuit, said he took 30 calls from disgruntled employees and filed six complaints but pursued just the two cases. All were “related to what I consider to be ineffective management and poor policies,” the Pleasanton lawyer said.

“You expect police to have complaints about how they issue warrants,” Hubins said. “You expect police to have complaints for arrests and using excessive force. Very rarely do you expect a department to be sued as many times for internal complaints.”

In each of the six formal complaints sheriff’s management protected those being complained about and went after the whistle-blower, Hubins said. He concluded, “There are a lot of problems with the administration in that sheriff’s office.”

Christianson has said lawsuits are an inevitable result of holding people accountable.

Troubled by worker lawsuits

In recent separate interviews, both of Christianson’s announced 2014 election opponents said lawsuits against law enforcement agencies are to be expected. But the number brought by employees, they said, is troubling.

Lt. Tori Hughes is police chief in Patterson, a city contracting with the Sheriff’s Department for police services. She found herself in the uncomfortable position last year of being called as a witness in a civil trial against her employer, and testified that she had heard Christianson talk about the department’s “limp, lame and lazy” list of injured workers. The sheriff issued a public apology, and embarrassed county leaders conducted an investigation.

“When you’re put on the stand and sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, that’s what I did,” Hughes said. “But it was not a pleasant experience.”

The county won that case, brought by formerly disabled deputy Dennis Wallace, who was trying to reclaim wages and benefits lost when the county would not let him work for two years. His lawyer said the verdict is being appealed.

Two former deputies are pursuing similar lawsuits, both saying they were forced out after suffering on-the-job injuries.

Two women, both former employees, claimed in separate lawsuits that they were punished after reporting that they had been sexually harassed. Jurors ruled against Lydia Lopez after a five-week trial; Sarmas accepted a $42,500 settlement.

A reserve deputy lost his discrimination lawsuit. Four other women who work or had worked for the department claimed bias; three got a combined $545,000.

The largest single payout among the 16 successful lawsuits went to a Stockton firm that had provided autopsies for the coroner’s division, also under Christianson’s command. A forensic pathologist claimed that the sheriff and others plotted to break his contract. A judge awarded $1.8million, although county attorneys hope to get that reduced.

A common thread runs through most of those cases, deputy Tom Letras said, charging that Christianson’s people felt “like thrown-away garbage.”

“When you back someone in a corner and give them no recourse to have their grievance heard, they feel they have no other option but to sue,” said Letras, who caused a stir by calling the sheriff a bully when he announced his candidacy.

Hughes, a part of Christianson’s administration, said she is troubled that half of plaintiffs have successfully sued the department, yet she sees few lessons from those cases passed on to officers. “If these things are going on, why aren’t we discussing them to find ways to prevent them in the future?” Hughes said.

San Francisco attorney Tania Rose is handling both active lawsuits brought by injured former deputies and helped in the Wallace case, which had an identical theme. “They all involve the same operative issues about the department being unwilling to place people back to work when they think the person has some disability,” she said.

Steve Murphy, Wallace’s lead attorney, also of San Francisco, has sued several sheriff’s departments and finds Stanislaus “unique in the way it denigrated deputies with the limp, lame and lazy list,” who were treated “as second-class citizens.”

“No question, it costs (the county) money,” Murphy said, “even when they win.”

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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