The question of whether to settle a case or take the officer to court can be a dicey one for city and police officials. Settle too easily, the thinking goes, and the department will be seen by officers and attorneys as an easy target. Taking too hard a stand, however, carries risks as well. Employment cases are difficult to defend against, lawyers say, since they often turn on emotional issues and differing perceptions of what occurred.
"If you settle, all you're doing is encouraging other officers to file more lawsuits," said LAPD Cmdr. Stuart Maislin, who for several years ran the department's Risk Management Division. "It sends the message that the city is just giving away money — that an officer just has to make a claim and they'll walk away with some money in their pocket. The only way to stop that is to take them to court and fight them."
"When we lose," Maislin added, "we lose big."
In general, City Atty. Carman Trutanich and Gerald Chaleff, a senior advisor to LAPD Chief Charlie Beck who oversees employee lawsuits, have pursued a hard-line approach with officers in recent years, refusing to settle except in those cases where it is clear the city is likely to lose in court.
That tough stance has led to mixed results. The city has lost a handful of jury verdicts that could have been avoided if it had been willing to settle.
Attorney Matthew McNicholas, for example, represented Richard Romney, an officer who was fired after he testified about the department's overtime policy in a labor dispute; Melissa Borck, who filed a sexual harassment lawsuit; and Bender, the canine officer. McNicholas offered to settle the three cases for a total of $2 million, but police officials and city lawyers were adamant about taking all three to court and ended up losing verdicts totaling about $9.5 million.
Understaffing and a lack of lawyers with experience in workplace issues in the city attorney's office has hampered the city's ability to defend itself against such lawsuits in court, officials said. Bill Carter, Trutanich's chief deputy, said overworked attorneys have missed court-filing deadlines, failed to take important depositions and made other blunders on employment cases.
"We're creating a recipe for disaster," Carter said.
The recent high-dollar verdicts and settlements suggest that the department needs to do more to mediate workplace conflicts, said Nicole Bershon, inspector general for the Los Angeles Police Commission. That should include bringing in impartial employment experts to help resolve conflicts before they reach a courtroom, she said.
The department also has come under fire for failing to thoroughly investigate complaints of workplace problems. In a 2010 audit of LAPD investigations into employee allegations of retaliation, Bershon's office found that investigators routinely neglected to interview people accused of misconduct, or even name them in the investigations.
The way the department handles officer lawsuits has become a source of increasingly hostile fodder for the Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file officers and sometimes assists officers in bringing their suits.
Emboldened by recent high-profile verdicts for officers, union officials have grown vocal at what they see as the unwillingness or inability of senior LAPD officials to deal with problems in the workplace — a charge department leaders deny.
"I've got a news flash for … the 'leaders' who are tasked with ensuring the Department treats its people fairly. Look in the mirror to find out where the problems are," Sgt. John Mumma, the union's secretary, wrote in a recent open letter published in the union's magazine. "How many more officers are going to become millionaires over the botched handling of their cases?"