Updated, 12:30 p.m.: Comment from John Kydes, copyedit.
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk is settling too many lawsuits under Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola, Common Council member Travis Simms (D-District B) said.
Simms and Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) voted against two legal items on last week’s Council agenda, actions in two lawsuits involving Norwalk Police. The items passed on a 12-2-0 vote.
Asked for an explanation Wednesday, Simms criticized Coppola.
“Since he came aboard, we haven’t challenged any of these cases. We have been negotiating and shoveling money out to all these different individuals and organizations. It’s time that he protects the city and start defending some of these lawsuits,” Simms said.
“I just think with the millions and millions of dollars that’s been going out, I just think he’s not being financially responsible to the taxpayers and I think he really needs to start doing his job and litigating some of these cases. That’s why I voted against it,” Simms said.
Asked about the dollar amount, Simms said he didn’t know off-hand what the figure is, “I am pretty sure for the past six years or so, with all the cases that’s been coming before us, he is just settling out. Pretty much like every case. I just think that over the years you start seeing some at $200,000, $500,000, $100,000 – these aren’t small amounts. I mean, it all adds up pretty quickly. I think that we’ve got to take a stand at some point and fight for the city.”
One of the items voted on by the Council were an authorization to discuss a settlement in a lawsuit filed by Christian Garnett against five police officers, Chief Thomas Kulhawik and the city.
Garnett alleges police brutality in his 2013 arrest, claiming that he was startled while being handcuffed and raised an arm, only to be slammed to the ground by three officers, kicked in the head and beaten. The city, in court documents, describes Garnett as a severely impaired driver who put up a fight with the three officers, injuring one, and went on to frighten children in the hospital’s emergency room with his aggressive behavior.
The federal courts website reports that the case is “administratively closed” because the parties have reached a settlement.
The other item was an authorization to file an offer of compromise with Terrance Cummings, who has sued Officer Jermaine Nash and the city.
Cummings was rear-ended by a Nash in August 2015, suffering serious injuries, according to the complaint. The city denies that Nash was negligent, accusing Cummings of being negligent and careless. The city also claims governmental immunity.
Coppola said he could not discuss pending litigation, per city policy.
He questioned whether Council authorization was needed for the offer, but it’s good to give the Council an update, he said, going on to call Simms’ remarks “ridiculous.”
“It’s not true, we have had great results since I have been here. I am really proud of our results. We have not lost a significant case that started when I was here,” Coppola said.
The City lost a Connecticut Supreme Court battle in 2016 over a tax assessment for Fairfield Merrittview, but that was started under the previous administration, he said. More recently, the city lost the lawsuit filed by Robert Barton over eminent domain, also in state Supreme Court, also a lawsuit which began long before Coppola was hired by Mayor Harry Rilling in late 2013.
The latter cost the city $1.65 million, $183,973.91 more than what would have been paid if the city hadn’t appealed a lower court decision in 2013.
“They lost that case, I didn’t. We just had the appeal,” Coppola said. “… We won some good cases but we’ve had great results. I think we have really done a good job with cleaning up the department.”
The legal office had no document management system when he came to Norwalk, he said, explaining that the legal library had been cleaned up and a conference room built.
“I am proud of what we have accomplished in four years,” he said.
Coppola did not reply to an email asking for a dollar figure on the settlements made since he became Corporation Counsel.
The federal courts’ website reports that the case is “administratively closed” because the parties have reached a settlement.
Hempstead did not reply to an email asking why he voted against the legal actions.
NancyOnNorwalk sent an email to every Council member, seeking a reaction to Simms’ comments. President John Kydes (D-District C) replied to all with an email telling other Council members not to answer.
That’s the legal department’s recommendation, he said in a follow up, then explaining in a Monday email, “We have several members of the council who are new to this process and it is my job as council president to remind those members that we cannot comment on active lawsuits. Commenting on said cases cannot only harm the integrity of the case but also open up the city to liability.”
On Friday Kydes explained, “The Council only takes action on settlements and not on cases that have been dismissed by the courts or won. So the statement that the city settles every case is completely inaccurate. The city’s legal team aggressively defends every law suit.”
Mayor Harry Rilling in a Sunday email said:
“When the law department makes a decision to settle a case rather than take it to court it is always based on the fact we might face a huge pay out because the evidence in favor of the plaintiff could be compelling to a jury. Settlements usually happen after a discussion with the magistrate who makes a recommendation to one side or the other based on the evidence in the case. Final settlements represent a very small percentage of the plaintiff’s demands. A decision to settle a case is only made after a risk analysis of the potential costs for legal fees and the amount of a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs.
“I believe, in most cases, if not all the previous cases Mr. Simms voted in favor of the settlement. I would also challenge the millions and millions of dollars in settlements from the current administration. Moreover we have been in office just over four Years, not the six alluded to by Mr. Simms. In fact, when settlements were discussed in the past, Mr. Simms was very critical of the police department and made his feelings publicly known.
“I stand behind my Corporation Counsel who has done a magnificent job of representing the city. I would opine we have saved far more money than we would have been obligated to pay out had we not settled. Most, if not all but the last two, were decided by unanimous votes of the Council members.”