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Simms, Coppola differ over Norwalk legal settlements

Norwalk Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola.

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.”

10 comments

Ron Morris March 19, 2018 at 3:30 am

The question that needs to be asked in regards to the Garnett case is why have the cops involved not been fired ???
Rilling states “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.:
So in other words the cops were out of control and the evidence shows it. Does the Norwalk chief not see this as an issue? It’s time that Norwalk gets new management at the NPD from outside the old boys club of the NPD. Norwalk police are out of control.

James Cahn March 19, 2018 at 10:30 am

I would ordinarily leave a breathless comment skewering John Kydes for not only seeking to duck accountability but also in the audacity of his instructing all the other council members to do the same.

But, that’s offset by the hilarity of the fact that he doesn’t understand how “Reply All” works. Thanks for the laugh, John.

And sincere thanks to Travis for at least raising the question with a concern for defending my wallet.

US Blues March 19, 2018 at 10:57 am

“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.”

Ok John, since no one else is to answer – how about a comment from you?

Bob Welsh March 19, 2018 at 12:14 pm

@US Blues

This paragraph is a response from Kydes:

That’s the legal department’s recommendation, he said in a follow up, then explaining, “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.”

Donna Smirniotopoulos March 19, 2018 at 12:46 pm

Others have already milked humor out of Mr. Kydes’ “reply all” gaffe. So I’ll move on to the heart of the matter—whether or not corporation counsel Mario Coppola is costing Norwalk too much money in out of court settlements. With respect to Mr. Simms, who is looking out for taxpayers here, I would offer another possibility. Mario Coppola is often dealt a bad hand—say a pair of twos—and is expected to turn that bad hand into a full house. That’s a tall order for even the most gifted attorney. For one, Norwalk is part of CIRMA—Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency. That means when Norwalk is sued, we don’t get our pick of swanky legal teams. If we’re lucky, Mr. Coppola is able to negotiate a deal for the city with a solid firm at rates that CIRMA will accept. That’s a check in Mr. Coppola’s column. But Mr. Coppola can’t control what others do, even the mayor, previous mayors, planning and zoning commissioners or police officers.

Now if Mr. Coppola is giving bad legal advice, as the mayor has alleged in the case of Firetree’s 2014 letter, that is a diffferent matter entirely. In that case, the mayor received a letter from Firetree spelling out—in glorious detail as a condition of the Federal Bureau of Prison’s RFP—their intention to house 19 prisoners at 17 Quintard. And depending on which version of this story you believe—the “I don’t remember the letter” version, the “my dog ate the letter” version or the “my lawyer told me to do nothing” version—Mr. Coppola could have culpability SHOULD there be a costly settlement for the City. After all, when the mayor got the famous 2014 letter, Firetree did not yet own the property. The campaign version, by the way, was “the letter didn’t have any details.” Wrong. It had all the details.

Strategically speaking, allowing Firetree to open up shop under the preexisting nonconforming use of rehab, a la Pivot House, makes sense if the city is to avoid a very costly settlement. The mayor attempted exactly this approach with the mosque settlement, in fact. But West Norwalk neighbors hired Victor Cavallo to represent them, and the city had to go back to the drawing board and rethink their settlement. A down-sized mosque on Fillow street would not cut it with the abutters. So the city had to shell out over 2 million dollars to make them and the Al Madany folks happy. Sadly, South Norwalk pockets are not that deep, as I’m sure both the mayor and Mr. Coppola realize.

Some Quintard neighbors, including two abutters, have retained counsel for the purpose of following Firetree’s case against the City. To the extent that the city appears willing to settle and throw this street under the proverbial bus, abutters may need to pursue additional means of legal redress. From where I’m sitting, a settlement of 1.2 million to Firetree to buy the building—something the mayor initially said he was open to but which corporation counsel now refuses—seems like taxpayer money well spent. But it bears asking how much taxpayers should have to cough up to cover for the mayor’s missteps. I guess it depends on which side of the tracks you’re from. In West Norwalk, 2 million is par for the course. In South Norwalk, 1 million is a bridge too far.

Rick March 19, 2018 at 1:42 pm

Thank You Donna, lets just say after A YEAR we have tried getting the city to act on Mission Dupree another non profit on Quintard ave who is connected to a very poplar family on Ely ave.Its starting the same way as other houses in South Norwalk as sober houses.

So you can all bet some morning someone out here will wake up to to the same deal as quintard ave,

It wasn’t bad enough we got sloppy seconds from New CANAAN and legal counsel from the ambulance chasing club but attorneys dotting the landscape in the Democratic party who are picking the city clean . but with the new talent in city hall that left new Canaan while sober houses was a problem there , Norwalk then hired someone who ignored our plea to stop sober houses in areas non conforming.

Now lets take time to understand if the mall owners GGP is sold to Brookfield will their partner Stantec still have city contracts detailing studies that involve the mall?

Thats right just think if GGP is sold to Brookfield and they have interest in Stantec both from Canada do we expect law suits on that conflict of interest? What I mean by interest is the two own each others stock.

Only Norwalk could own such a mess.

Rick March 19, 2018 at 2:31 pm

Im sorry ,if there was any question to my last post this may help https://money.usnews.com/investing/news/articles/2018-03-16/exclusive-brookfield-property-submits-new-offer-for-mall-owner-ggp-sources

Rick
November 9, 2017 at 3:37 pm
its over those who won , won now can we please get back to the stability of the city please.
Joe Cahill wrote this morning in an article detailing some facts and asking some great questions .
A sale of GGP would shed light on a vexing mystery for real estate investors: What’s a high-end shopping mall worth in the age of online retailing?
No one in Norwalk could of done the math and saved the city money of running a mall?
It sounded to me the election in Norwalk was all about backwards and corrupt policies that need change , and the impact in Norwalk won’t take long to hit home .
Many of the voters, Im sorry I didn’t catch the number or percentage of voters who voted , its a political red herring and will continue in Norwalk for many years to come by the same people who ignore fact and push agendas that truly are a way just to be heard.
The mall plan B was what? Both parties had a hand in the mall both have made money Larry did well we know lawyers cost money, The mall is going to empty the city , short term leases are the only thing that will be available in Sono and wall st , those who are seeking the mall are going to leave some large holes in the city meant for progress and downtown revitalization
Its almost certain with what the investors are saying , GGP is a poorly run not cost conscious company with flaws the size of the grand canyon.But Norwalk has embraced them as a save our city company who’s own shareholders are saying sell and get out of the business.
The election is over the city voted now it back to work, has the city developed a plan B on the mall GGP has.
Trump met with GGP and only because Trump is getting the credit for the election results guess we can blame him for anything negative on the mall.Right after that GP and Trump meeting the Sono Hotel was dropped and MGM stepped into the Bridgeport light.
Ny had broken up the outlet mall scam one in Ny 60 miles is Clinton 60 miles from that is Wrentham and so it goes every 60 miles or so ,that made Simon mall operators pay a Million dollar fine fine and changed the law, when is Norwalk going to have that conversation at city hall the news is over six months old.
Mayor of Bridgeport is all over that new ruling along with MGM , Norwalk will have a new mall owner , where a mall may be replaced by low generating tax bases and additional low hanging fruit.

So if Bridgeport gets a casino and takes all the Anchor stores to someplace there is money what will Norwalk do next ?

ask Stantec they probably been working on that while babysitting the taxpayers for city hall.

goes back to good legal counsel and what was provided by counsel to protect Norwalk from the sale of the mall maybe before its completed to someone else? Do they buy the terms Norwalk agreed to or do they have the ability to renegotiate terms as new owners?

Larry is probably licking his chops on this one.

Maybe the next subject should be why does Norwalk rent a fire station from East Norwalk when its obvious we need a larger station and more manpower ?

Lisa Brinton Thomson March 19, 2018 at 3:43 pm

If we were professionally managed – we’d benchmark and know where our number of lawsuits and settlements fell on the continuum with other cities our size. A girl can dream …

Donna Smirniotopoulos March 19, 2018 at 5:23 pm

Once the mayor hires his new communications director, perhaps she can explain why we don’t need professional city management.

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