Tuesday, November 29, 2005

City Pays $300,000 In Civil Lawsuit

By Scott Sandlin, Albuquerque Journal

The city has settled a civil lawsuit for $300,000 against former Albuquerque police officer Christopher Chase in an alleged rape— despite the mayor's policy against settling police cases.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of sometime prostitute Mitsey Ramone, who alleged she was raped twice by Chase, had been scheduled to begin trial Monday before William F. Lang, chief judge of the 2nd Judicial District Court.
Instead, the City Attorney's Office last week reached a settlement with Ramone's attorneys, Paul Kennedy and Mary Han.
Mayor Martin Chávez on Monday defended the no-settlement policy but said it was being fine-tuned to reflect situations where the city's liability is clear.
"We already know (the policy) has been incredibly successful financially for us. Instead of paying out on every case, we're prevailing in almost every case," he said. "That still brings to the fore the question of what happens when there's clear liability. I have no interest when you get a creep like Chase, making a victim go through the rigors of proving liability."
Chase faces criminal charges but hasn't yet been tried.
A grand jury indicted Chase in June 2003 on sexual assault charges against Ramone and other women and in alleged beatings of others. But pretrial motions caused delays, and it is now set for Dec. 12 before Judge Denise Barela Shepherd.
Chase was fired after he was named in the 32-count criminal indictment.
Ramone has testified about her experience in a civil lawsuit by another alleged Chase victim in federal court, Cynthia Seeley, as well as in a criminal hearing before Shepherd in October.
In the summer of 2002, Ramone said, she was prostituting herself to pay for her motel room, food and necessities, and occasionally for crack cocaine. She said a police officer stopped the truck in which she was a passenger near Central and Washington, conducted a pat-down search after she exited and took her to a park near Gibson where he forced her to have sex. Several months later, the same thing happened.
Seeley, who also described being sexually assaulted by Chase, won a verdict of $943,380 at trial in a federal civil rights suit against the former officer, including more than $800,000 in punitive damages. The court later awarded the attorneys $150,000 in legal fees. The city has appealed the judgment to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Kennedy said the structure of Ramone's settlement will give her a modest monthly income. He said she is no longer working as a prostitute.
"She's grateful this ordeal is over in terms of the civil case and still looks for justice from the criminal justice system," he said.
City Attorney Bob White said the case was settled because the facts were "virtually identical to the case that was tried. ... The mayor, I think, understood that the jury had spoken."
Another civil lawsuit filed on behalf of a high school student who said he'd been hit in the forehead with a flashlight by Chase also was tried before a federal jury and resulted in a $10,000 judgment against the former officer.
At least two more suits are pending in state and federal courts.
White and Chávez said those will be evaluated to determine whether they should be settled as well.
Chávez said in civil lawsuits against defendants like Chase, who are covered by a contract, the city lacks legal discretion to confess liability without the employee's permission.
"That's had us scratching our heads," Chávez said. Since a jury had found liability in the earlier case, he said he felt free to authorize settlement in Ramone's lawsuit.
"What we're trying to figure out is where we agree it's a bad apple ... how we can confess liability and leave to the jury the amount of damages."
Even conceding damages, a capable plaintiff's lawyer will want the jury to hear about some of the wrongdoing to have context for the damages. And that, says Chávez, can be a slippery slope.
Still, he said, some tweaking is in order.
"We've brought the pendulum back," he said. "Now we want to find a solution where there is liability."
Kennedy, for his part, says he doesn't really care if the city won't settle police cases.
"It's to the trial lawyers' advantage," said Kennedy, a former state Supreme Court justice. "We make lots of money from the no-settlement policy. If the mayor wants to spend taxpayers' dollars that way, it's fine with me."

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