By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Patricia Surjue sits on a bench outside the 16th floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge James Otero, feverishly jotting down notes. It is Tuesday morning, and today is her opportunity to voice objection to a secret settlement thrust upon her last October by Otero and her own attorneys in a police brutality case against former Inglewood Officer Jeremy Morse. She alleges that Morse abused her by throwing her down the stairs of her own home and that Inglewood officials were indifferent to the danger Morse posed, as shown by 11 internal affairs investigations in 31 months on the job.
A series of maneuvers, missteps and lapses in judgment by lawyers for Surjue and the city and the judge himself have brought the parties here to re-examine the backdoor agreement that was lucrative for her lawyers but lacking in justice from her perspective. Last September, Otero ruled that Morse and his partner Bijan Darvish illegally entered Surjue’s home and seized her in violation of her constitutional rights on October 20, 2001. Surjue claimed Morse beat her and caused permanent physical and emotional damages.
Her complaints about the October settlement — detailed in an L.A. Weekly story on January 16 — have exacerbated an already festering situation. But her complaints also seem to have captured Otero’s attention. In addition to holding up a settlement that just four months ago he all but insisted on, Otero has called Tuesday’s hearing to dispel any notion that justice is for sale in his court.
Sitting there alone, Surjue seems anxious. She has a good reason to be. The last time she faced Otero he was downright intimidating in his insistence that she take what Inglewood was offering. “I truly expected something more fair,” she told the Weekly last month. “I expected to walk out of his court with my dignity, but I left humiliated.
“I wondered if this is truly a place for justice.”
Just before the clerk opens the courtroom, one of Surjue’s lawyers, Cynthia Anderson-Barker, arrives. After asking Surjue about her children, Stephen and Gareth, who at ages 12 and 5 say they witnessed their mother being beaten, Anderson-Barker asks her client if she has seen the Weekly story that exposed the secret deal struck in Otero’s chambers. Under the agreement, Surjue was required to remain silent about her alleged abuse by Morse. The secret settlement would have earned Anderson-Barker and her co-counsel Robert Mann of Mann & Cook $250,000, while Surjue and her sons would receive $220,000. “I don’t care about what is written in the newspaper,” Surjue tells her lawyer. “I care about my children.”
Once inside Otero’s courtroom, with its 30-foot ceiling and the thick walls with wood paneling, Rupert Byrdsong of Ivie, McNeil & Wyatt, an attorney for Inglewood, says that the city has prepared a check for $470,000, and that all confidentiality clauses have been removed from the proposed settlement agreement. “All terms and conditions of any agreement in this court are on the record,” Otero replies in measured tones. “This is a public courtroom and it is open to public scrutiny. The court will not place any settlement on the record that is confidential.”
Mann then comes before the judge and says: “[The city of Inglewood’s] attempt at concealment piques the public’s curiosity in a way that overshadows the significance of actual events. Ms. Surjue has become upset at [that] and now she refuses to sign any agreement despite [the city’s] admission of its folly. And some people in their effort to take potshots at lawyers and judges forget the collateral damage to women and children.” He is referring to the Weekly for calling attention to Surjue’s case. And although he did not elaborate, Mann made it clear that he thought the settlement was in his client’s best interests. In fact, so did Otero, last October, telling Surjue that if she refused to sign the settlement agreement he would “direct a clerk to sign it for her.” Otero has come 180 degrees toward respecting her.
“We’re here for settlement purposes or to set a trial date. I urge the parties to consider settlement,” Otero says. “The offer is a significant achievement, but if the plaintiff does not agree she can try her case in front of a jury.” After objections from the city, whose attorneys make one last futile request that Otero order a settlement, the judge says, “What is important here is the public’s perception. The court does not want the public to perceive that Ms. Surjue has been forced into a settlement she does not want.”
As the lawyers pull out their calendars to agree on a time for trial, Surjue gets up from her front row seat in the gallery, slips her attorney a note and goes back to her seat. Then, without talking to her, Mann and the other attorneys agree to a May 18 trial date, while Surjue sits in the front row raising her hand as if trying to get a school teacher’s attention. Yet no one is interested in hearing what she has to say. Otero declares the settlement to be withdrawn, and court is adjourned.
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