By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
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.
As the lawyers file out, Surjue confronts Mann and complains that she will be taking exams to complete her undergraduate studies that week and could have a conflict. “The judge is not going to change the date,” he snaps, leaving his client standing there, despondent and alone. Outside the courtroom, Mann and Anderson-Barker refuse to talk to the Weekly. “The damage is done,” Mann says.
A review of the court file raises questions about why Mann would not want to go to trial against one of Inglewood’s most notorious police officers. Officer Morse has provoked a lengthy record of citizen complaints and city officials failed to act against him. And a look at how Mann achieved the settlement — which guaranteed him more money than his client — shows that he capitalized on mistakes by Inglewood’s attorneys, rather than negotiating a settlement on principles related to justice concerning a public entity, which, by law, must be open to public view.
A critical position taken by attorneys for Inglewood in Surjue’s case was that she should have to prove Morse and Darvish violated her civil rights before she could claim any liability on the part of anyone in the department, including Sergeant Dennis Brown, who she claims illegally searched her house; Watch Commander John Knapp, who Surjue claims discouraged her from filing a complaint against Morse; and Police Chief Ronald Banks, who repeatedly ratified Morse based on reports from Internal Affairs, despite a disturbing pattern of alleged misconduct.
Inglewood argues unsuccessfully that Morse and Darvish merely carried out department policy as obedient employees when they illegally entered her home. And later, a dispute arose over whether Inglewood attorneys in their settlement offer had failed to address the claims of Surjue’s youngest son and her claims of liabilty against Morse’s overseers. Seizing the opportunity to guarantee a minimum settlement amount and payment of his own fees, which reportedly are above $500 per hour, Mann argued that Inglewood’s mistakes should not preclude him from negotiating for more money. “That one defendant buys its peace does not mean that the exposure of a co-defendant disappears in a poof,” Mann wrote on October 23.
Yet Mann and Anderson-Barker were seeking to facilitate closure for themselves more so than their client, while providing Inglewood officials with an opportunity to walk away quietly, by cajoling Surjue into a blanket settlement — one that contained a confidentiality clause. When Surjue voiced her complaints in the Weekly last month, Mann responded by urging the court to finalize her settlement “swiftly and privately.” At the same time, he asked after the fact for the secrecy clause to be taken out of the agreement.
Outside federal court Tuesday, Byrdsong, the lawyer for Inglewood, declines to speculate which direction Surjue’s case is going. “It’s a crapshoot at trial,” he says. He is not sure what the big deal about confidentiality is, either. “Michael Jackson got sued and they used a confidentiality clause,” he says. But what about a public entity that has a duty to disclose the taxpayer money it spends? “Confidentiality is not a foreign concept,” Byrdsong replies, noting that he has represented Los Angeles Unified School District, the city of Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and that they use such clauses all the time. “It’s a matter of closure.” But it is Surjue — or a jury — that gets to define closure now. “It is my case, not my attorneys.”