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Speaking Softly

THE CASE OF Patricia Surjue v. The City of Inglewood has ended. Last Wednesday, after a jury was chosen and trial was set to begin in her three-year police-brutality saga, Surjue accepted a settlement on behalf of herself and her two sons.

Surjue and her sons will receive $250,000, which is close to what she verbally agreed to accept in federal court last October to resolve a civil rights and excessive-force case against former police Officer Jeremy Morse and Officer Bijan Darvish. The officers entered Surjue’s home illegally in 2001, and Morse seized her in violation of her rights and with excessive force, a judge ruled. Surjue later rejected the verbal settlement on the grounds she was coerced by her former attorneys, Robert Mann and Cynthia Anderson Barker, and after an associate of the lawyers faxed her a city-drafted agreement that contained a secrecy clause and urged her to sign it.

When Surjue refused to sign, in February, U.S. District Judge James Otero tossed out the tentative settlement, causing Surjue’s former lawyers to quit her case and file an appeal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to protect their claim of $700,000 in legal fees. The original settlement included $220,000 for Surjue and $250,000 in fees for Mann and Anderson Barker. On Wednesday, Mann appeared in court and agreed to drop their claim, accepting $300,000 to "finally put this matter to bed."

Attorney Joseph Shalant, the third attorney who has represented Surjue in the last seven months, accepted $40,000 in fees as part of the settlement reached last week. Shalant took over for civil rights juggernaut Angelo Oh in July, after Oh agreed to represent Surjue last May but refused to take her to trial. Though Shalant took Surjue to the threshold of opening statements last week, he had been in contact with Mann since he took the case. After picking a jury last Tuesday, Shalant called Mann that night and asked him to compromise his claim for attorneys’ fees. On Wednesday, Otero commended Mann for his work and his spirit of compromise. Shalant joined in the praise.

With the jury outside the courtroom, Surjue accepted a deal similar to the one she rejected almost a year ago. "My children and I can move on now," she said. Acting City Attorney Emmerline Foote watched anxiously as a phalanx of private attorneys for Morse, Darvish, Police Chief Ronald Banks and Sergeant Dennis Brown were feverish in their attempts to close the deal and ensure that police personnel records were returned by Surjue’s attorneys.

Otero paused repeatedly to make sure that Surjue would sign a written agreement to formalize the settlement. "You don’t look so enthusiastic, Ms. Surjue. I want to make sure you are accepting of this settlement. Last time, you changed your mind. This time, you cannot decide later that you want to tell your story to a jury. If that’s what you want, now is the time to go forward with a trial."

MORSE AND DARVISH ENTERED Surjue’s home illegally on the night of October 21, 2001. They were there to assist with a -custody transfer of her two sons: Stephen, who was 12 at the time, and Gareth, who was 5. After Surjue questioned the officers about their entry, Morse ascended the stairs where she was standing and unlawfully seized her with excessive force, Otero ruled. Surjue claims Morse threw her down the stairs in front of her children and kicked her, -fracturing her coccyx and causing her to become incontinent. She claims she and her sons were emotionally damaged by the incident. A neighbor later told police that her walls shook as she heard a body slam against an adjoining wall, followed by Surjue’s cries for help.

Morse, the subject of 11 internal-affairs investigations in his first two and a half years on the Inglewood force, has been sued 10 times in federal court and charged with excessive force. Darvish is a defendant in six of the lawsuits. The Surjue case and at least two others have been resolved without going to trial. In 2002, Morse was captured on videotape beating teenager Donovan Jackson. Although Surjue’s encounter predates the Jackson incident, she filed her lawsuit after the Jackson videotape became national news — as did the other plaintiffs who have sued Morse.

A criminal case against Morse and Darvish in the Jackson beating commanded widespread attention but ended in an acquittal for Darvish and two hung juries for Morse. A joint U.S. Justice Department and U.S. Attorney’s Office investigation remains open.

The settlement last week avoided a six-day trial in which Morse, Darvish and the Inglewood brass were scheduled to appear. The eight-member jury included five white men and three women, two of them Latina. Morse and Darvish are white. The lone African-American juror was dismissed over Shalant’s objections.

The settlement also ends the potential for lengthy fee litigation by Surjue’s lawyers. Appearing in federal court alongside Surjue on June 2, Oh had declined to try her case, citing "troublesome issues" that could lead to "litigation ad infinitum." She told Otero that alleged injuries to Surjue and her children "seem to be getting lost in all of the dispute about monetary calculations here."

But Oh’s refusal to try the case led Surjue to search for a new attorney. With Oh present in the courtroom, Shalant appeared on Surjue’s behalf in July, and after a meeting in Otero’s chambers, Oh left the courtroom in a hurry, claiming that Shalant had been hostile toward her but declining to elaborate. In an interview several weeks later, Shalant told the Weekly, "It’s no way to negotiate when you tell the court and the other side that you aren’t willing to go to trial. Inglewood is trying to steal the case by paying an inadequate amount to the parties. I see exposure in the seven-figure range.

"To win cases you have to speak softly and carry a big stick."