Pressure on Patricia Surjue to settle her brutality lawsuit against the city of Inglewood and former police Officer Jeremy Morse has intensified. Renowned civil rights attorney Angela Oh, who agreed to represent Surjue in May after a federal-court settlement fell apart and Surjue’s former lawyers were removed on April 5, says she is unavailable to try the case.
Surjue alleges Morse threw her down the stairs of her home before her two sons on October 21, 2001, traumatizing them and her, and fracturing her coccyx. If a settlement is not reached by July, she could again be without a lawyer. An additional problem haunts her now: her former attorneys’ fees.
Surjue’s case is among nine pending against Inglewood alleging brutality by Morse — five of which include his former partner, Officer Bijan Darvish. None is as messy. The unraveling of a federal-court settlement, substitution of counsel and haggling over fees have resulted in a tenuous three-way negotiation between Surjue, her former lawyers and Inglewood.
Appearing in federal court alongside Surjue on June 2, Oh declined to try the case, citing “troublesome issues” that could lead to “litigation ad infinitum.” She told U.S. District Judge James Otero that alleged injuries to Surjue and her children “seem to be getting lost in all of the dispute about monetary calculations here.
After months of legal wrangling, last October Surjue agreed to settle for $470,000, following a meeting in Otero’s chambers. In November, however, she refused to sign a city-drafted agreement that would have prevented her from discussing her case. Although the city lifted that condition, she still refused to sign. She later stated in federal-court papers that her attorneys Robert Mann and Cynthia Anderson-Barker coerced her into settling. On February 17, Otero voided the settlement. It was the final blow to an already strained relationship.
Oh did not say what she thought a jury might award Surjue and her sons. Rather, she offered to draft a proposal for the city to consider. Otero, who ruled last September that Morse illegally entered the Surjue home and used unlawful force, said Surjue might receive much less at trial than what the city had offered. He called the settlement a “significant accomplishment” by her former attorneys. He gave Oh until June 29 to resolve the matter.
Not present but still a factor are Mann and Anderson-Barker, who in April filed an attorney’s lien in excess of $700,000 and later sought to intervene to protect their stake in the outcome. “The parties will find it difficult or impossible to resolve this matter if they do not know how much is owed [us],” urges Samantha Koerner, an associate of Mann’s, in papers filed recently in federal court. Otero said he likely will not allow Surjue’s former attorneys to intervene until the case is resolved.
Legal observers are divided over the attorneys’ lien. “It’s sad that lawyers have to be like that,” says one civil rights attorney. “To ask for $700,000 and possibly wipe out the chance of a settlement is too much.”
Others familiar with the case say the lien helps Surjue by pressuring Inglewood to amply compensate her. The nixing of the settlement, according to one attorney, has resulted in unwelcome consequences for city officials and the attorneys they hired to clean up after Morse, who was fired in 2002.
The politically connected firm of Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt has represented Inglewood in several brutality lawsuits involving Morse. Last October, with Surjue’s trial date approaching and a criminal retrial of Morse pending, lawyers from the Ivie firm offered a settlement that included “reasonable fees,” to be calculated and submitted by Surjue’s attorneys. But Inglewood’s lawyers omitted Surjue’s youngest son from the agreement, leaving the city exposed to additional money damages and attorneys’ fees resulting from his unresolved claim.
To lay the entire matter to rest, Inglewood then offered a global settlement of $470,000 that included Surjue’s youngest son and all fees incurred by her attorneys. Surjue’s lawyers agreed to “discount” their fees to $250,000, the observer says. Surjue verbally accepted on October 23. But now the global settlement is void. Surjue’s lawyers are free to resubmit their “reasonable fees” under their previous agreement. And now, Mann and Anderson-Barker are demanding their full rate, plus fees incurred since October. (Under a retainer agreement, Surjue’s former lawyers are entitled to 50 percent of her recovery or whatever they billed plus an additional 50 percent, whichever is greater. Mann bills at $550 per hour.)
“The technical term for Inglewood’s situation is ‘up shit’s creek,’” says the observer. “They can only do worse by going to trial, even though [Surjue] may recover less than what she originally was offered.”
Substitute lawyers have taken over for the Ivie firm in two of the other Morse cases in which they represented Inglewood. Lead partner Rickey Ivie and Inglewood Interim City Attorney Emmerline Foote declined to comment on the Surjue case or the city’s substitution of counsel in two others.
But it is Surjue who faces the more compelling quandary: settle in spite of feeling abused in her home, pressured in court and lost in a minefield of attorneys and their fees; or face a jury with no legal expertise to guide her.
Police excessive-force cases are an inexact science. A Los Angeles man possessing cocaine and a shotgun was shot by an officer in 1997, losing a thumb and a finger. In April, he recovered $2 million. Also in April, the Los Angeles City Council approved a $440,000 settlement for a teenager who was armed with a shotgun but alleged he was falsely arrested by former Los Angeles police Officer Rafael Perez.
Predicting what a jury might do is even trickier, experts say.
Albert DeBlanc, an attorney hired by Inglewood to try the Surjue case if necessary, says his role would be to challenge damages alleged by Surjue and her sons. “The question for a jury is what are your real damages?” says DeBlanc. “Are you a C-2 quadriplegic, or did you get your feelings hurt?
“Juries do what they want, based on the personalities of the people in front of them or whatever’s going on in the world. That’s why people get nervous about jury trials.”