Patricia Surjue is finding out just how lonely it feels to take on a city, its police force, a federal judge and her own lawyers — all at the same time.
Surjue walked unaccompanied out of the courtroom of U.S. District Judge James Otero last month after Otero voided a controversial settlement of her police-brutality case against former Inglewood Officer Jeremy Morse. Surjue has claimed, in court papers, that her lawyer, Robert Mann, bullied her into accepting the settlement on October 23 during a meeting in Otero’s chambers. But now Otero has set a trial date of May 18, granting Surjue her long-awaited day in court.
A single mother of two who says she has been traumatized by her encounter with Morse and re-traumatized in federal court, Surjue might have felt relieved that a jury would finally get to hear her story. But she has lost confidence in her lawyers to tell that story. So she left dejected. Surjue is in the grip of the ugly side of civil rights litigation, where ego, expediency and the economics of justice can be disillusioning to people who have been beaten down, whether physically or emotionally.
Just before the hearing on February 17, Surjue had waited anxiously outside Otero’s courtroom. When she entered, she passed a note to Otero’s clerk. It read, “Can you please tell the judge I would like to address the court. It is my intention to dismiss my [lawyers].” Her request unheeded, she sat silently through arguments about her refusal to sign a written agreement to drop her excessive-force claim, which she verbally agreed to after emerging from Otero’s chamber last October. In her hand Surjue clutched another piece of paper, with a statement she never got to read: “I do not believe my attorneys have acted in my best interest. I am annoyed and dissatisfied. When I told them I was not satisfied they refused to listen. I have been hushed, ignored, grabbed and disrespected. All I wanted is justice.” Unable to express her sentiments in court, Surjue later filed court papers describing her dissatisfaction.
Last September, Otero ruled that Morse and Officer Bijan Darvish entered Surjue’s home illegally on the night of October 20, 2001, and seized her in violation of her civil rights. Otero left allegations that Morse threw Surjue down the stairs and the issue of damages for a jury to decide. Which is what Surjue wants: an opportunity for public vindication to bring closure to a night that she contends has left her and her two young sons, who witnessed the incident, emotionally damaged.
With a criminal retrial of Morse looming in the videotaped beating of teenager Donovan Jackson, the city of Inglewood last October offered $470,000 to resolve Surjue’s case. More than half would have gone to Mann and co-counsel Cynthia Anderson-Barker. Her lawyers faxed her a city-drafted agreement in the days after her hearing before Otero. She refused to sign. For starters, she had been coerced, Surjue claims in court papers. Then, she objected to a confidentiality clause that prevented her from speaking about her run-in with Morse, and which had not been discussed in court.
When Surjue refused to sign the agreement after repeated phone calls and letters from her attorneys, she says, already-soured relations deteriorated.
After the settlement was scuttled, with $250,000 in legal fees put on hold, Mann and Anderson-Barker stormed out of court on February 17 without a word to Surjue. They declined comment. Later that day, Surjue received a fax from them stating that they would like to withdraw from the case. Incensed, she went to court the next day and filed a motion to replace her lawyers — except that she had not yet found anyone to substitute for them.
On March 2, Otero denied Surjue’s request to fire her lawyers. While she may be able to represent herself, the judge said, she cannot legally represent her sons, who were 5 and 12 at the time of the incident. For now, Mann and Anderson-Barker represent the three of them as a May 18 trial date approaches. Which is upsetting to Surjue, who, in court papers, claims she does not trust the people she hired to carry her cause. “They do not see who I am or what I am concerned with,” she says. “What if they or their families had been violated in their own home? They tell me I should be lucky and move on.” Surjue is concerned about her trial. “This is not about morals or principles for them,” she says of her lawyers. “This is a business.”
Surjue sees her case — and the way she has been treated by her lawyers — in simple terms of right and wrong. According to Otero’s ruling, Morse should not have come into her home that October night in 2001. By Surjue’s account, Morse abused her in front of her children, leaving a lasting scar on them. Inglewood police, who allegedly discouraged her from filing a complaint, should never have let an officer with an extensive record of alleged misconduct run amok, Surjue charges. She maintains that she never should have been pressured to settle her case after stating her desire for a more open brand of justice.
According to legal observers, her lawyers likely have a more complicated view of the matter. Unlike the Jackson beating, Morse was not videotaped inside Surjue’s home. Perhaps they see problems with proving physical damages. Surjue claims she suffered a fractured coccyx that has left her incontinent, yet her sons suffered no physical injuries. Other abuse charges against Morse, who underwent 11 internal-affairs investigations in 31 months and is the subject of a federal investigation and half a dozen civil lawsuits, might not be admissible in court. Otero has said in court that Mann and Anderson-Barker did well by securing a settlement of $220,000 for Surjue and her sons.
But Surjue’s dignity and sense of justice are at stake. She has repeatedly balked at the deals that have been put in front of her, even ones that allow her to speak freely about the incident. In her recent motion to substitute lawyers, Surjue stated, “On October 16, 2003, I sent a letter to my counsel requesting they reject the settlement offer of $150,000 and proceed to trial. My counsel refused to listen to me. My counsel continued to tell me that I had to settle.”
When Mann bargained the city up to $220,000 in Otero’s court on October 23, Surjue contends that she agreed verbally but after being intimidated. “When I expressed my disapproval with the settlement offer and after leaving the judge’s chamber, Mr. Mann yelled at me and grabbed my arm,” Surjue wrote in her motion. “Mr. Mann said, ‘Listen to me, you have just pissed off the judge.’ On January 12, 2004, my counsel filed an application to enforce the settlement without my knowledge. My counsel knew I did not want this.”
Lawyers for Morse and Darvish and Inglewood were surprised to see Surjue leaving Otero’s courtroom alone and despondent on February 17. None of them opposed Surjue’s effort to get rid of her lawyers. (Lawyers for the city sought unsuccessfully to disqualify Mann and Anderson-Barker in January because of an alleged conflict between Surjue and her attorneys.) In a notice that he recently sent to Surjue and others in the case, Corey Glave, defense lawyer for Darvish, wrote, “Implicit in [Surjue’s] claims is an allegation that her counsel made misrepresentations to the court regarding the status of settlement in this case.” Glave further asked Surjue to clarify whether she would attempt to disqualify Otero, based on her allegations that he too thrust settlement upon her. Glave did not comment.
Glave never filed his notice with the court. But his reaction to Surjue’s plight is telling, whether he had a genuine question about disqualifying Otero or was just stirring the pot. What defense attorney wouldn’t try to capitalize on a traumatized alleged victim of police brutality who is at odds with her own lawyers? With Surjue’s trial just two months off, the chances of a total re-examination of her case — in spite of her verbal agreements along the way — may seem slim. Yet she is unrelenting. And she will have her day in court. “This is not about civil rights, or reforming the police force,” Surjue says of her experience. “This is about exploiting the weak.”