New York City's Law Department is establishing a new unit to defend tort actions against police in state court, mirroring an initiative it put into place to fight, instead of settle, similar cases filed in federal court.
With an increase in the number of state court actions alleging misconduct by police officers against civilians, particularly in the Bronx, Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo yesterday said the Law Department would be staffing a new unit to fight the excessive force, false arrest and malicious prosecution actions it views as weak on the merits.
Cardozo announced the unit's creation during a City Council budget hearing, where he unveiled a proposed $142 million Law Department budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2013. The proposed budget is $5.6 million less than the department's 2013 fiscal budget of $148.1 million.
The cost of funding the new unit will be $1.73 million in fiscal year 2013 and $3.46 million in 2014, according to the Law Department.
The agency employs 670 attorneys and 590 support staff. The state tort unit will be comprised of 45 staff, 29 of whom will be lawyers. One-third of the staff has already been hired, Cardozo said at the hearing.
The unit replicates a Law Department initiative in place since July 2011 that has taken a more assertive approach to federal civil rights actions arising from civilian-police encounters that the city once would have opted to settle for low dollar amounts to avoid the high cost of litigation.
That stance created a "cottage industry" developed where attorneys brought "marginal" cases in search of a quick settlement, Cardozo said.
In the program's first year, the federal unit, with 28 attorneys and six staff, tripled the number of cases it tried to verdict and won "a majority," according to Cardozo's written testimony.
"So far, it looks like this program is working," Cardozo said at the hearing.
Along those lines, he said the new unit would offer a "stronger presence" in similar state court actions.