The League and lawsuits
“Sue the Bastards” is a phrase attributed to Environmental Law Attorney Victor Yannacone in the ‘60s that seems to have heartily survived to the present day. It could qualify as a League bumper sticker judging by the number of lawsuits filed by the League in the past year. So how do you as a League member get involved in League litigation? Several ways, in fact.
The great majority of the League’s civil actions are writs to the superior court challenging Department adjudications. Department adjudications usually start with a personnel complaint interview. If you are a member of the League’s Legal Plan (and 92 percent of you are), you are represented by a League panel attorney. Under the Legal Plan, the road to a writ goes like this: A personnel complaint interview, a decision by your captain that you are guilty of some allegation, a Skelly by you with the assistance of a panel attorney, a decision by the Chief of Police that you are still guilty of some allegation, an appeal to either a Board of Rights or an Administrative Appeal, and a decision against you. The Legal Plan ends there. The next step is the Legal Committee.
What is the Legal Committee? The Legal Committee is made up of League delegates. At the beginning of each year, the League forms various committees from the delegates pool of around 220 members. One committee is the Legal Committee. There are 139 delegates are currently assigned to the Legal Committee although only 15 to 25 typically show up at the Legal Committee meeting to vote on requested actions.
In the last 12 months, 50 officers have appeared before the Legal Committee and requested that some form of civil action to be financed by the League on their behalf. About 88 percent of the requests are to appeal disciplinary decisions imposed by the Department. Another 6 percent involve the appeal of a superior court decision lost in a previous writ, so 94 percent of the Legal Committee’s work involves challenging Department discipline. The Committee recommends to the Board of Directors that the League fund the requests about 80 percent of the time. That recommendation is forwarded via the Legal Committee Chair person to the Board of Directors. Since it is only a recommendation from the Legal Committee, the Board of Directors has the final call on whether an officer’s case will be funded. It is rare that they do not follow the recommendation of the committee.
The remaining cases considered by the committee are usually requests for representation in defense of criminal cases brought against the officer or representation for the defense of civil cases where the City has declined to represent the officer. In these cases, the committee uses the criteria in the bylaws to decide on recommending funding. The bylaws require that the “the member requesting representation acted in good faith without malice, fraud or oppression, and in the course and scope of his duties as a peace officer, whether on duty or off duty at the time of the incident giving rise to the charge.”
Another question that the committee takes into consideration in all cases is will this lawsuit be beneficial to the good of the membership? The committee is aware that what the Department can do to one, can be done to anyone.
There are also lawsuits that the League files on its own behalf as the plaintiff, or, at times, on behalf of an officer who has an issue that affects the entire membership. An example is the disciplinary lawsuit the League filed to challenge the bias in the Board of Rights system. Another is the lawsuit filed against the City for the gift of public funds in forcing officers to work the L.A. Rams football games without the Rams providing the funds to employ off-duty officers. These lawsuits are not considered by the Legal Committee; they are voted on directly by the Board of Directors. In the past the League has filed lawsuits over the exclusion of attorneys from representing witnesses in Boards of Rights, the 2 percent lawsuit, lawsuits involving financial disclosure, lawsuit challenging forced Conditional Official Reprimands, lawsuit challenging downgrades without justification, and many others. By the time you read this, there will also probably be lawsuits filed by the League demanding a hearing to challenge Police Commission adjudications of uses of force being administratively disapproved, confidential personnel information being posted on the internet, and demanding a meet and confer from Police Commission policy changes.
By the way, the million dollar verdicts that you read about in the newspapers awarded to officers in jury trials for being a whistleblower, or discrimination, or sexual harassment, or other abuses by the Department, are not financed by the League. They usually arise out of the program that gives League members a one-hour consultation on any legal issue with panel attorneys. These lawsuits are done on a contingency basis by private attorneys who have met with the officers under the one-hour consultation program. Contingency means that the concerned attorney will finance the case in return for a certain percent of the ultimate award. If you feel that you have been the victim of some nefarious conduct caused by the Department, phone the Claims Unit and obtain a Director’s one-hour referral.
Before you get the idea that the League is unnecessarily litigious, consider this; we only react. Each lawsuit starts off with the Department doing something that negatively impacts our members. We resist and object on behalf of our membership. When the Department will not listen to us, we go to court. In other words, lawsuits can be reduced to zero if the Department would only behave!
So, on a practical level, if you feel that you have been wronged by the Department, how do you get the League to “sue the bastards!” to borrow the ‘60 phrase? The answer is to call the Claims Unit in our Legal Section and schedule yourself for the Legal Committee. The phone number is (866) LAPPL4U. The Legal Committee meets on the first Tuesday of every month. When you call the Claims Unit, they will get some information from you and have you sign a form. Documents pertinent to your request will be collected and distributed to the Legal Committee members for their review in advance of the meeting.
On the day of the meeting, you will be scheduled to appear in front of the committee. Usually, you bring your representative to explain the legal issues concerning your case to the committee members. For example, if you are requesting a writ to the superior court because you were terminated by a Board of Rights, the decision and rationale of the Board of Rights would be provided by you along with the termination document signed by the Chief for the committee to review and the attorney that represented you at the Board would accompany you and explain the legal reasons why the Board of Rights should be overturned by the court.
The Legal Committee reviews your documents prior to the meeting day. On the meeting day, you are brought in with your representative and they will listen to your statement as to why you feel the League should fund your lawsuit. The committee will ask you and your representative questions and then you will be excluded and they will discuss and decide what their recommendation will be for the Board of Directors. That recommendation is carried to the Board, usually at the next Board meeting, and discussed and voted on by the Board. The member then gets written notification of the decision.
Sometimes you must go outside the Department to get justice. Know how it’s done.
Be legally careful out there.