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When a man cleared of murder after 21 years in prison sued the Chicago police officers who put him away, the city’s Law Department brought on private lawyers and fought back.
Three firms billed the city for more than 21,200 hours of legal work over six years, and at least 17 outside attorneys represented the city or cops in federal court.
Those lawyers were defending against allegations that disgraced former Detective Reynaldo Guevara and other officers manipulated a 12-year-old boy into identifying Jacques Rivera as the man who fatally shot a 16-year-old in the Logan Square neighborhood in 1988. Like other men convicted with Guevara’s help, Rivera walked free after the witness recanted and Cook County prosecutors dropped the case.
The city battled the lawsuit all the way to a jury trial last summer, despite a tall hurdle to winning: Guevara took the witness stand but didn’t defend himself, instead pleading the Fifth Amendment. The jurors were told before they deliberated that they could hold the detective’s silence against him.
Jurors awarded Rivera $17 million.
On top of that, the private attorneys working for the city added $5.8 million to the taxpayers’ tab for the case.
Those expenses represent a rarely discussed but significant cost of police misconduct in Chicago. Over the last 15 years, fees and costs for private attorneys in civil rights cases totaled $213 million, the Tribune found by analyzing city data obtained through an open records request. Last year alone, the city spent $30.1 million — that’s more than twice what it spent on the agency that investigates police misconduct.
The city has rung up especially large bills defending officers with long records of misconduct, including the late Cmdr. Jon Burge, who is infamous for overseeing the widespread abuse of suspects during the 1970s and ’80s.
Unlike other cities, in many cases Chicago has paid a premium to private lawyers instead of using in-house attorneys who make much less money.
And in some cases, the city could have settled for less before spending heavily on attorneys, according to the lawyers who sued. Among those cases was Rivera’s lawsuit.[Most read] Months after facing her cousin’s killer in court, pregnant 18-year-old Treja Kelley was making big plans. Then a gunman stepped from an alley. »
“I think in most of our cases, particularly the ones where we’ve had these big results, the city had a problem and should have realized it,” Jon Loevy, Rivera’s attorney, said in an interview.
Told of the Tribune’s findings, new top city lawyer Mark Flessner called the spending on outside counsel “scandalous.” He vowed to try to rein in the expense by seeking to hire more in-house lawyers to handle cases.
That effort, however, comes just as new Mayor Lori Lightfoot has announced a hiring freeze as she tries to patch an $838 million budget hole. Lightfoot brings an unusual perspective to the issue. She spent nearly two decades working for an international law firm, and the city paid her to help resolve one of its most expensive police lawsuits.
The three attorneys who previously ran the Chicago Law Department over the last two decades told the Tribune that the spending allowed the city to bring on lawyers with expertise in complicated cases. They also said plaintiffs sometimes demand pie-in-the-sky figures, making quick, reasonable settlements impossible.
“On my watch, I’m confident that we delivered good value for taxpayers,” said Stephen Patton, the city’s top lawyer from 2011 to early 2017 under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Chicago’s problem with civil rights lawsuits stems from the Police Department’s history of error, misconduct and abuse. Those shortcomings have resulted in the department operating under a consent decree overseen by a federal judge with broad power to force changes to the way police treat people.
In that environment, plaintiff’s lawyers routinely have won big jury awards and settlements in civil court, where the person suing only needs to show at trial that the allegations are more likely true than not to win. That standard is far less strict than the one used in criminal court, where prosecutors must prove their charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
Since 2004, the city has spent $757 million on settlements, losses at trial and other payouts in police cases. That includes civil rights cases, as well as car crash claims, racial discrimination complaints and sexual harassment suits, among other types of legal matters.
Large settlements and verdicts frequently garner attention. What’s less well known is the amount of money the city pays to private lawyers to defend civil rights cases.
The Tribune obtained records on city spending on outside lawyers dating to 2004, the first full year such records were kept in a database format.[Most read] Column: It’s the first day of school. Can I talk to your kids a second? I’m afraid we’re screwing this up. »
During the final seven full years of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s lengthy reign, the city spent about $68 million on lawyers’ fees and costs in civil rights cases. The amount rose steadily from 2004 to 2010.
Under Emanuel, the city paid more than $129 million for lawyers and costs in civil rights cases from 2012 to early 2019. The Law Department kept the spending relatively flat before it exploded during Emanuel’s last three full years in office.
Patton told the Tribune it was “more efficient and less costly” to farm out the more complicated cases and leave in-house attorneys clear to juggle multiple smaller cases. The attorney who took over for him in 2017, Edward Siskel, said he used private lawyers because of his limited supply of in-house attorneys or the outside lawyers had special skills.
To be sure, private attorneys have notched some big wins. For example, the city went to trial with Nicole Harris, who alleged that detectives had coerced her into falsely confessing to strangling her 4-year-old son in 2005.
After she was cleared, she sued. Private lawyers fought the case for four years, charging the city $2.6 million, and prevailed before a federal jury in 2017.[Most read] 5 thoughts as No. 7 Notre Dame readies for a massive game at No. 3 Georgia in Week 4 »
Civil rights cases are handled differently in other cities. New York, for example, handles most of those lawsuits with in-house lawyers, a spokesman said.
Chicago spends tens of millions of dollars a year on outside lawyers for civil rights suits, but the Law Department also has about 40 lawyers in the unit that handles such cases. The city’s in-house lawyers make between $61,000 and $179,000. Private lawyers for the city earn as much as $295 per hour. Flessner said he believes hiring outside counsel is four to five times more expensive per hour than using in-house lawyers.
A few of the city’s in-house lawyers have run into serious trouble in recent years. Judges have sanctioned and criticized some city attorneys for their repeated failure to give important documents to the other side in police lawsuits.
Despite Lightfoot’s hiring freeze, Flessner said he hoped to work with the budget office to fill some of the roughly 30 vacant in-house lawyer jobs in a department that has about 250 lawyers.
Flessner acknowledged that he didn’t know how much he could reduce outside legal costs just by filling in-house lawyer vacancies. He said it would be ideal to keep the vast majority of cases in-house but that the city will never be able to stop using private lawyers altogether.[Most read] Troubled times at Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon, Ill.: ‘We cannot keep bleeding money’ »
The biggest winners include a handful of law firms ranging from small shops to major national firms. Over the last 15 years, the city has paid out more than $20 million in civil rights cases to each of four firms: Dykema; Hale & Monico; Rock Fusco & Connelly; and the Sotos Law Firm.
Attorneys at two of those firms declined to comment, and Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey acknowledged that he advised private lawyers for the city not to speak with the Tribune.
Spending money, losing more
In some of the most costly police lawsuits in Chicago history, private lawyers have billed the city for millions to defend the cases, only to lose millions more at trial or in a settlement.
At least 11 times, the city spent $2 million or more on lawyers and expenses, then at least $5 million to resolve the case.
One of the priciest examples is the Christina Eilman lawsuit.[Most read] Column: When a ref yanks a teen swimmer’s victory because her school-issued suit shows too much skin, girls are told their bodies are sexual above all else »
In 2006, Eilman’s parents sued, alleging that officers disregarded signs that their daughter, who had bipolar disorder, was in the grips of a “severe psychiatric episode” after police arrested her at Midway Airport. Officers took Eilman, then 21, to a South Side police station, where she took off her clothes and smeared her menstrual blood on walls.
Officers released Eilman in a troubled neighborhood as evening fell, and a man raped her in the now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes before she plunged from a seventh-floor window. The fall left her severely disabled.
For more than six years, the city fought the case using in-house attorneys and outside lawyers from five firms who collectively billed about $2.4 million for 11,300 hours of work. Costs can rise during a civil court battle as lawyers gather out-of-court testimony from potential witnesses. Private and in-house attorneys in the Eilman lawsuit piled up about 130 depositions, some of them out-of-state, court records show.
While private lawyers handle much of the city’s legal work, it is up to Law Department officials to decide whether to fight or try to settle. In the early years of the case, Eilman family attorney Jeffrey Singer said he “just did not get any kind of response that showed there was any real interest in having a settlement dialogue.”
Then-Mayor Daley’s top lawyer during the first years of the case, Mara Georges, said her attorneys had “legal theories we felt strongly about.”[Most read] Pete Buttigieg is from a new generation of presidential candidates, but he’s yet to win over his own »
Those lawyers argued that officers had no legal responsibility to do more for Eilman than they did. Their theories met with several defeats, including a stinging opinion from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said officers “might as well have released her into the lions’ den at the Brookfield Zoo.”
Against the backdrop of that defeat and with the trial looming, the city’s lawyers, including future Mayor Lightfoot, engaged in settlement negotiations. The city paid about $721,000 for the work of Lightfoot and other Mayer Brown attorneys. Illustrating how fees can add up, records show that Lightfoot made an 18-minute phone call and billed the city $88.50.
Ten days before the trial was to start, the parties reached one of the largest settlements in a police case in Chicago history — $22.5 million.
Singer said in an interview that the city could have settled the case sooner for less. He said the amount the plaintiffs would accept went up as Eilman’s condition deteriorated and her attorneys poured years of work into the case.
When Emanuel’s top attorney went before aldermen in 2013 to present the settlement, he told them the city could have lost more at trial.[Most read] Man in critical condition after Lincoln Park shooting »
“We did right by the city and her taxpayers, and we did right by this young woman and her family, and ended up with a settlement that will provide for her for the rest of her life,” Patton said at the hearing.
The pattern of spending a lot on legal fees only to settle for even more also is evidenced in lawsuits filed by the “Englewood Four.” Records show the city spent $4.4 million to defend claims brought by men who each spent about 15 years in prison for a 1994 rape and murder. DNA eventually linked the crime to a convicted killer. In late 2017, the city settled the four suits for a total of $31 million.
One of the city’s former top lawyers defended the use of private attorneys in cases that settled, noting that good legal defense work can lessen the amount a plaintiff expects.
“You have to use the discovery process as a way to bring them down to earth,” Siskel said.
Civil rights lawyers argued that private attorneys have incentives to do unnecessary legal work. Attorney Locke Bowman of the Northwestern University law school compared lawyers with plumbers.[Most read] At Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s second town hall, residents speak on teachers contract, affordable housing and looming tax hikes »
“They get paid by the hour,” said Bowman, who has successfully sued the city.
Why does the city spend millions to defend these types of cases for so long? Some civil rights attorneys said City Hall aims to appease cops who want to see their conduct justified in court.
The mayor and her top lawyers need to “reevaluate the degree to which they’ve allowed the (Fraternal Order of Police) to drive civil rights defenses in a way that’s very harmful to the citizens of the city of Chicago,” said attorney Stuart Chanen, who has successfully sued the city.
Police union President Kevin Graham declined to comment. In the past, police union leaders have painted plaintiffs and their lawyers as dishonest and greedy.
An FOP official told aldermen who were considering settlements in a pair of police lawsuits in 1998 that cops were “meal tickets for these people.” In 2017, an FOP official told the City Council that civil rights lawyers “look to this chamber as their blank check.”[Most read] A suburban man lost his life — and his nephew lost his arms — from an improperly installed ComEd wire. State regulators can’t guarantee it won’t happen again. »
Previous top lawyers denied that political pressure swayed them.
“My approach was to block all of that out when making these decisions and focus on the guiding star, which was to handle these cases in the best interest of the taxpayers,” Siskel said.
Lightfoot has picked fights with the FOP early in her tenure. Flessner said that he hoped to have a relationship with the police union’s leaders, but added that their judgments about cases would not influence him.
“We are the police officers’ lawyer. We will defend the police officers. But the FOP’s opinion is not weighed in, is not a factor that is weighed in determining whether or not to try a case or to settle a case,” he said. “We look at the risks.”
Defending notorious cops
The city has spent huge sums defending cops with well-established records of misconduct, even when those officers opt not to take the stand to defend themselves.
The chief example is the late Jon Burge, who oversaw the abuse of suspects on the South Side. He was convicted of perjury in 2010 after federal jurors found that he’d lied when he denied abusing men or knowing about it. That conviction makes it more difficult to defend him from civil rights lawsuits.
The city paid more than $27 million in fees and costs for outside lawyers in roughly 15 suits against Burge and his associates between 2004 and early 2019, records show. That’s on top of the more than $80 million in settlements, reparations and other costs in Burge-related cases.
Facing calls to offer an apology for Burge’s actions, Emanuel delivered one in 2013 as the City Council settled some of the suits.
“I am sorry this happened,” Emanuel said. “Let us all now move on.”
Emanuel’s lawyers did not move on. Records show the city spent more on private attorneys to defend Burge cases under Emanuel than it did during Daley’s last years: at least $10.5 million from 2004-10 versus at least $14.5 million from 2012-18.
The city spent that money despite Burge and his colleagues often invoking their Fifth Amendment rights to avoid saying anything that could be used to prosecute them criminally. A defendant who refuses to deny the allegations is a trump card to a plaintiffs’ lawyer. Juries in criminal cases are not allowed to consider a defendant’s silence to be evidence of guilt, but civil juries and judges can hold it against a defendant.
“That’s devastating. That makes it so hard for lawyers to try those cases,” said attorney Terry Ekl, who has successfully sued the city. “The plaintiff’s lawyers know it. They know that they’ve got the city.”
Still, the city couldn’t just capitulate, Patton argued.
“So what are you gonna do, just write an endless check? Be at the mercy of the plaintiff’s lawyer? You’d pay $40 million for every wrongful conviction case,” he said.
Instead, the city frequently hired private lawyers and fought for years, as it did in the case that led to one of the largest tabs for legal work in city history.
James Kluppelberg spent nearly 25 years in prison for a Southwest Side arson that killed a woman and her five children before prosecutors dropped the case in 2012. A witness had recanted and a fire scientist hired by his lawyers had concluded that the evidence of arson was shaky. Other witnesses, however, continued to implicate him.
Kluppelberg sued, alleging officers had beaten him until he urinated blood. Burge was not involved in the interrogation but supervised cops who worked the case.
Lawyers from Jones Day and the Sotos Law Firm billed the city for nearly 20,800 hours over five years, collecting more than $6 million. Attorneys took nearly 80 depositions, including two in which Burge pleaded the Fifth.
Days before trial, the lawyers reached a settlement worth $9.3 million.
“We would have taken that number or less earlier,” said Loevy, Kluppelberg’s lawyer.
Patton, Chicago’s top lawyer during most of the suit, said he thought the city had a strong case. Siskel, who ran the office when the case settled, declined to comment on negotiations in specific cases.
Though Burge was fired more than a quarter-century ago and died last year, the city is still paying for his time in the Police Department. Lawyers continue to fight a suit from former inmate Stanley Wrice, who claims that cops under Burge’s command beat him before he confessed to a vicious 1982 sexual assault that happened in his home. While a judge threw out Wrice’s conviction and prosecutors dropped the charges, a Cook County judge denied him a certificate of innocence, concluding that he was “most likely guilty.”
Burge pleaded the Fifth in a deposition, as have two other officers. The city has paid about $1.7 million to lawyers over six years. A trial is scheduled for February, and Flessner said the city has no plans to settle.
As Burge suits have dwindled, history has begun repeating itself in the many lawsuits against another former detective who has pleaded the Fifth — Reynaldo Guevara.
The former detective has been accused of pinning murder cases on people and extorting drug dealers on the West Side in the 1980s and 1990s. At least 12 convictions related to the detective have been reversed since 2016.
The city has been sued over his conduct at least 14 times since 1999 and had paid private lawyers at least $8.8 million to fight the suits as of early this year, records show. Two plaintiffs, including Jacques Rivera, have reaped more than $33 million in total from the city.
The problem is unlikely to go away soon, as 11 of the cases are pending.
The Guevara cases also illustrate the difficulty the Lightfoot administration may have in reducing outside legal expenses in police misconduct suits. While Flessner acknowledged the city faces an “impediment” in officers who plead the Fifth, he said he’ll deal with the cases one at a time.
“We are looking at each one of those cases individually to determine whether or not we can defend the cases without Officer Guevara’s testimony,” he said.
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Chicago Tribune’s Jennifer Smith Richards contributed.
10 cases with large legal fees
The city of Chicago spent especially large amounts on costs and fees for private attorneys in these 10 civil rights lawsuits against the police.
Kluppelberg v. Burge
Attorney fees and costs: $6,002,534
Rivera v. Guevara
Attorney fees and costs: $5,796,332
Fields v. City of Chicago
Attorney fees and costs: $4,524,963
Smith, et al. v. City of Chicago
Attorney fees and costs: $3,743,080
Evans v. City of Chicago
Attorney fees and costs: $3,421,192
Vodak, et al. v. City of Chicago
Attorney fees and costs: $3,262,815
Saunders v. City of Chicago
Attorney fees and costs: $2,904,197
LaPorta v. City of Chicago
Attorney fees and costs: $2,803,083
Hobley v. Burge
Attorney fees and costs: $2,773,429
Harris v. City of Chicago
Attorney fees and costs: $2,596,929
Sources: City data, Tribune reporting
Chad Yoder/Chicago Tribune