Delving into data on lawsuits filed against the city

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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

T.C. lights. The Hugo Black House. Ask most Alexandrians, and they’ll be able to recite the details of these controversial, high-profile lawsuits against the city by heart.

But the city regularly faces lawsuits that don’t attract as much media or public attention. Some cases are dismissed, some go to trial and some are settled with a city payout. Even more cases are resolved in conversations and never see the courtroom.

Between 2014 and 2019, 101 lawsuits were filed against the city, and 20 of those cases are still active, according to data the Alexandria Times acquired through the city.

Each of these cases tells its own story, with widely ranging claims, alleged damages and effort and cost put in by both parties. This article is a quantitative analysis of qualitative data points, a bird’s eye view of the forest, not the trees. The Times will be delving deeper into individual cases in later entries of this series.

Over the last six years, the city has faced 37 claims cases, 20 land-use cases, 15 civil rights cases, 12 employment cases, 11 real estate assessment cases, two FOIA cases, two mandamus cases and two procurement cases.

Of the 101 cases that have been filed against the city, 50 have been dismissed, 31 have been settled and 20 remain active.

Multiple plaintiffs can sue separately for the same issue, so each of these cases is not necessarily an individual issue with the city. For example, five of the active land-use lawsuits against the city were filed by different groups of residents but all as part of the T.C. lights issue.

As a result, there are sometimes sudden spikes in the number of lawsuits filed against the city when looking at the data year to year.

Between 2014 and 2017, the number of lawsuits filed against the city remained fairly steady: 15 cases were filed in 2014, 13 in 2015, 11 in 2016 and 13 in 2017. In 2018, there were 27 lawsuits filed against the city, including the five T.C. lights-related land-use cases. That number decreased slightly to 22 cases in 2019.

Graphic/Lyvi Sieg

Notably, there were six employment lawsuits filed against the city last year, five of which are still active and one of which was settled for $48,250.

“Right now is a little out of the ordinary,” City Attorney Joanna Anderson said. “We don’t typically have more than one or two [employment cases] a year.”

The path from perceived or actual wrongdoing to trial is never straightforward, Anderson said, and each type of case requires a slightly different approach and understanding of the law.

“I have 11 assistant city attorneys that work for us, and they all do different kind of work,” Anderson said. “… So, a case will come in, we’ll figure out which attorney it involves, and that attorney will look at the case to decide what the first steps are.”

Once a city attorney is assigned a case, they evaluate whether, from the city’s point of view, the city is liable. If it’s determined that the city is liable, the next question is, “For how much?”

If the attorney determines the city is not liable, then they may file a motion to dismiss the case outright. In cases where the lawsuit is not dismissed by the courts, the city has to mount a defense and explain why it is not liable.

For claims cases, the most common kind of lawsuit filed against the city, community members must provide notice to the city attorney’s office that the city has damaged their person or property.

From there, each claim goes through the city’s internal process, which includes reviews by an outside vendor and internal risk manager, and the city establishes whether it will pay the damages. If the city deems it wasn’t liable, the case then gets filed in court and can go to trial.

However, going to trial is the last thing the city wants to happen, Anderson said. More often than not, the city aims to settle; the city settled in 30.69 percent of the 101 lawsuits, paying a total of $5,585,067.83 in settlements between 2014 and 2019.

“Of course, settlements don’t necessarily mean that we think that the city was wrong,” Anderson said. “There are other reasons to settle as well. Like business decisions, it could be too expensive. Settlements are, it’s a decision that it makes more sense to end the case at this point rather than continue on. Sometimes it’s because we think there’s some culpability. Sometimes it’s because it just is the right thing to do at the time.”

Claims cases, by virtue of how common they were, resulted in the most settlements overall – 15 settlements between 2014 and 2019 totaling $2,132,847.83.

Graphic/Lyvi Sieg

However, real estate assessment cases most consistently resulted in settlements. Of the 11 real estate assessment cases that occurred in this time frame, eight cases were settled for a total of $1,778,970. Various branches of Equity Residential, a real estate investment firm, filed five of those cases.

Only two of the 15 civil rights cases filed against the city resulted in settlements – a total of $250,000 – although two cases are still active. The other 11 civil rights lawsuits were dismissed.

Although the city aims for settlements, sometimes a case does go to trial, whether because the plaintiff feels strongly about the case, the city determines it was not liable or the city decides it’s best not to set a negative precedent.

“Often, it’s somebody asking us not to do [something] in a certain circumstance when you can’t do that … because the law is the law. It’s the way it applies to everybody,” Anderson said.

“If we demonstrate that we are not going to defend a law, then it could be subject to abuse by other people later,” city spokesperson Craig Fifer said.

The data acquired by the Times doesn’t include the many cases that never end up in front of a judge. There are times when the city and plaintiff never have a hearing or trial because of open communication.

“In almost all of these situations, there is a lot of opportunity to discuss the disagreement. For example, in the FOIA cases, it’s a fairly conversational process,” Fifer said. “… If you can work something out that you can both live with, then you’re never going to think to go to court.”

The city attorney’s office also doesn’t only function as the front line of the city’s legal defense, Anderson said. Anderson and her staff provide general counsel to the various city departments in order to ensure city staff are making decisions based on a firm understanding of the law.

But even the best pre-emptive practices can’t prevent lawsuits from being filed against the city. Whether a trash truck brushes against a resident’s car or a police officer aggressively handles a suspect, the things that lead to a lawsuit often occur in the brief but meaningful interactions between the city and its community.

In future installments of this series, the Times will explore the specific stories behind some of these cases in greater detail.

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