Appeals court criticizes city for expensive brutality case
BY KIM JANSSEN Federal Courts Reporter June 19, 2014 12:28PM
Updated: June 19, 2014 10:44PM
A federal appeals court has sharply criticized the City of Chicago’s “scorched-earth defense strategy” in a run-of-the-mill police brutality case that ended up costing taxpayers big time.
Though West Sider Andy Montanez was awarded just $2,000 by a jury that found cops used excessive force against him, city tactics better suited to “high-stakes commercial litigation” meant taxpayers also were stuck with Montanez’s $110,000 legal bill, the 7th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals said.
Montanez sued the city after he was arrested in 2009 for drinking in the street after a relative’s funeral, claiming Chicago cops from the Grand Central district broke his nose and cheekbone in a scuffle.
A jury — perhaps feeling there were no innocent victims after hearing that Montanez had pleaded guilty to aggravated battery to one of the arresting cops — in 2012 awarded him just $2,000.
Though his lawyers from the law firm of Shiller Preyar were awarded fees of $110,000 by U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan, they appealed that decision, saying they should have received the staggering $430,000 they asked for.
The 7th circuit rejected that argument Thursday, saying Finnegan was correct to slash the bill handed to taxpayers because it overcharged for some items, including “wasted” time, and was not properly documented.
But the court shared the blame around, saying the payout is “still a huge sum... in part because the City adopted a scorched-earth defense strategy.
“This simple civil-rights claim, over litigated by both sides, took on all the protracted complexity of high-stakes commercial litigation, replete with hard-fought discovery battles and even a mock trial,” Judge Diane Sykes wrote in an opinion for the three-judge panel.
Though the Appeals Court backed Finnegan’s decision to cut the legal fees awarded to Montanez’s lawyers, it reminded trial judges that “early and active use of the court’s case-management authority can help prevent excessive fees before they accrue.”
Neither the city nor Shiller Preyar immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday.