The Color of Money

The county's tab for defending racial-bias suits: $693,000 and climbing.

Plaintiff Terrance Jenkins, lawyer Merrie Frost, and - plaintiff Sonja Colwell say that juvenile court discriminates. - Walter  Novak
Plaintiff Terrance Jenkins, lawyer Merrie Frost, and plaintiff Sonja Colwell say that juvenile court discriminates.
When Ruby Davis won her racial-bias lawsuit against Cuyahoga County's juvenile court in November 2002, it was more a moral victory than a financial blow to the county.

Davis was hired in 1999 as the medical-services supervisor at the Juvenile Detention Center. Her mandate was to put the medical department's house in order -- no small task, when you consider that she found disorganized files, heaps of unpaid bills, children being given the wrong medications, and a practicing nurse who wasn't even licensed.

Two years later, she was fired. Her bosses cited chronic complaints during exit interviews with nurses who quit or were fired during her tenure. Davis, however, wasn't about to go quietly. She filed a lawsuit, arguing that her bosses didn't care enough about the detention center's largely black population to make real changes and that white employees were treated better than she was.

The jury sided with Davis, who is black, awarding her $52,000 and the cost of her legal bills, which could reach $200,000. The county denies that there was discrimination and plans to appeal. Yet taxpayers are already paying a far steeper cost -- one they will have no chance of recouping.

Following in Davis's footsteps, 15 current and former black employees have filed racial-discrimination lawsuits against the county's juvenile court, which oversees the detention center. The details of the claims differ, but all stem from the same basic issues alleged in Davis's case. Unlike in the Davis case, however, County Prosecutor William Mason decided to use outside lawyers rather than those on his staff.

Mason maintains a 13-attorney civil-litigation team -- with annual salaries totaling $779,967 -- to defend the county against lawsuits, whether they concern slip-and-falls in the Justice Center or employment discrimination. On occasion, however, the county hires private lawyers -- for cases that require additional manpower or legal expertise. Mason's office says the 15 bias lawsuits fit both criteria.

But outside counsel expenses for the bias suits have soared. The cost to taxpayers so far: $693,000 -- more than the county spent on all outside counsel for civil litigation in 2001 and 2002 combined, according to the Office of Budget and Management.

Mason's office defends the expenditure, saying that it's unusual for so many current and former employees to band together and sue. "What this is essentially is an onslaught of lawsuits," says David Lambert, an assistant county prosecutor, who adds that more plaintiffs might come forward if they think the county is an easy mark. "This is a lawsuit that we need to win."

Having taken the Davis case to trial, Mason knew how labor-intensive it would be to litigate 15 similar claims, Lambert says. "We would have had to take two or three assistant county prosecutors and have them do nothing but these lawsuits, and we don't have the luxury of doing that."

Yet Merrie Frost, the lawyer for Davis and the other 15 plaintiffs, says she doesn't need any help. "I'm one person," she says. "I'm planning on trying this myself. Now you're going to tell me they need $693,000 and how many people to try this case?"

She calls Mason's decision to employ outside lawyers a giant waste of taxpayer money. "It's a straightforward race discrimination case, and there's nothing unusual here," Frost says. "Unless the civil attorneys in Mason's office are not competent enough to litigate it -- then they shouldn't be in that position."

No matter who turns out to be right, Mason's decision will have one clear beneficiary: Johnson, Angelo and Colaluca, the law firm hired to handle the cases. As it happens, the firm also has close ties to Mason.

As law director in Parma, Mason retained the firm to handle city labor negotiations. "That's where our experience started with them," says Robert Coury, who was then chief assistant law director under Mason and who is now the prosecutor's second-in-command.

The firm has also been supportive of Mason over the years. A review of campaign records shows that Johnson, Angelo and Colaluca, or its partners, have made at least 14 donations to Mason's various political campaigns since 1996, totaling $6,400.

Coury acknowledges that the contributions raise "valid questions," but argues that the donations did not influence the firm's selection.

"There is nobody that does competitive bidding on lawyers," Coury says. "You have to go by your own specific knowledge of their abilities. I would not be comfortable vouching for a firm that I did not have personal experience with."

Partner Thomas Colaluca points to the firm's strong reputation in labor and discrimination cases, having defended the city, the school board, and the state against various lawsuits. "That's what we specialize in," Colaluca says.

Both Colaluca and Lambert also point out that when the $693,000 is divided among 15 cases, the cost comes out to just $46,200 per lawsuit, which Lambert says is "not an absurdly high number."

Still, the cases have yet to go to trial, and Mason's office admits that they are likely to cost at least $200,000 to $400,000 more before it's all over. Frost says that estimate is low, and guesses that the total defense cost could grow well beyond a million dollars.

"Had they taken the $693,000 and put it towards trying to resolve the issues in this case so they don't get sued again and again and again, that would have been a much better use of this money," says Frost.

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