High-profile cases increase Metro settlements in Lombardo’s final term

By: - Wednesday August 17, 2022 6:06 am

High-profile cases increase Metro settlements in Lombardo’s final term

By: - 6:06 am

Las Vegas police cam photo of musician Brandon Summers being arrested after taking video of Metro confronting a man selling water on the Strip. Metro ended up paying Summers $100.000 for violating his rights. (Police body cam image provided by Brandon Summers)

Las Vegas police cam photo of musician Brandon Summers being arrested after taking video of Metro confronting a man selling water on the Strip. Metro ended up paying Summers $100.000 for violating his rights. (Police body cam image provided by Brandon Summers)

In Joe Lombardo’s first five years as Clark County Sheriff, Las Vegas Metro’s Fiscal Affairs Committee or the sheriff approved an average of $1.1 million in settlements to people alleging wrongdoing by the police and from those involved in auto accidents with Metro. But in the last two years, settlements shot up – to just under $6.5 million last year and almost $5.9 million for the fiscal year ending in July.

“There’s heightened focus on what’s happening with police departments,” says Athar Haseebullah, executive director of ACLU of Nevada. “And there’s probably a heightened fear of what a jury might do in those scenarios, so there’s more of an onus to settle those cases. The nexus at this point would actually be the political climate and environment versus the political ramifications.”

“Nobody settled these cases just because it’s the right thing to do,” says attorney Stephen Stubbs, who says he’s represented half a dozen clients against Metro. Earlier this year, he won a settlement of $300,000 on behalf of a client whose rights were violated when he was required to show identification while riding in a car. “Every single one of these cases is hard fought.”

In the current fiscal year, Metro has budgeted $2 million in claims expenses. “This includes all auto and general liability claims, to include settlements,” a spokesperson for the department said via email.

Lombardo referred requests for comment to Metro’s Chief Financial Officer, Richard Hoggan.

“The Farah and Berry settlements were a big part of the spikes in the past two fiscal years,” Hoggan said via email. “Beyond those settlements, we settled an unusually high number of auto accidents over those two fiscal years.  We have an extensive internal review process of all employee-involved accidents as well as regular safety training and procedural review that we are hoping will reduce the number of employee-involved incidents.”

Of the four elected officials on the Fiscal Affairs Committee – Las Vegas council members Cedric Crear and Stavros Anthony (a former Metro officer), Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft, and Commission chairman Jim Gibson – only Gibson responded to questions.  

“In looking at the lawsuits approved by FAC in recent years, it does not appear that the number has increased year over year,” Gibson said via email, pointing to the last four years since he joined the County Commission.  

“The total amounts paid fluctuate depending on a variety of factors,” Gibson said. “It is hard to compare years because our internal authority for approval changed in 2020.”

That year, the FAC increased the threshold of settlements that can be unilaterally approved by Lombardo from $50,000 to $200,000. 

“We had proposed $250,000 but the FAC approved $200,000 in the final resolutions,” Hoggan said. “Yes, we report all settlements entered into by the Sheriff each FAC meeting.”

“It’s not just the amount of dollars that are being expended or the number of settlements. The nature of settlements says what’s happening with the department,” Haseebullah says, adding he finds it troubling that the FAC is “investing so much power in one individual without any real checks and balances.” 

He says there’s been “a lack of credible oversight of the department across the board for the last several years. There’s been an increase to the budget without even a request for a stronger data presentation to show what’s going to be different.”

Hoggan says the average amount paid from the FAC approved settlements from 2012-2014 was $1,481,000.

But a study by a UCLA professor pegged the three-year average for Metro settlements from 2012 through 2014 at $2,296,197, or $780 for each of the department’s 2,942 commissioned officers at the time. By comparison, the Baltimore Police Department’s per capita cost at the time was $702; Dallas was $811; New York was $4,694; and Los Angeles was $3,064. 

Metro’s settlement cost per officer has more than doubled since that study, to $1,957 in 20/21 and $1,734 in 21/22.

Note: In 2020, Lombardo received authority from the Fiscal Affairs Committee to unilaterally approve settlements up to $200,000. Those settlements are no longer included in reports posted by Fiscal Affairs, and the amounts are unknown.

“There will likely continue to be an increased amount of settlements as we move forward because the department hasn’t shown significant accountability on a number of different issues,” says Hasseebullah.

Given the historic reluctance of prosecutors to charge law enforcement, and obstacles to filing civil suits against police, such as qualified immunity laws that protect them, settlements can be the only justice that victims of police wrongdoing receive.

Lombardo began his tenure as sheriff with settlements and judgments averaging below previous years. Fiscal Affairs approved eight payouts in 2015, Lombardo’s first year in office. In 2021, the committee paid 28 settlements. This year through July, Fiscal Affairs has paid 27 claims.  

Among them:

  • $1,885,000 in the death of Nicholas Farah, who died of asphyxia while being restrained by police.  
  • $250,000 to the Las Vegas Review-Journal related to Metro’s failure to release audio, video, and reports regarding the 2017 shooting massacre on the Las Vegas Strip.  

“… Mr. Lombardo should explain to voters why he chose to roll the dice with taxpayer funds and why his department so often prefers darkness to government accountability,” the paper wrote in an editorial.  

Other recent approvals from Fiscal Affairs during Lombardo’s tenure include: 

  • A 2020 settlement of $929,284 with the family of Tashi Farmer, who died after he was tased repeatedly and put in a neck restraint by Officer Kenneth Lopera. 
  • A 2020 settlement of $995,000 to Patricia Fitzpatrick for the death of Jeremiah Bowling, who was murdered by his cellmate. Fitzpatrick alleged jail personnel failed to perform adequate safety checks on inmates. 
  • A $3 million settlement (Metro’s share) of a total $14.5 million paid in the wrongful conviction case filed in 2019 by DeMarlo Berry, who was convicted in 1994 of a murder he did not commit and spent two decades in prison. 

“As you can see, a few cases can have a great impact on the yearly totals,” Gibson noted via email. 

Metro has averaged just under nine traffic accident settlements a year since Lombardo took office in 2015, and paid at least 70 accident-related settlements.

The number of accident settlements spiked to 23 in 2021, just as a cap increased from $100,000 to $150,000. The state cap on accident settlements increased again July 1 of this year from $150,000 to $200,000. 

Gibson says the accident numbers “have increased commensurate with increased officers and traffic on the road.” Metro has added almost 600 officers since Lombardo took office.   

“We are seeing some damage claims at the new cap levels,” Gibson said. “Usually, it takes some time for cases to work through the court system and we expect the new cap to have impact next year.”

The hidden cost 

The settlement amounts cited in this story do not include Metro’s attorney fees, paid to private law firms contracted to defend the police.

In FY 18/19, Metro paid $2.8 million in legal fees; $3.2 million in FY 19/20; $3.4 million in FY 20/21; and $4.1 million in FY 21/22.

“Please keep in mind these include all attorney fees for any legal defense to include civil rights, auto accident, or contract disputes,” Hoggan said via email.

The Office of the General Counsel, which is responsible for hiring outside counsel to defend Metro, receives an annual budget of just under $6 million. 

In 2013, then-Clark County Commission chairman and Fiscal Affairs committee member Steve Sisolak, who is now governor and is facing a challenge from Lombardo, told the Las Vegas Sun that Metro could be more transparent about attorney fees, which are not provided to the public, and totaled $3 million in 2012.  

“It’s the same old thing with the attorneys’ fees. You get to the eleventh hour and you settle these cases,” Sisolak said in 2013. “Maybe that’s how you come to the determination of what’s fair to settle, but you spend millions in attorneys’ fees that could otherwise be saved or used for the settlement.”

Sisolak’s comments were directed at the time to Lombardo’s predecessor, Doug Gillespie, who incurred several high-price settlements during his tenure as sheriff.  

  • In 2011, Metro paid $1.5 million to Dwayne Jackson, a victim of a DNA mix-up who served nearly four years in prison for a robbery he didn’t commit.
  • Also in 2011, Metro paid $1 million to the family of Dustin Boone, who died in 2009 after officers placed him in a choke hold.
  • A 2010 undercover raid that was supposed to be captured by a TV crew went awry when police shot and killed Trevon Cole, an alleged marijuana dealer. In 2012, Metro paid Cole’s relatives $1.7 million, a record amount for Metro at the time.  
  • The widow of Stanley Gibson, an unarmed Gulf War veteran shot and killed by Metro in 2011, received $1.5 million from Metro in 2013.  

Stubbs says Metro could prove its interest in accountability by settling cases sooner and avoiding exorbitant legal fees on both sides. The $300,000 settlement he won this year cost Metro $205,029.80 in fees paid to the Kaempfer Crowell law firm for the department’s defense, according to documents obtained by the Current.  

“The hidden part of settlements is the cost to litigate them,” says musician and substitute teacher Brandon Summers, who was arrested in 2018 after he was told by a Metro officer to leave a skybridge on the Strip, where he was packing up after playing violin. Summers says he complied. When he began taking video of Metro engaging a man selling bottled water on the street, police confiscated Summers’ phone and took both men to jail. Summers was charged with obstructing the sidewalk. The charge was eventually dropped.  

Metro paid Summers $100,000 for violating his civil rights. A public records request reveals Metro paid law firm Marquis Aurbach Coffing $12,336.51 for its defense. 

Is the proliferation of police body cams generating more complaints against police? Not likely, according to experts.  

A UNLV study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice studied the number of complaints filed against LVMPD officers who wore body cameras compared with those who did not, and found a 16% decrease in complaints against the cops who donned the cameras.    

Settlements and judgments are paid by taxpayers from Metro’s budget. The agency has a self-insured fund to cover some of the costs.  The cash balance as of March was $18 million according to the Fiscal Affairs agenda.

Note: This story was updated with comment from Metro CFO Richard Hoggan. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.