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Settling for Less: Why the City of Cleveland spends millions of taxpayer dollars settling lawsuits

Posted: 5:38 AM, Feb 23, 2018
Updated: 2018-02-27 15:49:23-05

Mismanagement, misconduct and mistakes.Who pays the price when problems arise in the City of Cleveland? Taxpayers. Our exclusive 5 On Your Side Investigation found Cleveland spent millions of dollars settling lawsuits over the last four years.

 
 

A Life-Altering Injury

“I’m just thankful that I have breath,” said Renaldo Gates. “I have life. I’m here. Because it could have been over.”

"I went to play basketball."

On Oct, 11, 2014, Gates was playing basketball at Fairfax Recreation Center on the city’s east side.

As he planted for a layup, he felt like he stepped in a puddle.

He slipped. His left leg snapped.

 

Gates said the fall ruptured every ligament and tendon in his knee and tore an artery.

He spent the next two months in a nursing home.

While recovering, he learned the center’s roof had a leak.

“No one warned me,” he said. “There wasn’t a discussion.”

One frustrating day inside the dark, dreary facility, he decided to file a lawsuit.

“It wasn’t really my fault,” he said about his fall. “I just went to play basketball.” 

A Wake-up Call

Our 5 On Your Side Investigation found Gates' case was one of 184 lawsuits filed against the City of Cleveland between Jan. 1, 2013 and Jan. 1, 2018. 

Our team added up the amount from each settlement. 

We found the lawsuits cost taxpayers at least $27,084,885. 

Click  here  for a list of city settlements  between 2014-2017.

“Obviously, it has an impact on their taxes and on the services they receive,” Jonathan Witmer-Rich said.

 

Witmer-Rich teaches criminal law and criminal procedure at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. 

“The money is coming from the taxpayer and in addition, the money that is paid out in settlements is money that cannot be, is not available to be spent on services, on improving the public schools or… fixing the roads, or what have you,” he said.  “You want to again get ahead of these problems and invest your money in repairing things on the front end rather than simply cleaning up afterwards.” 

We also found 73 percent of the money paid out by the city was the result of cases from one department. 

Lawsuits involving the Cleveland Division of Police added up to more than $19 million.

 

 

“That number, the amount of money that the city has to spend in settlements should be a real wake-up call to people to say it’s worth it to invest in effective policing, in good training, in giving police officers the equipment that they need and then in holding accountable the officers that aren’t following the guidelines and aren’t doing it right,” he said.

A Plea for Help

The City of Cleveland did start investing more in training and equipment for its police officers a few years ago. 

However, the changes were sparked by a very different type of settlement agreement. 

The city was forced to make changes after a 2014 investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found police have a “pattern and practice” of using excessive force. 

The changes came too late to save Tanisha Anderson. 

RELATED:

 

 

 

Grand jury clears Cleveland police officers in Tanisha Anderson's death

 

 

 

City of Cleveland settles with family of Tanisha Anderson

 

The 37-year-old woman died on an icy sidewalk outside her home in November 2014 after her family called for mental health assistance.

Instead of an ambulance, two Cleveland police officers arrived and restrained Anderson. 

The initial autopsy found she died due “to being restrained in a prone position.” However, a second autopsy found she died as a result of a previous heart condition or medication. 

Anderson’s mother, Cassandra Johnson, told 5 On Your Side Investigators Anderson did not have a heart condition. 

She also said officers did not need to restrain her daughter.

 “My daughter wasn’t armed," she said. "She wasn’t violent. She doesn’t even have a history of a traffic ticket."

Tanisha Anderson’s family settled its lawsuit with the city for $2.25 million.

A Familiar Subject

Our investigation also found the city paid more than $2 million as a result of lawsuits involving two departments 5 On Your Side Investigators have told you about for the last two years. 

The Cleveland Water Department , known for bungling customers’ bills, was sued 49 times over the four-year time period reviewed by our team. 

DROWNING IN DYSFUNCTION: Our investigation into the Cleveland Division of Water

 

The Division of Streets, which struggles to keep the city’s roads free from potholes, was sued 18 times during the same time period. 

RELATED: Broken Roads, Broken System

 

“The lawsuits are troubling for me,” said Basheer Jones, the newly elected councilman in Ward 7 on the city’s east side. “These are resources that could have been invested in other ways, in other places.”

Places like Thurgood Marshall Recreation Center. It’s roof leaks onto the center’s basketball court.

 

This comes three years after Gates’ fall at Fairfax Recreation Center.

“When we tell our young people that we want them to get off the corner, but we send them to rec centers that are falling apart, this sends mixed messages,” Jones said.

“What this tells me is that there are some fundamental indiscretions,” Gates said. “No one person can fix this.”

A spokesperson for the City of Cleveland declined our requests for an on-camera interview. During a phone conversation, Director of Law Barbara Langhenry said the city often reviews its policies when a lawsuit reveals a problem. However, the city was unable to cite any specific examples of policies that were changed as a result of a legal settlement.

Langhenry also said that settling a lawsuit does not mean the city admits liability or wrongdoing. She explained it can "make more economic sense" to settle a lawsuit rather than risk a lengthy and expensive trial.