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'Fight nights' lawsuit settled, Cuyahoga juvenile court to offer apology in reconciliation hearing

Posted at 6:26 PM, Oct 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-29 18:26:25-04

After two guards at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center reportedly forced or allowed teenage inmates into so-called fight nights in 2016, the county has agreed to a nearly $180,000 settlement as part of a federal lawsuit brought forth by four teenagers.

The settlement is much more than the money, however, because juvenile court officials have – in an unprecedented step – agreed to apologize to the plaintiffs for what happened under their watch, attorneys said.

The so-called ‘fight nights’ happened on Friday nights over a three month period in mid-2016, according to the federal lawsuit brought forth by attorneys David Malik and Thomas Perotti.

The two veteran attorneys represented four men who were teenagers at the time of the alleged bouts. The lawsuit named Cuyahoga County; the juvenile detention center; guards Freddie Hodges and Joshua Zimmerman, as well as nine other unnamed guards.

According to the complaint, Hodges and Zimmerman orchestrated the bouts between the teenage inmates at the detention center, ordering the inmates not to punch each other in the face and to immediately shower in an effort to wash away the blood. Surveillance video obtained by News 5 shows the two guards letting two teenagers out of their cells before being escorted into a larger room.

One of the guards intently watched as the two inmates violently fought while the other guard stood idly by, the surveillance video shows.

Inmates who did not want to participate were forced to fight the largest and toughest juvenile, the lawsuit alleges.

Earlier this month, the Cuyahoga Council approved the settlement that the parties. In addition to providing $179,500 split amongst the four teenagers, a designated representative of the juvenile court system will personally apologize to the men. The men will also be afforded the opportunity to tell the court how the incident has impacted their lives and the psychological toll it took on them.

Malik said this unprecedented style of hearing was an important component in the settlement negotiations.

“We came up with this idea because there is a trend in the legal field now toward what’s called restorative justice,” Malik said. “Nobody is legally admitting fault but what they are doing is saying ‘whatever happened here, we’re sorry that it happened under out watch. And we want you to know we’re sorry.’ It’s rarely done. To create what I’m going to call a precedent means there might be a model that we can create for this for other cases.”

Perotti said the four men who filed the lawsuit are still suffering from sleeplessness, frequent nightmares, and post-traumatic stress.

“I mean every tort lawyer knows money doesn’t heal past wrongs,” Perotti said. “Restorative justice will be a healing mechanism, hopefully, that will help these kids get on the right track because they are young enough to where their lives can be turned around. That’s our hope. [It will be] first time in their life an authority figure will humble themselves to actually listen to what they have to say.”

The court’s apology could have a profound impact on the men, three of whom remain incarcerated, the attorneys said. Malik hopes the hearing will become commonplace in civil litigation where civil rights violations are alleged.

“I think anytime the government says I’m sorry I think it’s a learning lesson,” Malik said. “I think for anybody that has a whole brain there shouldn’t be any resistance in buying into this model.”

The final details of the hearing have not been worked out. However, Malik and Perotti expect the hearing to take place this week.