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February 4, 2009

The people’s court

Metro Louisville is entangled in 300 lawsuits, with no end in sight

Just last month, Louisville Metro government was named as a defendant in three separate lawsuits challenging Mayor Jerry Abramson’s authority.

It turns out such lawsuits are quite common in Louisville, where many union leaders, neighborhood groups and residents embroiled in litigation say legal action is the only option to handle grievances with the city.

Currently, there are 300 active civil lawsuits pending against Metro government at various stages in the legal process.

It might sound like a lot, but Bill Patteson, a spokesman for the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office, says the city’s current caseload is relatively light for a city this size.

“Currently we are nowhere near our threshold,” he says. “But the volume and complexity of the caseloads does matter because it could affect our ability to give quality legal representation to Metro government.”

It appears Metro Louisville — with a population of about 557,000 — is in fact on par with regional cities of similar size. Officials in Indianapolis say they have 254 open lawsuits against the city with a population of 795,000. Our neighbors to the south in Nashville, however, are entangled in 362 civil lawsuits with a slightly larger population of 590,000.

One of the more contentious civil actions Louisville has faced in recent months was filed in response to the mayor’s decision to raise the cost for police officers to take home their cruisers, an effort to chip away at the city’s projected $20 million budget shortfall. The Fraternal Order of Police filed suit in December, claiming a fee hike could only be negotiated through their contracts, not mandated by the mayor.

John McGuire, FOP president, says it is unfortunate people have to take the city to court over these issues, but he believes such lawsuits are necessary due to an imbalance of power in the city’s political structure.

“The way Metro government is set up gives an unbelievable amount of power to the mayor and limits the power that the Metro Council has,” McGuire says. “I believe the saying is absolute power creates absolute corruption. If that’s not the case here in Louisville, it’s at least the perception.”

Although a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge initially granted an injunction and declared the policy change would “irreparably harm” officers, the state court of appeals overturned that decision, granting a victory to Metro government.

And while this particular fight might be over, McGuire says the FOP likely will encounter additional labor grievances that could end up in court later this year. Though he wouldn’t comment on the specifics of possible litigation, he says the legal system has become the only place citizens and employees have a fighting chance against the administration.

In 2008, Louisville Metro was named in 110 lawsuits, the bulk of which were complaints ranging from excessive force by corrections officers to vehicular damage claims due to potholes.

The three lawsuits filed in January 2009 garnered vast media attention and all attempted to reverse some of the mayor’s recent cost-cutting decisions.

The Teamsters union — which represents the majority of city employees — filed a lawsuit attempting to stop the administration’s plan to furlough city workers; a hearing date in that case has not been set.

Several Old Louisville neighborhood groups filed suit in an effort to re-open the historic Engine 7 firehouse at 6th and York streets, which the mayor closed earlier this year to save money. In that case, a judge ruled in favor of the city.

The Louisville firefighters union also sued the city last month, alleging the mayor cut their state incentive pay as retaliation for a previous ruling that awarded firefighters millions in unpaid overtime.

Despite the high-profile nature of these recent suits, city officials are not overly concerned.

“The city gets sued all the time,” says Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman for the mayor. “It is unusual that they’ve come consecutively from the unions in recent months.”

Declining to comment on the political nature of the recent litigation, Richardson says the administration’s decision to pursue a case is based solely on the county attorney’s legal advice and never who the plaintiffs are or what they’re seeking.

“The county attorney makes a recommendation and we usually take their advice very seriously,” she says. “But we make a case-by-case decision on whether to pursue.”

It’s tough to quantify exactly how much the city (meaning taxpayers) spends on litigation because unlike private law firms, the county attorney’s office does not use a billable hour system to track costs.

Occasionally, complex cases require the county attorney to ask Metro Council for additional funding, but officials say such instances are rare.

Attorney Jon Fleischaker has represented a number of plaintiffs in lawsuits against the city, including the ongoing federal lawsuit challenging the city’s dog ordinance, which has been characterized by those suing as overbearing and invasive.

According to Fleischaker, suing Metro government means battling a powerful public institution with an almost limitless financial resource: taxpayers.

“They’re not spending their own money, so they have a lot deeper pockets than most companies or private citizens,” he says. “I have represented a lot of people who are not wealthy, who are standing on principle, and it’s a very expensive process for them.”

The Jefferson County Attorney’s Office receives $20 million annually from city and state funding sources for its criminal, civil and child support divisions. The civil division has a $3 million budget that employs approximately 30 attorneys working on a salary scale ranging from $35,700 to $112,000.

High-priced settlements can complicate the economic picture for the city, like the firefighters’ lawsuit seeking overtime pay. In that case, firefighters have won at every level and the resulting settlement could cost the city at least $17 million in owed back pay.

In the dog ordinance case, Fleischaker says his clients simply disagree with the law and the process by which it was passed. However, he understands that many plaintiffs in other suits against the city might feel disempowered.

“The problem in dealing with the city is you’re dealing with a bureaucracy,” says Fleischaker, “so you don’t feel you’re being heard.”