Minneapolis weighs ramifications of $20M settlement in Ruszczyk case

Attorney Bob Bennett speaks about the $20 million agreement.
Attorney Bob Bennett speaks May 3 about the $20 million agreement between the family of Justine Ruszczyk and city of Minneapolis to settle a lawsuit stemming from her 2017 killing by Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The city of Minneapolis' $20 million payout to the family of Justine Ruszczyk, killed by former police officer Mohamed Noor in 2017, is an outlier — and a big one.

The payout in that one case — the largest police misconduct settlement in the state of Minnesota — is nearly as large as the total amount of police misconduct settlements and judgments the city paid out over the past 15 years.

In the week since the Ruszczyk settlement was announced, city officials have been weighing its effect on how Minneapolis will negotiate ongoing and future police misconduct lawsuits. And it sets a new standard by which lawyers will measure future misconduct cases.

"You look to what prior settlements have been," said attorney Fred Goetz, who has been litigating civil rights cases for 30 years. "What are prior settlements in this area of similar cases? What are prior verdicts? And now we have a $20 million case. That raises the bar."

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Ruszczyk was a white woman from Australia, killed by a Somali-American officer. The city may feel the impact of that precedent in the near future, as it continues to negotiate a possible settlement in the case of Jamar Clark. Clark, who was African American, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in 2015. His father sued the city. Earlier this week, the attorney handling the lawsuit said in light of the big payout, he's going to push for a "transformative settlement." He wouldn't say how much was on the table, but called it "nominal."

On the same day the council voted to approve the Ruszczyk settlement, it rejected a possible deal in the Clark case.

Council member Cam Gordon said he can't discuss why the council voted the Clark deal down. He said it's possible that council members will consider the proportionality between the Ruszczyk payout amount and Clark's circumstances.

"It's something we'll be aware of and maybe implicitly will be influencing everybody's decision," said Gordon. "And we're going to be looking at similarities and differences in all past cases as we look at each new case that comes up in front of us."

A settlement conference in the Clark case is scheduled for later this month.

The Ruszczyk payout will come from the city's self-insurance fund. City departments pay into the fund with money they get directly from the public in user fees or indirectly through property taxes.

Workers compensation claims are the most common payouts from the fund, not police misconduct lawsuit settlements.

City chief financial officer Mark Ruff said the net balance of the fund is around $25 million. Although the Ruszczyk settlement amounts to 80 percent of that balance, Ruff said it will not drain the fund. He said the city has cash on hand to absorb variations in payouts from year to year.

Mpls. Mayor Frey, City Council Member Palmisano, Police Chief Arradondo
From left, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, City Council Member Linea Palmisano and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo listen to residents Tuesday, May 7, 2019, at the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community during listening session following the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

"But this is an impactful settlement," said Ruff. "So we'll certainly be mindful of that as we work with the mayor and the council for the rest of the year developing, not just the budget for 2020, but looking longer-term."

Ruff said budget talks routinely include discussions with department heads about how they can avoid payouts due to job-related accident claims or lawsuits.

Council vice president Andrea Jenkins is concerned about the financial impact the settlement will have on the city's self-insurance fund. And she recommended a basic way to repay the fund.

"The best way to compensate is to not have to continuously pay out these settlements," said Jenkins.

Jenkins said she's confident in Police Chief Medaria Arradondo's ability to make changes in police training and culture that will reduce use of deadly force — and future possible lawsuits. And she said Noor's murder and manslaughter convictions will deter officers from using excessive force in the future. Jenkins said she also wants to make sure that the standards which determine criminal action by officers are equally applied — no matter the race of the officer or the race of the person who experienced the force.

"When that becomes a reality, then I think the community will think there is justice for all," said Jenkins.

Use of force by Minneapolis police has been dropping over the past few years. The number of officer misconduct settlements has also decreased over a similar period.