Sunday, July 14, 2024

A June 12 document from the city’s Law Department shows financial details of a lawsuits alleging discrimination by city officials. (Source: City Council)

There are six civil rights lawsuits pending against the city similar to the five lost or settled since 1998 at a cost of $14.6 million, according to a memo discussed at Monday’s meeting of the City Council. In addition, a similar case has been settled, for a total of six such cases that have cost the city.

The figure did not include the cost of staff time, acting City Solicitor Nancy Glowa said in the memo.

Her answers came in response to a June 11 request by councillor Craig Kelley, who brought forward the answers at the Monday meeting with a rebuke to City Manager Robert W. Healy and requests to hear what would be done to prevent similar legal problems and for apologies for the plaintiffs.

“To think that this can happen and we wouldn’t as a body think an apology is necessary continues to surprise me,” Kelley said. “Or that asking how we can make sure this can’t happen again isn’ t necessary, when according to this memo from the Law Department there are currently six similar cases pending in three departments. I would prefer not to have this same thing repeated six times. And I would be interested in why people wouldn’t support this, which clearly is the case for some.”

Indeed, when it had come time for councillors to choose which policy orders they wanted to discuss, Mayor Henrietta Davis and councillor Tim Toomey took the unusual step of saying — long before discussion took place — they would be voting against Kelley’s requests.

Kelley had support elsewhere on the council, though, including from Ken Reeves.

“I want to thank councillor Kelley for bringing this order in. We do seem to have this elephant in the city,” Reeves said. “I have never seen more group denial and avoidance on a very important question … this needed to be brought up, and I do think the council should own that our CEO really messed up. The inability to acknowledge and own that is an unfortunate thing.”

The cases

Five women of color sued the city in 1998, claiming racial discrimination and retaliation. Two dropped out their fight and moved out of state, but the remaining lawsuits worked their way through the courts from 2001 through September, when lead plaintiff Malvina Monteiro and her lawyer got $8.3 million from Cambridge, and October, when the remaining two plaintiffs and law firm Burns & Levinson got a combined $3.9 million. At roughly the same time it was announced Harvard neuroscientist S. Allen Counter had settled his lawsuit against city police in July for an undisclosed sum after being arrested in 2006 on a domestic violence charge that was later dropped. He filed the suit in 2009, after the arrest of fellow Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. on charges that were also dropped. Both are black.

There were no details given about the six ongoing lawsuits except that they were “similar” to those led by Monteiro, and no further details were requested publicly by the council.

But their existence worried councillor Leland Cheung enough that, although he shared Reeves’ sentiments about a situation that began long before he was elected, apologies might have to wait if they conflicted with the terms of legal settlements or could be used against the city in any of the pending lawsuits, “putting taxpayers at risk for greater losses.” Some $12 million of the total cost to the city was taken this year from a free cash fund of $100.2 million.

Referred to committee

Cheung’s concerns nearly sent the issue back for legal advice or to the council’s Finance or Government Operations committees.

“I don’t think we should dance around in apologizing for it. The person who was found to have done, at least at trial, this bad thing, was the person who we hired,” Kelley said, referring to Healy, who was named in the lawsuit and added millions to its cost by deciding to appeal. “Talking about this and parsing it and sending it to committee and worrying about what it exposes us to — I don’t personally see how it could expose us to anything we’re not already exposed to. I would prefer it not to go anywhere. I would prefer it to be passed tonight.”

That wasn’t to happen. The council voted 5-4 to send it to the Civic Unity Committee so that, in Reeves’ words, “there’s a healing portion to this.”

The chairwoman of that committee, Denise Simmons, at first welcomed the meeting, saying that there were members interested in having the discussion. After hearing Kelley, she was among the minority voting against sending the policy order to committee, along with Kelley, Toomey and David Maher.

Also speaking in general support of Kelley’s requests was Minka vanBeuzekom, who began her first term in January, after the four lawsuits had been dealt with. She brought up Glowa’s memo, which was the last page of a committee report, as “so valuable, I don’t want it to get buried.” She also proposed breaking off the part of Kelley’s orders dealing with procedures to prevent future lawsuits because from the June 11 meeting of the Finance Committee, “I didn’t get the sense there had been anything put in place.”

Her memory was correct. Healy had said the city has anti-discrimination policies and training in place, but when vanBeuzekom asked if the city had made an extra effort since the lawsuits, Healy said simply: “No.”