José Luis Villegas / jvillegas@sacbee.com

Attorney Stewart Katz was awarded more than $330,000 in fees and expenses by the judge in a civil rights case after the jury voted only a token award.

Judge awards attorney fees in civil rights case against Sacramento jail

Published: Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011 - 3:55 pm

If there were no Stewart Katz, many of those he represents would have no attorney.

Among his clients are down-and-outers, dopers, boozers, street people, ex-convicts, petty crooks and others with grievances and nowhere else to take them.

They are the dispossessed, with no money and no way to get any. Katz takes their cases knowing he won't get paid and will be out expenses when he doesn't prevail.

He is a hated man among law enforcement agencies in the Sacramento region because of the civil rights complaints he continually bombards them with on behalf of people who generally are anathema to police. People, many would say, who have forfeited their rights to equal protection under the law.

But earlier this month, in a case tried last winter in federal court, Katz got a welcome pat on the back. It was a typical Katz case, with the client, Drake Jones, claiming he had been brutalized by deputies while an inmate at the Sacramento County Main Jail.

The jury found excessive force had been used and that each of four deputies and a sergeant "acted maliciously, oppressively or in reckless disregard" of Jones' constitutional rights, but it voted only token compensatory damages of $31,000.

On Aug. 12, U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd ordered the county to pay fees, costs and expenses totaling $331,225 to Katz; an associate in his office, Guy Danilowitz; and Joseph George Jr., an attorney he sometimes works with.

Quoting from a 2009 federal appellate opinion, Drozd wrote: "The (U.S.) Supreme Court has … indicated that when a decision has 'served the public interest by vindicating important constitutional rights' an award of attorney's fees that is disproportionate to the actual damages may be appropriate.

"This is such a case," Drozd wrote in his 36-page order.

"Achieving such a verdict is no easy task, and obtaining the … finding" of malice, oppression and recklessness "is even more difficult," Drozd said. "Moreover, such verdicts are significant in that they represent a determination by citizens … that the defendant law enforcement officers' conduct … was prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. The court trusts that the defendants and those in their department will take heed of the verdict and adjust their future conduct accordingly."

Drozd also quoted a 2008 federal appellate opinion, saying the lawsuit should "act as a deterrent to law enforcement and serve the public purpose of helping to protect the plaintiff and persons like him from being subjected to similar unlawful treatment in the future."

The county has paid $282,624 to John Lavra and his Sacramento law firm, Longyear, O'Dea & Lavra LLP, to defend the case so far, according to Randy Rendig, account manager of the county's liability claims.

He said the county is considering an appeal of Katz's fee award, which has been accruing 10 percent interest since April 12.

Katz believes his job was made more difficult by the unsavory information about Jones that reached the jury. Lavra cross-examined Jones on his drug use, about other occasions when he was in jail, old criminal convictions and a history of contacts with law enforcement.

Drozd acknowledged in his order that "this case may well have had more to do with the jury finding plaintiff to be an unsympathetic figure who was significantly emotionally damaged prior to this incident than with the jury's evaluation of the defendants' constitutionally prohibited conduct."

On the positive side of the ledger, Jones was once a youth minister and a successful soul-food restaurateur more recently down on his luck.

He was not looking for trouble on Aug. 5, 2008. As he helped a friend move, he got into a dispute with a locksmith who had come to the house to change the locks. Jones, 46 at the time, wound up arrested and booked into the jail, although no charges were ever filed.

He was initially placed in a "sobering cell," although he was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. When sewer water bubbled up through a grate and flooded the cell floor, deputies mistakenly thought Jones had deliberately clogged the toilet. While a sergeant watched, four deputies took Jones face-down on the cell floor – he claimed in raw sewage – handcuffed and shackled him and moved him to a "safety cell."

For between one and two hours he was left lying on his stomach on the floor in soaked clothes, his hands and legs bound, and his pants pulled down around his ankles.

The deputies returned and asked if he had "had enough." He said, "Yes," and they removed the handcuffs and shackles. An hour later he was moved to a third cell with other inmates, and was eventually released.

Rejecting Jones' claim that his face and body had been pushed into feces and urine, the jury found there was no excessive force used in the sobering cell. It found, however, that the conditions under which he was left in the safety cell was excessive force in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, and found that the sergeant violated his Fourth Amendment rights by failing to supervise the deputies.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Denny Walsh



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