An appeals court on Thursday upheld a Sacramento judge’s ruling that a police officer cannot invoke his city’s bankruptcy to reduce a federal judgment against himself for using excessive force during an arrest.
Vallejo police Officers Jason Potts and Eric Jensen were found by a jury in Sacramento federal court to have displayed “outrageous” conduct in “violently” attacking Jason Eugene Deocampo while arresting him.
Deocampo is owed $50,000 in damages awarded by the jury and $335,000 in attorneys’ fees and expenses awarded by U. S. District Judge William B. Shubb. The total may rise if Deocampo chooses to seek attorneys’ fees incurred in defending the officers’ appeal on the issue of who owes the money.
The officers claim it is Vallejo’s obligation under California law that requires cities to defend and indemnify their police officers sued for on-duty actions. If so, that would mean Deocampo would collect only 20 percent to 30 percent of the money under Vallejo’s plan for the adjustment of its debts approved by the U. S. Bankruptcy Court in 2011.
But Shubb rejected that notion, despite California’s law that places the debt with Vallejo. The judge reasoned that, because Deocampo obtained a federal civil rights judgment against Potts and Jensen personally, none of the debt was discharged as part of Vallejo’s bankruptcy.
In Thursday’s 25-page published opinion, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Shubb.
Deocampo’s attorney, John Burris, described his client Thursday as “a military veteran who was beaten and chased by Vallejo officers ... because he was asking questions about the officers’ physical conduct toward a young man in the neighborhood.”
Burris predicted the appellate decision “will have a major impact on other cases where cities in bankruptcy want to insulate their officers from paying for their misconduct.”
Attorneys for Vallejo and its officers did not respond to requests for comment. Deocampo could not be reached.
According to the appellate panel opinion, on the evening of March 28, 2003, Deocampo, a Native American, protested when he witnessed allegedly brutal treatment of a person by police officers on a Vallejo street. Potts and Jensen, both white, turned on and “beat Deocampo with their batons, and refused to stop even when he raised his hands in the air and said he would leave,” the panel recounted.
Deocampo was “falsely arrested and charged with resisting, delaying, and obstructing the police,” the three judges said in their order. The charges were ultimately dismissed, they added.
Deocampo filed a federal civil rights complaint in March 2006. Two years later, Vallejo filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
The panel noted that case law on municipal bankruptcy “is scant, and this appeal confronts us with a novel legal issue, of the kind that often surfaces when changing social and economic conditions awaken dormant statutes.”
The judges noted that the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1985 that a judgment against a government official in his or her personal capacity leads to liability “against the individual defendant” rather than the employer. Any award of damages “can be executed only against the official’s personal assets.”
Citing its own 9th Circuit precedent, the panel stated: “Vallejo may be obligated by (state) statute to indemnify the officers ... but this ‘purely intramural arrangement’ does not alter the fact that the judgment itself is binding on the officers and the officers alone.”
The opinion was authored by Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, with the concurrences of Judges John T. Noonan and Richard A. Paez.
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189