Human Rights Defense Center Sues LA County for Wrongful Withholding of Misconduct Claims

Los Angeles County Alex Sheriff Villanueva

By Ankita Joshi and Stephanie Boulos

LOS ANGELES, CA – The Human Rights Defense Center is seeking a court order alleging that the Sheriff’s Department and DAs office has been refusing to disclose about 1,000 misconduct claims and lawsuits against them, and requesting that these records be released.

In a filing at the end of April, the Human rights Defense Center alleged for roughly three years, from early 2018 to December 2020, the County has denied three California Public Records Act requests to disclose important records revealing around 1,000 claims against the Sheriff’s Department for wrongful deaths, excessive force, sexual assaults and the DA’s office for other misconduct.

The HRDC is also alleging that the search for the records wasn’t made because the County is insisting it is simply too hard to even try.

The HRDC is also alleging that there is a high level of public interest in these records because over the past eight years, taxpayers have paid more than half a billion dollars to hire lawyers and pay settlements and court judgements to resolve pre-litigation claims and lawsuits for serious misconduct by the Sheriff’s Department.

Next, the HRDC is alleging that in response to the HRDC’s CPRA 2020 request, the County refused to make a reasonable effort to search for pre-litigation claims, lawsuits, settlement agreements, and court judgments.

The County simply claimed the request for “voluminous” records for 1,000 settled claims and lawsuits was “overly broad and burdensome” and the “public interest” in keeping the records secret “far outweighed the public interest” in making the records public.

The pleading note that although the County was initially helpful, it refused to search for or produce the other requested records – lawsuits, settlement agreements, and court judgments – saying the request was “overly broad and burdensome” and the public interest weighed in favor of secrecy.

The County was able to provide the HRDC with three spreadsheets listing the case names, case numbers, and payment amounts for settlement agreements and court judgments for the approximately 1,000 pre-litigation claims and lawsuits settled against the Sheriff’s Department and DA’s office between January 1, 2010 and June 30, 2019.

At the same time the County claimed it was too “burdensome” in 2018 and 2020 to locate the requested claims, lawsuits, settlement agreements, and court judgments.

The County was able to list the court case numbers, facts of the cases, names of the victims (but not of the deputies), settlement payments, and court judgment payments for what it called the “costliest” cases against the Sheriff’s Department in the County’s most recent Annual Litigation Cost Reports, which are posted online for the public.

The HRDC is alleging that the County’s repeated refusal to make a reasonable search for these records blocks the HRDC and the public from monitoring the Sheriff’s Department, the District Attorney’s Office, the County Board of Supervisors, and other County agencies that approved these settlements.

The HRDC is also alleging that the records provide important details about the shootings, car crashes, sexual assaults, beatings, prosecutorial misconduct, and other serious misconduct by these two agencies, and they are of utmost public interest, especially when the public needs more information as it considers police reform.

Under the facts listed in supporting this action, the first is the County Counsel’s Annual Litigation Cost Reports, which are submitted each year, the “costliest” cases, reports list the court case numbers, the names of some of the plaintiffs and victims, the facts of the cases and payments for settlements and court judgments.

The HRDC’s first, second and third CPRA requests are also listed as facts supporting this action, along with the County’s March 7, 2019 denial for “the names of all the parties involved” and “complaints and writings that resolved them” on the grounds that “the requested records are exempt from disclosure under several authorities.

The County’s very similar and non-complying response in August 11, 2020 was listed as well, with the county saying the request was “unduly burdensome” because the request sought “an enormous volume of data”.

After the HRDC sent a letter to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors over the repeated failure to provide any progress reports on the request of records. In response the County provided several spreadsheets pertaining to certain lawsuits involving deputy gang members and the payment of settlements and lawsuits involving the Sheriff’s Department and DA’s office.

The cause of action behind this case is for Violations of the California Public Records Act.

After several back and forth emails without any indication of disclosures of the documents would be given, ta law student requested to schedule a call with the supervising county counsel to discuss the request to disclose the documents in more detail.

In an email, HRDC asks The Board of Supervisors to “instruct your law firm to stop stalling and begin producing these documents on an expedited basis,” and again provides a detailed list of the requested documents.

The HRDC’s request for copies of government claims was addressed as “an undue burden… especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when County employees are working remotely and may not have full access to resources and data,” and invites the HRDC to inspect documents themselves once restrictions have been lifted.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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