ATLANTIC CITY - Decreasing lawsuit payouts and a recent court-ordered reimbursement for city legal fees show the city's new litigation strategies are working, officials said today.
City Solicitor Bruce Ward called a press conference at his office this morning to announce Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson ordered a plaintiff's attorney to pay the city $49,944. That's how much it cost city attorneys to fight a lawsuit filed four years ago by Brilant Sharifi for injuries he sustained during a scuffle with security and police officers at the now-defunct IGA grocery store on Atlantic Avenue.
In July, the supermarket company was ordered to pay Sharifi a $200,000 settlement, a written statement from Ward said.
But Nelson's Nov. 4 ruling was based on his agreement that Sharifi's claims against local police and government officials were frivolous, documents show.
It works like this: after the lawsuit was filed, the city filed a motion saying it would try to recoup legal expenses by convincing the court the money was spent defending frivolous claims. Sharifi's lawyer had 28 days to drop the claims against the city, or risk having to pay reimbursement if the court sided with the city, said attorney Tracy Riley, part of the city's legal team on the case.
Riley said the determination was a first for the city, at least within institutional memory.
Ward also sees it as proof his push to take most cases to trial is benefiting the city. Ward's office hopes that fighting lawsuits will eventually kill the perception that the city will automatically settle, Deputy Solicitor Irving Jacoby said.
"There's nothing on the table - in fact, there is no table," Ward said.
City lawyers have also been getting more cases dismissed, he said.
And the municipality is on track to spend about 70 percent less on lawsuit payouts this year than two years ago: numbers provided by Ward show annual legal settlements dropped from $2.2 million in 2009 to just over $600,000 as of Oct. 21.
Ward wasn't able to immediately provide case-by-case legal fees, but is working on compiling a quantitative analysis of his results for City Council. The governing body has faced a succession of requests to increase contracted pay to law firms - but Ward contends the bulk of that extra work stems from the tax appeal cases inundating the city.
The tax appeal situation also prompted the city to sue the firm that handled the revaluation for the city four years ago. The case is one of two filed by the city during the past five years, Ward said.