Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Milwaukee Spending $1.5 Million On Lawsuits, Including Two Police Conduct Cases

And another $1.5 million in settlements is pending.

By - Oct 17th, 2022 02:40 pm
Jericho / CC BY (

Jericho / CC BY (

The City of Milwaukee will raid its contingency fund to pay $1.53 million in legal settlements and court rulings. Approximately two-thirds will go toward Milwaukee Police Department cases.

The highest payment from the 20 cases is for the settlement of a lawsuit stemming from an incident where Tari Davis was shot in the stomach during a police chase. The city will pay $450,000 under the agreement. Davis was shot standing outside his back door after police conducted a 14-mile high-speed chase of another man, who Davis knew, for running a red light. Both Davis and the other man, Kevin Brown, were unarmed. Davis ended up chained to a bed in a hospital.

Officer Nikolas Zens, who fired the shot, was ultimately fired for the September 2019 incident, but was not charged. Zens was fired by then-chief Alfonso Morales shortly after the Fire & Police Commission gave Morales a series of directives, including to provide a report on what happened during the Davis shooting. Davis is represented by Verona Swanigan on his federal lawsuit.

Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic voted against the settlement with Davis after a city committee reviewed it. “I am objecting just on a protest vote. I am sick of these,” she said on Oct. 3 to members of the Judiciary & Legislation Committee, noting she wants fewer policing incidents. The alderwoman noted the $1.5 million transfer comes at a time when the city is experiencing major budget issues. She called for Deputy City Attorney Robin A. Pederson to report whether the city’s policing payouts are on par with other cities.

“I am reluctantly supporting this,” said Alderman Michael Murphy, echoing Dimitrijevic’s sentiment, but voting for the measure.

Both joined their colleagues in unanimously voting for the settlement and fund transfer when they were before the full council on Oct. 11.

The second most expensive incident is not a settlement. JerPaul Spencer prevailed in his case against the city in July, with a federal court awarding $386,000 to Spencer and his attorney Nathaniel Cade. A federal jury found that Spencer’s constitutional rights were violated by officer Michael Valuch Jr. and then-officer Michael Vagnini during three separate interactions in 2011. The council unanimously rejected a settlement offer of $270,000 in March with Alderman Robert Bauman questioning if City Attorney Tearman Spencer was advocating on the defendant’s behalf. JerPaul Spencer, then 17, was convicted of second-degree homicide for an incident that same year.

Vagnini served time in prison related to his and other officers’ practice of conducting illegal strip searches. The city previously paid a $5 million settlement to 74 victims.

Under the fund transfer, the city will also pay Marilyn Walton $250,000 as she was “struck by MPD captain while operating an MPD vehicle not in emergency mode” according to a City Attorney’s report.

Other payouts include previously authorized settlements with John J. Munoz, Jr. who alleged excessive force during a 2012 arrest ($10,000) and Norma Lewis for an employment discrimination claim ($8,000).

There is also an $80,000 settlement for when a city truck crashed into a van with two elderly passengers and a $50,000 settlement for a cyclist injured by “excessive beading” on a freshly painted section of the Hank Aaron State Trail.

Many of the claims are for smaller amounts. That includes two claims related to the same incident where an MPD officer “failed to the yield the right of way at a stop sign while transporting a prisoner to Tennessee, striking claimant’s vehicle.” The city will pay out $26,000 for that collision.

At least four of the smaller settlements are for garage truck drivers colliding with other vehicles or buildings.

How Much Is the City Spending on Settlements?

Settlement spending is down for the city, a point of pride for City Attorney Spencer.

The city spent $9.5 million in 2017, $3.9 million in 2018, $13.5 million in 2019, $6.9 million in 2021 and $3.1 million in 2022 according to budget director Nik Kovac.

“Compared to other years, we’re low overall, but that’s because we [previously] had some multi-million dollar ones,” said Kovac to the Judiciary & Legislation Committee on Oct. 3.

That didn’t stop the committee from pushing the City Attorney’s Office for more data, especially with an additional $1.5 million in settlements publicly pending.

Pederson said the city was long represented by the recently-retired attorney Patricia Fricker in many of the motor-vehicle claims. “She almost single handily for many years handled these types of cases. She tried them regularly. I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that when they all come in we pay them all out, that’s not the case,” he said. “I would have to look at the numbers, but we try these cases on a regular basis to protect the city’s interests in that matter and also there are a number of other cases that never reach settlement or that we win.”

But it’s already the second time the council has transferred money to the city’s settlement account this year. It transferred $850,000 in April, even after the account started the year with $1.23 million in new funding. Another $100,000 was moved in July. At the City Attorney’s request, the contingency fund has also been tapped for outside counsel and expert witness payments.

The transfer of funds is somewhat by design. The city’s settlement account is deliberately underfunded each year, part of a legal strategy that Spencer declined to discuss in public when the budget for his office was discussed Sept. 29.

“There is a reason not to go high,” said Kovac before Spencer advised him not to discuss it any further. The contingency fund is seeded with $5 million.

“For the public, I can give a hypothetical,” said the attorney. “If you have more money, you spend more money.” Translation: outside attorneys will see a bigger pot available and come for it.

Pending Settlements

Two sizable settlements are poised to hit the city sooner rather than later.

A 2020 class action lawsuit by firefighter Karl Kraai alleges the Milwaukee Fire Department did not properly pay overtime. Federal court records indicate a $1.15 million settlement was reached in August, but Kovac said the city intends to approve payment in January.

A second settlement is pending for former city diversity recruiter Royce Flowers Nash. Nash would receive $250,000 and his attorney Peter J. Fox‘s firm, Fox & Fox, S.C., would receive $150,000. Flowers Nash alleged his Civil Rights were violated during his employment with the Department of Employee Relations. In 2019, the council unanimously refused a $145,000 proposed settlement with Nash.

Policy Change

A number of the settlements were approved by the City Attorney without Common Council authorization under a previously established framework. Without needing a council vote, the City Attorney’s Office was authorized to settle any claim for under $5,000 or any vehicle-related settlements for up to $250,000.

Common Council President Jose G. Perez successfully introduced an ordinance change that lowers the City Attorney’s discretionary settlement amount from $250,000 to $50,000 for vehicle-related claims.

“I am not saying the City Attorney’s Office shouldn’t do it, but I think we should be briefed and have that go through this committee like we do all of the other cases above $50,000,” said Perez to members of the Judiciary & Legislation Committee. Neither Pederson, nor Spencer, objected to the policy change. The full council unanimously approved the change.

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Categories: City Hall, Politics, Weekly

2 thoughts on “City Hall: Milwaukee Spending $1.5 Million On Lawsuits, Including Two Police Conduct Cases”

  1. David Coles says:

    Terrific reporting. You just don’t see this kind of coverage in the Journal Sentinel.

  2. Mingus says:

    The Police Union always supports Republicans who continually underfund City Services while they rack up costly legal settlements which help drain the City’s treasury.

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