Civil rights bar buoyed by $250K police misconduct verdict.


Byline: Pat Murphy

Civil rights lawyers are hailing a $250,000 federal jury verdict against the city of Springfield as a landmark victory in their battle against police misconduct in the state.

The jury in the 1983 action found that Springfield Officer Thomas Hervieux used excessive force and committed assault and battery in arresting plaintiff Lee Hutchins in his home on Jan. 20, 2013.

In addition to finding Hervieux individually liable for violating Hutchins' constitutional rights, the Jan. 29 verdict imposed municipal liability on Springfield under 1983 pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1978 decision in Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of New York.

Specifically, the jury found that Hutchins proved that the city was "deliberately indifferent" to the civil rights of its citizens through a "policy or custom" of inadequately supervising or disciplining its officers.

Edward M. Pikula, the city solicitor for Springfield, described the verdict as an "anomaly."

"I've been here trying cases since 1983 and this is the second time a jury has found in favor of a plaintiff on a Monell claim," Pikula said, adding that his office has seen juries reject such claims in "numerous" other cases.

The plaintiff was represented by Northampton lawyers Luke F. Ryan and David P. Hoose. According to Hoose, the verdict in Hutchins lays the groundwork for future Monell claims against Springfield.

"The fact remains that, at the [Springfield Police Department], they have had more than their share of difficulties," Hoose said. "And they don't seem to learn well from their mistakes."

'Tough' cases to win

Typically, 1983 actions involve claims against individual government actors.

However, the Supreme Court in Monell ruled that a local government is a "person" subject to liability under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Under Monell, local governing bodies and officials can be sued directly under 1983 when the alleged constitutional violation results from a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision that "may fairly be said to represent official policy."

In addition, like any other 1983 "person," local governments may be sued for deprivations of civil rights that result from a governmental "custom," even when the custom at issue has not received formal approval from decision-makers.

A Monell claim can be an effective tool for obtaining systemic or institutional change, said Sophia L. Hall, supervising attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston.

"[As a plaintiff,]...

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