Editorial

When L.A. County delays court settlements, it delays justice

County officials want to protect the treasury, so they bargain hard and sometimes drag their feet

Los Angeles County jail inmates who need to use wheelchairs because of physical disabilities have had a tough time at the Men's Central Jail, in part because the physical layout of the complex makes it difficult for less than fully abled people to get around, but also because deputies punished them for failing to get out of their wheelchairs. Their treatment was a fairly clear violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, so they brought a class-action lawsuit against the county. It took the county five years to settle the case, which is about par for the course in such suits. But even then, with the parties in agreement, it still took an additional year for the Board of Supervisors to sign on to the settlement.

Joseph Ober was an inmate in another case; he said that deputies beat him without justification and denied him medical treatment. He and county lawyers reached a settlement in May, and one of the terms was final sign-off by the supervisors within 120 days. That deadline passed in August, and the court ordered the county to pay daily interest on the $400,000 settlement amount. The supervisors finally approved the agreement last week.

Sheriff's deputies stopped and questioned Long Beach Post reporter Greggory Moore when they found him photographing drivers for a story. Deputies also detained and questioned Shawn Nee for photographing Metro turnstiles and asked him whether he had ties to Al Qaeda, and similarly detained other photographers using their cameras in public. The photographers sued, and a settlement of the 1st Amendment lawsuit was reached nearly a year ago. But the supervisors still haven't approved the agreement.

County officials face an inherent tension when settling lawsuits. They want to protect the county treasury as much as possible, so they bargain hard and sometimes drag their feet in quest of a better deal. But they also have an obligation to make victims of county mistakes and misdeeds whole; and they must make sure that the problems that led to the suits are fixed. To that end, the supervisors understandably demand to see evidence of corrective action — so the same thing won't happen over and over — before they approve settlements.

But many of these delays cost the county additional money, as in the Ober case. In Nee's case, the settlement calls for the Sheriff's Department to stop detaining photographers engaged in legal activities, so it actually is, itself, the corrective action. The department has adopted new practices in accordance with the still-unapproved agreement.

Remedial plans are an appropriate part of the county's risk-management process, but they don't have to take so long. The board should put some pressure on sluggish departments to shorten the time between the date of settlement and the date of final approval. Or provide more resources for the departments to draw up the remediation plans. Or both.

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