A lawsuit brought by a black former police officer, who sued the city for racial discrimination after he was fired in 1982, will be dropped in exchange for an undisclosed amount of money.
Lucky K. Lucky, 34, filed a $75-million suit in federal court, charging that his firing was "racially motivated" and that he has suffered emotional and economic injuries as a result.
But the settlement is cloaked in as much mystery as the case itself has been.
When the trial was set to begin three weeks ago, U.S. District Judge William D. Keller filed a gag order, prohibiting the lawyers involved from speaking with the media.
And now, lawyers for Signal Hill and the four other defendants have agreed to settle the case but are insisting that the amount be secret.
In addition, Lucky himself has disappeared. According to his attorney, the former officer does not even know that an agreement has been reached.
'He's Been Missing'
"I don't know if he (Lucky) is pleased," Stephen Yagman, Lucky's lawyer, said Thursday morning. "He's been missing since last Tuesday (Feb. 26). . . . But I am extremely happy. I think the fact that it's being settled in return for the payment of a sum of money is an acknowledgement of the fact that they were wrong."
Sources close to the case say Yagman agreed to settle for less than $50,000.
Although he refused to discuss the settlement figure, Yagman said the amount is adequate and he has Lucky's approval to settle the case.
"I consider the amount of money being paid to be very reasonable or I wouldn't agree to the settlement," he said.
William Kannow and John Daly, attorneys for the five defendants, refused to comment on the case and the settlement.
According to the suit, on Nov. 23, 1982, Lucky and Charles Abney, a white Signal Hill police officer, got into a fight in a bar and restaurant called Lido's while they were off duty.
Yagman contends that Abney provoked Lucky, started a verbal argument, made disparaging racial remarks about Lucky and other blacks and swung first. When the fight ended, Yagman said, Abney went to the police department and reported that Lucky had beaten him up.
Fired After Investigation
As a result of the fight, Lucky was placed on administrative leave and was fired after an internal affairs investigation. Abney was neither fired nor reprimanded, Yagman said. He later left the department to work for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.
Yagman contends that Lucky's firing and experiences while an officer in Signal Hill are proof of institutional racism in the police department.
"Before hiring Lucky, they never had a black officer in about 50 years," Yagman said. "When Lucky was fired they hired a black officer to replace him. . . . The discipline meted out to Lucky is totally disproportionate to any punishment meted out to any white police officer."
In addition to court costs and attorney's fees, Lucky asked for $15 million in actual and punitive damages from each of five defendants: the city, Police Chief Michael McCrary, Sgt. James Butzbach, then-City Manager David A. Caretto and Abney.
Since being fired from Signal Hill, Lucky has tried unsuccessfully to find police work elsewhere, Yagman said. Lucky worked for a short time on the police department of Adelanto, a small city near Victorville, but was fired along with the chief who hired him and most of the other officers the chief had hired, Yagman said.
'Difficult to Find Work'
"It's very difficult to find work as a police officer after allegedly being fired for violent conduct," Yagman said.
The suit was scheduled to begin Feb. 5, but was continued several times. On Feb. 5, Keller issued a verbal gag order in the case, prohibiting all attorneys involved from speaking with the media. Neither side in the case had requested the order.
In a subsequent written version of the order, Keller wrote that "public statements by attorneys in the case could pose a serious and imminent threat of interfering with a fair trial." The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the gag order in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeal is pending.
When the order was filed, legal experts called it "rare" and "unheard of"--one of only a handful filed statewide in civil cases in the past 15 years.
Lucky's trial was rescheduled for March 6, but the former officer never appeared in court. That afternoon, the attorneys for Lucky and the five defendants agreed in the judge's chambers to settle the case. The settlement is still tentative, Yagman said, until the Southern California Joint Powers Insurance Authority approves the amount.
The insurance authority manages Signal Hill's insurance policies and arranges investigations, attorneys and defense in the event the city is sued. Yagman said he has been assured by the authority that the settlement will be accepted and he will be notified officially by Wednesday.
At that point, he said, he will dismiss the case.
"I am extremely happy," Yagman said, adding that he considers the settlement a victory. "I don't think that people--especially the government--pay a sum of money to settle an action if they don't believe there's a good possibility that it could have been won."