While a 2006 federal trial verdict that found a half-dozen pregnant policewomen were discriminated against may have cost Suffolk County only $15,000 per officer, the legal fees for attorneys cost the county $1,022,000.
The fees, which will go to the New York Civil Liberties Union and four other private firms who represented female officers, came to light Tuesday in a resolution to bond the $1 million cost.
County attorney Christine Malafi justified the county's decision to go to trial rather than settle, claiming the county felt it was not discriminating and officers' attorneys wanted a $1.3 million settlement. She also added the county never made a settlement offer of its own.
Before a legislative committee, Lynne Bizzarro, Malafi's chief deputy, said, "The problem was, their demands were so high we felt we had no choice but to go to trial."
But in the end, the county's costs will exceed early settlement offers. Legislative budget analysts said the county will borrow to pay the legal fees for at least 18 years, adding $500,000 in interest to the overall cost. Add in the $90,000 the county says it paid the officers as a result of the verdicts, and the total county cost is $1,622,000.
Donna Lieberman, NYCLU's executive director, said the legal battle would not have cost the county nearly as much if it had moved quickly to change its discriminatory policy. The policy barred pregnant officers from getting temporary light duty assignments, a practice that changed in a January 2007 consent order after trial.
"This was a case which should have never gone to trial," she said. "We sought to resolve this case without a full-blown . . . trial on numerous occasions and at every turn. . . . Suffolk County dug in its heels."
Lieberman noted that the lawsuit lasted from 2001 to 2006, and involved complicated legal issues that required extensive depositions and other research. She also said the NYCLU, a nonprofit group, took the case on principle, not for the fees. She added the group took the case when the officers were having trouble finding other attorneys to represent them. "If the fees seem astronomical, the county has no one to blame but itself," she said.
Ben Zwirn, an aide to County Executive Steve Levy, said the county attorney's office handled the case without outside counsel and "did a marvelous job at trial to limit the county's liability."
Malafi said she had no regrets about not settling: "I'm not going to second-guess anything we did, especially on a trial of this magnitude."
The budget committee approved the bonding resolution, which will come up for a vote before the full legislature Tuesday. But lawmakers were not happy about the payout. "If you want an argument for tort reform, this is it," said minority leader Legis. Dan Losquadro (R-Shoreham).