Suffolk County is facing more than $1 billion in pending lawsuits as a new administration takes over. NewsdayTV's Macy Egeland and Newsday Suffolk County politics reporter Vera Chinese report. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp; File Footage; Photo Credit: Justyna Zubko-Valva

From taxpayers who say they've been overcharged for infrastructure upgrades, to a mother who alleges the county's neglect led to her son's death, to a motorist challenging traffic ticket fees, plaintiffs are seeking more than $1 billion in legal claims filed against Suffolk County over the past 15 years.

The county estimates it will pay much less than that — a total of $615.6 million — mostly by settling the lawsuits. Municipalities often settle for less than what plaintiffs seek rather than either side risk losing a jury trial or a judge potentially tossing some cases.

Some of the larger settlements in recent years have been tied to allegations of law enforcement misconduct. In December, the county agreed to pay $12.8 million to Rodolfo Taylor, a former resident who spent nearly 26 years incarcerated for a string of gas station robberies and later had his conviction overturned. Newsday has submitted a Freedom of Information request for the amount the county paid last year in total claims.

Rodolfo Taylor speaks to media during a news conference announcing his wrongful conviction lawsuit against Suffolk County for $55 million. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The largest pending claims are over the county's use of sewer funds and fees that have been added to traffic violations, including a $30 administrative fee for red light camera tickets.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Plaintiffs are seeking more than $1 billion in legal claims filed against Suffolk County, but the county estimates it will pay a total of $615.6 million, mostly by settling the lawsuits.
  • Some of the larger settlements in recent years have been tied to allegations of law enforcement misconduct. The largest claims are over misused sewer funds and improper fees added to traffic violations.
  • Suffolk is currently paying cash for claims and has ample funds to avoid borrowing for them, according to a legislative report on the 2024 operating budget. Some fear future payouts could erode Suffolk’s $1 billion in reserves.

Suffolk County Attorney Christopher Clayton declined to comment on the litigation. "We will vigorously defend these matters on behalf of the taxpayers of Suffolk County," said Clayton, appointed attorney this month by County Executive Ed Romaine, a Republican who took office Jan. 1.

Suffolk is currently paying cash for claims and has ample funds to avoid borrowing for them, according to the legislature’s Budget Review Office report on the 2024 operating budget. The county borrowed for 76% of settlements between 2007 and 2020, according to the report. Its reserves have been boosted in recent years by federal pandemic aid and higher than expected sales tax revenues.

Nassau estimates it will pay around the same amount as Suffolk — $623.1 million, according to the county's most recent financial documents. New York City paid out a record $1.5 billion last year.

Pat Halpin, a Democrat who served as Suffolk County executive from 1988 to 1991, said the types of claims have changed since he held office, and the amount sought by plaintiffs has increased. He recalled some of the larger lawsuits tied primarily to law enforcement misconduct.

“Back at the time, we thought they were substantial,” he said. “Compared to the claims now, they were significantly less.”

Some fear future payouts could erode Suffolk's $1 billion in reserves, particularly since several lawsuits have languished for years with no resolution.

"Guess who is going to have to make up that up? The taxpayer," said Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), chairman of the county legislature's Ways and Means Committee that signs off on lawsuit settlements. "All those reserves could be for naught."

But large municipalities typically have reasonably accurate estimates of how much they could pay out in litigation, said Stephen Louis, distinguished fellow at the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School and a former adviser to five New York City mayoral administrations.

“It’s, I think, typically viewed as an expected government expense,” Louis told Newsday. “You just try to come up with a with a good number that fairly reflects how much that costs, just like any other service that the government is providing."

Largest claim

The largest claim against Suffolk stems from a 2015 lawsuit filed by ratepayers of the Southwest Sewer District seeking the return of $260 million. They argue the district's 75,000 taxpayers continued to be taxed to pay off the bonds for the $1.2 billion project.

The county said it had to continue taxing people in order not to deplete reserves for other infrastructure projects.

Both sides also blame a lengthy discovery process for the delay.

“The plaintiffs are happy to engage in settlement negotiations,” said their attorney, James M. Catterson, a former deputy Suffolk County attorney. “It would be the right thing to do to return the money to taxpayers in Babylon and Islip towns.”

Other lawsuits

Other claims seeking large amounts have been reported in Newsday and included in Suffolk's annual financial report:

Cesar Gonzales-Mugaburu vs. Suffolk County

The former Ridge foster father filed a $100 million lawsuit against the county for defamation and false arrest after he was acquitted of sexually abusing boys who were entrusted to his care. The county has denied the allegations in court papers.

Cesar Gonzales-Mugaburu was found not guilty in 2017 after a jury deliberated for seven days in a trial in which a half dozen witnesses testified he sexually abused them over two decades.

Gonzales-Mugaburu’s attorney, Jon Norinsberg, said the large claim reflects the reputational damage and anguish his client suffered during the high-profile trial.

A pretrial conference is set for March 8.

Gonzalez et al vs. Suffolk County

From left, Kenny Lazo and his son, Kenny Lazo Jr.;...

From left, Kenny Lazo and his son, Kenny Lazo Jr.; Jennifer Gonzalez and her son, Lazo Jr., leave court in Central Islip with family members after the verdict Aug. 10. Credit: Rick Kopstein

A jury in August awarded $35 million to the family of a Bay Shore man who died after he was beaten by police officers after a 2008 traffic stop. Kenny Lazo’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the county and its police department in 2009, arguing Suffolk police falsely arrested the 24-year-old unarmed father on April 12, 2008, and beat him with their fists and heavy flashlights on a ramp to the Southern State Parkway.

The county is appealing the award and has said in court papers the evidence presented during the trial was not sufficient to justify the verdict.

Long Island Pine Barrens Society et al vs. Suffolk County

Suffolk County faces a lawsuit demanding the return of $198 million diverted from a sewer fund to help finance county operations. Filed in January 2022, a judge in July ordered the case could move forward.

Robert McGrath Jr. vs. Suffolk County

The county is facing a class-action lawsuit seeking a declaration that a $30 administrative fee tacked onto the $50 red light camera ticket fine is illegal. Justice David T. Reilly in 2022 ruled in the plaintiff’s favor and the county is appealing.

The plaintiffs' attorney, David Raimondo, said they can seek up to $115 million to be paid back to members of the class.

In 2016, Robert McGrath, of Mount Sinai, filed the class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the administrative fee.

Red light camera tickets were first issued in Suffolk in 2010, carrying a $50 fine and a $25 charge for tickets paid late.

The administrative fee was added in 2013 and subsequently generated more than $50 million in total revenue for the county, Raimondo said.

“Our argument was you can’t go instituting fees to plug your budget shortfalls,” Raimondo said.

The Republican-controlled Suffolk County Legislature repealed the fee in 2022.

A panel of judges will rule on the appeal following oral arguments on Jan. 16.

Zubko-Valva et al vs. Suffolk County

Justyna Zubko-Valva with a photo of her son Thomas Valva...

Justyna Zubko-Valva with a photo of her son Thomas Valva in a Riverhead court on Feb. 6, 2020. Credit: Newsday / Cecilia Dowd

The mother of Thomas Valva in November rejected a $3 million offer to settle her $200 million lawsuit against county officials. Justyna Zubko-Valva alleges officials ignored years of warnings of abuse, beatings, starvation and neglect before the 8-year-old autistic boy died of hypothermia in January 2020.

Zubko-Valva in 2020 filed her claim against Suffolk, several of its Child Protective Services employees, East Moriches school officials and several attorneys tasked with protecting Thomas Valva and his two brothers. Zubko-Valva was going through a bitter divorce proceeding and custody battle with the boys’ father, Michael Valva, a former NYPD officer who is serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for the murder of Thomas. Valva’s fiancee, Angela Pollina, is serving the same sentence for her role in the boy’s death, and she and Valva are also defendants in the civil suit.

Zubko-Valva disclosed in court filings she would be willing to settle the case for $30 million and called the $3 million offer “humiliating.”

Zubko-Valva’s attorneys have withdrawn from the case and she has until Feb. 16 to find a new lawyer.

She could not be reached for comment.

With Candice Ferrette

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