Sunshine Week: City of Durham paid out over $2.8 million in settlements over 5 years

Durham City Hall, photographed in March 2019.
Durham City Hall, photographed in March 2019. dvaughan@newsobserver.com

The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, along with several other North Carolina news organizations, participated in a project exploring how government agencies handle various public records requests for Sunshine Week, a annual celebration of transparent and open government led by the N.C. Open Government Coalition.

This year’s project was requesting settlement agreements with third parties by government entities from Jan. 1, 2014, to Dec. 31, 2018. In Durham, requests for settlements from the City of Durham and Durham County were sent on Jan. 17, 2019. The city responded within a week, with documents from the city attorney’s office. The county had yet to provide any documents as of March 10.

Between 2014 and 2018, the city of Durham entered 18 financial settlements, ranging from $5,000 to $2 million.

Over five years, the city paid out $2,835,500, including $2 million in April 2013 after Reyes Abreo Gonzalez, a pedestrian, was hit by a city employee driving a city water management truck. The plaintiff, who had a guardian ad litem appointed to handle the settlement, claimed a traumatic brain injury resulted. The settlement terms did not admit negligence of the city or the employee.

More than a third of the settlements involved the Police Department, either claiming excessive use of force or wrongful termination. The police are a quarter of the city’s workforce. Other cases involved accidents or injuries, and one was tied to the Duke Lacrosse case, in which the city paid a grant related to three university students wrongly accused of assaulting a woman.

Here are the remaining settlements, with the amounts paid in descending order:

$250,000 to Olta Kapinova, who claimed unlawful search and seizure, excessive use of force, false imprisonment, assault and battery, emotional distress and trespass by a police officer who allegedly entered the home without a warrant in May 2015. Settled in October 2016.

$200,000 to John M. Lynch who claimed he was denied rights and protections guaranteed to him by the Americans with Disabilities Act and retaliated against for his complaints of racial and sexual harassment. The amount covered lawyer fees and lost wages. Settled in January 2018.

$90,000 to Gregory Parker Jr. who accused police officers of unreasonable seizure, assault, battery, bodily injury, emotional distress and rights infringement in February 2017. Settled in September 2018.

$50,000 grant to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission as a settlement related to the Duke lacrosse scandal. The May 2014 settlement was awarded on behalf of former students David F. Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann for events related to the investigation and prosecution between March 2006 and April 2007.

$50,000 to Stephanie Nickerson who claimed excessive force by police in October 2012. Settled in October 2016.

$48,500 to Sherman L. Steele who alleged negligence in maintaining a sidewalk. Steele tripped and fell in August 2011. Settled in May 2016.

$35,000 to Joshua Cannady II who claimed excessive force by police. Mediated settlement in August 2015.

$35,000 to Joseph P. Ledbetter Sr. who claimed excessive force by police during an open-air drug takedown in June 2007. Settled in October 2015.

$15,000 settlement to Alesha C. Robinson-Taylor, who claimed she was discriminated against and the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act violated when the Police Department terminated her in October 2009. The no-fault settlement was reached in September 2014.

$11,500 to Rodney Burnett and Prestige Automobile Services related to a sewage backup on the business property in February 2017.

$10,000 to Donald Carrington Jr. who claimed he was injured when he stepped on a water meter cover that was allegedly defective. Settled in June 2018.

$10,000 to Sandra Jones to resolve a lawsuit that alleged unlawful arrest and/or eviction from her home in April 2015. Settled in May 2018.

$8,000 to Tameka McClary for alleged sidewalk negligence resulting in McClary tripping and falling in May 2015.

$7,500 to Thomas A. Young, a former city employee who claimed he was wrongfully discharged for being a whistleblower. Settled in March 2016.

$5,000 to former city employee John C. Shelton for an allegation related to being terminated from the Police Department in July 2012.

$5,000 to Sarah Marie Gaddis after a car accident with a city solid waste truck. Settled in August 2016.

$5,000 to John G. Hill related to allegations against the Police Department during an altercation. Settled in June 2017.

Interim City Attorney Kimberly Rehberg said the city is self-insured, so about $1 million a year for claims would come from a risk fund, with any increased amount paid through an excess public liability insurance policy. Amounts of settlements are “generally determined by the viability of legal claims and extent of damages that they’ve actually got evidence for,” Rehberg said.

Many cases are dismissed on legal grounds, she said, adding that the city doesn’t settle most of the cases filed against it.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.