A National Lawyers Guild volunteer is arrested during the George Floyd protests in New York City in June 2020. The New York Police Department was sued multiple times for its response to the protests. (Court Documents)
Twelve legal observers for the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild arrested during the George Floyd protests in June 2020 will collectively get $49,000 to resolve a federal lawsuit against New York City over what they called a "violent assault" by police, one of their attorneys confirmed Friday to Law360.
Accepting an offer by the city to end the suit, which stemmed from a now infamous arrest in the Mott Haven neighborhood in the Bronx, the volunteer observers will each receive between $2,501 and $10,001. The city must also pay their lawyers' fees and costs that will be determined later.
The plaintiffs accused the New York Police Department in a September 2021 complaint of devising a "brutal trap" to arrest demonstrators at a protest dubbed FTP4 — an abbreviation for "fuck the police"— on June 4, 2020, days after Floyd's murder by a police officer in Minneapolis. The suit says the officers' actions during the mass arrest were motivated by the protesters' vitriol, which the police department defined as "anti-police," and quotes then NYPD Commissioner Dermot F. Shea who said at a press conference earlier that day that the "anti-police rhetoric disgusts me to my core."
Cops in riot gear surrounded over 100 people in a South Bronx block, giving them no opportunity to disperse, and "began a brutal physical assault on the protesters, beating them with fists, batons, and bicycles, deploying pepper spray, and employing similar violence" as a citywide curfew came into effect at 8 p.m., the complaint says.
The plaintiffs, most of whom were law students at the time, accused the police of targeting them "because of, or in spite of" their status as legal observers, arresting them along with the demonstrators. The complaint, filed in federal court in Manhattan, asked for unspecified money damages, but also sought reform of the NYPD's practices in responding to protest, including the arrest of observers.
"I am still horrified by the human rights abuses committed by the NYPD," Sare Mills, a plaintiff set to receive $3,500, said in a statement.
Fellow plaintiff Jonathan Davis, who will also receive $3,500, said the arrest of legal observers in the Bronx is "a stain upon the NYPD."
"The illegal detention of Legal Observers at the Mott Haven demonstration undermined a long-held tradition of peaceful protest and served to traumatize those of us who sought to ensure that the right to peacefully protest was upheld," he said.
Natalie Baker, a plaintiff will be paid $4,000, said in a statement that she and other observers had provided written testimony and are ready to testify in other legal proceedings against the city over its response to social justice protests.
"The city is ending this specific lawsuit through a money judgment, but it can't buy its way out of transparency and accountability," she said.
The city said the offer to compensate the observers and avoid going further into the litigation "is not to be construed as an admission of liability" and refused to admit that the plaintiffs deserved damages.
Gideon Orion Oliver, one of the attorneys representing the observers, welcomed the money judgment but said the lack of an injunction was "a source of great frustration" because it didn't directly address police practices.
"It's a win, and it's a good resolution of the case for the clients. But it's certainly not the city being transparent or accountable for what the police did," Oliver told Law360. He added, however, that the plaintiffs in the case, Krystin Hernandez, et al. v. City of New York, et al., could testify as part of other suits.
In fact, Hernandez is part of a bundle of seven other suits, including two putative class actions and a suit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The suits consolidated for pre-trial purposes, are now before Judges Colleen McMahon and Gabriel W. Gorenstein. Dozens of other civil suits both state and federal courts also challenge the city's response to the Floyd protests.
Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the New York City Law Department, said the resolution in the Hernandez case "is in the best interest of all the parties." Attorneys for the city did not respond to requests for comment on the suit.
Unlike in a settlement, where parties engage in negotiation on how to end a case, a money judgment is an offer made by one party to another in a take-it-or-leave-it-fashion. In this case, the City of New York made the offer to avoid getting into the discovery process, which would have increased judicial and public scrutiny on what happened in the Bronx, attorneys for the plaintiffs say.
"The NYPD will try to avoid transparency and accountability at all costs," Elena L. Cohen of Cohen & Green PLLC, another firm representing the observers, said in a statement. "This case is resolved yet our work to radically change policing in NYC continues."
The NLG legal observers are represented by Gideon Orion Oliver and Elena L. Cohen, J. Remy Green, Jessica Massimi and M.K. Khaisian of Cohen & Green PLLC.
The case is Krystin Hernandez, et al. v. City of New York, et al., case number 21-cv-07406, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
--Editing by Peter Rozovsky.