A settlement agreement was reached in February between the city of Dover and police Cpl. Thomas W. Webster IV. How do these work, and why would Dover do it?
In many cases, it comes down to money.
When governments find themselves staring at the possibility of losing a legal case, it’s sometimes better to settle before a trial or to pay a plaintiff outright and avoid a trial altogether.
Writing for the Lawyers.com website, New York attorney Shulamit H. Shvartsman notes that avoiding a jury trial has many benefits, particularly when a town or city feels a jury may not side with them in the lawsuit.
“In today’s litigious society, more often than not cases end up being settled before going to court and getting a judgment,” Shvartsman writes. “Settling means both parties resolve the issues outside of court without a trial.”
A settlement agreement was reached in February between the city of Dover and police Cpl. Thomas W. Webster IV.
Eligible to return
Webster’s acquittal in December on second-degree assault charges against a black man raised the ire of many in Dover’s African American community. Under the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights, the jury’s finding meant Webster was free to return to the force.
Webster was on administrative leave after the acquittal. Under the bargaining agreement between the city and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 15, which represents Dover officers, Chief of Police Paul M. Bernat was responsible for deciding Webster’s status.
Department spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman said after the acquittal Webster first had to complete mandatory psychological testing and recertification before Bernat would rule.
However, Dover residents who appeared before city council following the trial made it clear they did not think it prudent to have Webster back on the street.
When the agreement was announced, Mayor Robin Christiansen did not go into detail but said Webster and city officials had started discussions soon after the verdict.
Michael J. Goldberg, professor of law at the Widener University Delaware Law School, said many instances exist where an employee may be terminated if the employer proves good cause. However, he added, there are risks to firing an employee without good cause, particularly if the former worker sues.
“This can be time consuming, expensive and litigation can result in a lot of dirty laundry, on both sides, being aired publicly,” Goldberg said. “And in the end, the employer may not prevail and is then stuck with a disgruntled employee it tried, without success, to fire.”
Risking the unknown
Chuck Thompson, executive director of the International Municipal Lawyers Association, said municipalities must take many factors into consideration. On top of those, in the Webster case, people were concerned about having him remain on the police force, Thompson said.
Employers sometimes will work toward an agreement that pays the employee to leave while also settling other issues, Goldberg said.
“At this point, it’s essentially just a contract negotiation -- how much is the employer willing to pay, and how much is the employee going to insist on getting paid -- to go away,” Goldberg said.
Settlement agreements provide a way of putting the situation in the past, Thompson added.
Employers sometimes prefer an assured solution rather than the possibility a legal decision may be overturned.
“Businesses and employers, whether private or public, often make a decision to settle as part of an agreement rather than going through a procedural process that lacks the same certainty,” he said. Other factors, including a city’s financial situation, can influence the decision.
“They’d rather have certainty rather than risk the unknown, risk it coming back on them,” Thompson said.
Under the February agreement, Webster agreed to resign and in turn the city agreed to pay him installments totaling $230,000 through January 2022. It halted an ongoing internal investigation and allowed his law enforcement officer credentials to stand.
Webster resigned from the force as of Feb. 23. He remains a city employee, drawing pay and allowances until June 30.
Fight or pay?
Goldberg concedes there may be public backlash when these agreements are reached, but the money spent might be less than the cost of pursuing litigation.
Without talking specifically about Delaware, David Grubb, executive director of the Municipal Excess Liability Joint Insurance Fund, said such settlement agreements are not uncommon.
“Purely and simply, government entities are sometimes forced to make a business decision as to what is in the best interest of the taxpayer, whether to fight it out or to settle it,” Grubb said.
A factor in the decision is that any city on the losing end of a lawsuit could end up paying attorney’s fees for both sides. It’s a concept called fee shifting, Grubb said.
“Very simply, what happens here is you have to make a determination based on the facts that the risk of fighting something out knowing if you lose that you’re going to be looking at a gigantic legal bill,” he said.
“What oftentimes happens is that a governing body makes a determination based on the facts that the risk of fighting something out is too great because of the potential legal fees,” he said.
It’s happening nationwide, Grubb said, not just in Delaware.
“It’s not unique to police cases, but is generally the case with anything that has civil rights potential.”
Reached for comment, Public Affairs Officer Kay Sass referred back to Christiansen’s statement on the night he signed the agreement, saying city officials would not comment on the settlement.
“We do not have anything to add,” she said.