A proposed $1.375 million settlement in two lawsuits against Washtenaw County could close another chapter in a 2006 incident that occurred in the Ypsilanti Township neighborhood of West Willow. Clifton Lee died after a struggle with sheriff’s deputies there; his brother, Bruce Lee, was injured. Bruce Lee and his mother, Beatrice McKeown, both sued – Washtenaw County commissioners will vote on a proposed settlement agreement on the lawsuits at their Wednesday, Sept. 2 board meeting.
The county had previously settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the heirs of Clifton Lee. For that $4 million settlement, the county paid $250,000 and insurance covered $3.75 million. Insurance will cover all but $125,000 for the current proposed settlement. The county plans to cover that remaining $125,000 out of attorney reimbursement funds from its insurer.
At the commissioners’ Aug. 26 administrative briefing, the county’s attorney, Curtis Hedger, said the settlement proposal was along the lines of what had been discussed with commissioners in a closed executive session they’d had about the pending litigation.
Background: The Incident
In the early morning of June 1, 2006, sheriff deputies made a traffic stop in West Willow involving the nephew of Clifton and Bruce Lee. The Lees arrived on the scene and tried to intervene. Bruce Lee struggled with the officers and was subdued, handcuffed and put into a patrol car. When he spit in an officer’s face through a window, deputies pulled him out of the car and onto the ground, where one officer kicked him and another punched him – an incident captured on video recorded from another patrol car.
According to reports of the incident, Clifton Lee confronted officers, and when he didn’t obey their commands – including calls to take his hands out of his pockets – deputies wrestled him to the ground. A video shows several officers kneeling on him, one punching him, another kicking him, and Lee crying out. Medical examiners ruled Lee’s cause of death as asphyxiation by respiratory restriction.
Four officers involved in the scene – Shawn Hoy, Joseph Eberle, Aaron Hendricks and Eric Kelly – were suspended with pay after the incident. Hendricks was never charged. Eberle and Hoy were indicted on criminal civil rights charges but were acquitted last year. Kelly pled guilty to use of excessive force on Bruce Lee and was sentenced to probation.
The 2006 incident occurred under the tenure of former Sheriff Dan Minzey. Sheriff Jerry Clayton, who defeated Minzey in the 2008 election, released videos of the June 2006 incident earlier this year. [Link to videos published by The Ann Arbor News in March 2009.]
The Lawsuits and Proposed Settlement
The two lawsuits in the proposed settlement deal were filed separately in federal court by Bruce Lee and his mother, Beatrice McKeown. Bruce Lee’s lawsuit – filed in 2008 against the county, former Sheriff Dan Minzey and several employees of the sheriff’s department – sought damages for his alleged physical and psychological injuries during the 2006 incident. McKeown’s lawsuit was filed in May 2009 – also against Washtenaw County, several sheriff’s employees and Minzey – alleging intentional interference with familial relations. Both her lawsuit and Lee’s lawsuit claim that their civil rights were violated.
The proposed settlement was reached under a voluntary mediation that was overseen by Richard Kauffman, former chief judge of the Wayne County Circuit. In addition to the $1.375 million settlement, the county has agreed to some non-financial demands. The plaintiffs asked for a meeting between Sheriff Jerry Clayton and members of the Lee family. The plaintiffs also requested a commitment from Clayton for better training of sheriff’s deputies and to listen to complaints about the sheriff’s department from concerned citizens.
Reached by phone on Monday, Clayton said his department had already been doing the kinds of things the plaintiffs were requesting. He said he had reached out to the family months ago for a meeting, which they had initially declined because of the litigation. A comprehensive training plan for staff is being developed, he said, which will include relationship-building and increasing cultural competencies. Finally, Clayton said that plans to re-form a citizens advisory council are already under way, with a formal resolution coming to the board on that soon.
The monetary piece of the settlement will be covered by insurance. The county’s insurance coverage through Chicago-based Genesis Insurance Co. totals $5 million for the policy year 2006, but requires that the county make an initial payment of $250,000 before tapping the $5 million. Called self-insured retention, the $250,000 is similar to a deductible but is added to the $5 million insurance coverage, not deducted from it. The $250,000 went toward the $4 million Clifton Lee settlement, with the insurance company paying the remaining $3.75 million. That left $1.25 million in insurance coverage for all other general liability claims during that year.
The county plans to use the $1.25 million for the bulk of its proposed $1.375 million settlement in the Bruce Lee and Beatrice McKeown lawsuits. They expect to pay the remaining amount – $125,000 – out of attorney fees that are reimbursed by the insurance company. A total of $201,382 has been spent by the county on attorney fees for these cases – the insurance company will reimburse 94% of those costs, or $189,299. Those are the funds that the county will use to pay the $125,000 it owes in the settlement.
Attorney fees were originally paid out of the county’s risk management/self-insurance fund – a $2.18 million non-general fund account that gets its revenue from fees paid to it by other county departments. The fund is used to pay insurance premiums and costs associated with lawsuits, among other things.
Meanwhile, three officers involved in the 2006 incident – Shawn Hoy, Joseph Eberle, Aaron Hendricks – sued the county earlier this year, claiming they were racially discriminated against by former Sheriff Dan Minzey and police investigators following the incident. The officers are white; the Lees are black. Those cases are pending. According to Judy Kramer, the county’s risk management coordinator, expenses related to these lawsuits will be covered under the current policy year, because they deal with employment-related claims. The lawsuits filed by the Lees were covered under the county’s general liability policy, and the settlement would be covered under the 2006 policy year.
For its insurance coverage, the county pays an annual premium of $685,305, which covers a package policy: general liability, auto, police liability and public officials liability. For 2008-09, the county increased its coverage to $10 million and raised its self-insured retention amount to $350,000. A proposal for insurance coverage in 2009-10 will be part of county administrator Bob Guenzel’s budget recommendations to commissioners at their Sept. 16 board meeting.