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A State of Denial

Denver's legal team takes a beating in a police-brutality case.

"There's seldom any reasonable effort to evaluate and settle a claim at a stage where everybody could save money," Mellon says. "They make you try every case. We get a judgment, then it's appealed. These cases never end."

Halaby disputes this. "If there's liability exposure, the city settles," he says. "They've settled a whole bunch of cases that never make the newspaper. We have had cases where we had clear liability, but the settlement demand is way out of sorts with what the damages were. In those circumstances, we'll go in and admit liability and try the case on damages."

The stinging reproach contained in the Brown decision does give him pause, Halaby admits, but he doesn't anticipate that it will damage his relationship with the city attorney's office or his ability to practice in the Tenth Circuit. "Something like this, to any attorney, you should take that seriously," he says. "But I don't take it personally. When we have to appear in front of the same judge, we will expect that everyone conducts themselves professionally."

The court's criticism troubles Denver City Attorney J. Wallace Wortham, too. "It is not the policy of this office to ever misrepresent the facts or the law," Wortham notes. "I would have a concern about the court's comments if they were made regarding any attorneys in this office or those we have on contracts." He says he'll review the case and take "appropriate action" to ward off further rebukes.

One possible course of action would be to award the contract to another firm. There's a request for bids for next year's contract "on the street right now," says Wortham, who became city attorney this year. The contract has been put up for bid sporadically in the past, but each year the city attorney's office has concluded that Halaby's firm is the most qualified available, and the recommendation has been routinely approved by Denver City Council.

"It's been left strictly to the administration, and they've been recommending Halaby for the twenty years I've been here," says Councilman Ted Hackworth. "We didn't question it. But I'm not sure that the city attorney is the most capable person for appointing people."

Yet defending police departments against charges of excessive force is a highly specialized field of law, and few firms have the expertise or track record of Denver's current contractor. Halaby says a recent survey indicated that Denver's payouts on police-misconduct cases have been substantially lower than those of comparable cities; even now, with civil litigation over law enforcement on the rise nationwide, the city has never had a million-dollar verdict.

"That doesn't necessarily have to do with our expertise," Halaby adds. "It has a lot to do with the client and the training program."

For now, Halaby, Cross & Schluter remain the city's go-to guys. Asked about a possible appeal of the Tenth Circuit's ruling in the Brown case, Joseph Mellon says he hasn't heard anything yet -- "but I would expect, based on the strength of the court's opinion, that they ought to just pay this poor man."

According to Halaby, the city has decided to petition for a reconsideration of the case before the entire Tenth Circuit panel of judges.

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