In cases involving police, evidence is key

By David Hutton | Mar 24, 2017

ST. LOUIS — As a local police department finds itself in legal trouble in the wake of allegations it failed to uphold Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations, an attorney who handles similar cases said these issues arise more often than anyone thinks.

Chef Pleban, a partner with Pleban & Petruska Law LLC, told the St. Louis Record that cases have increased in the wake of the case in Ferguson.

“If you have a couple hundred bucks, anyone can file a lawsuit,” he said. “Whether it has any merit is dependent on the facts and circumstances of the particular case.”

According to court records, a complaint was filed by the legal guardian of a Gasconade County resident in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against the county, two police departments and a sheriff, citing alleged failure to uphold ADA regulations.

In addition to the county, the Hermann Police Department, Rosebud Police Department, Sheriff Randy Ephorst and John Doe are named as defendants.

The woman was allegedly coerced into a nonconsensual sexual relationship with Deputy Sheriff Mart Rainey and his acquaintance Jonathan Pohlmann.

According to court records, the plaintiffs maintain that the defendants bear responsibility because they allegedly discriminated against her due to her mental disability and failed to supervise the officer.

Pleban said he was not sure whether the department has disciplined the officer involved in the case.

“There is a legal duty and responsibility to supervise subordinates particularly, in a police setting,” he said. “If you fail to do that, you can be sued for negligent retention and supervision of people who violate the civil rights of persons in their custody.”

Pleban said that in most cases, once a complaint is made an investigation is conducted by an internal affairs division or a professional standards division.

“They will make a determination based upon that investigation on whether or not the accused officer is somehow culpable of what they are accused of doing,” he said. “If that is the case, particularly in a situation such as this, the person is probably, for all intents and purposes, going to be terminated.”

The county likely would not indemnify the individual. Pleban said that it makes sense for the defendants to provide a united front in court.

According to court records, the plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial and  judgment against the defendants, special damages, attorney's fees, costs and further relief as the court deems just.

A jury trial is always preferable in a case involving a police entity, according to Pleban.

“It is very rare that you want to bench try these cases,” he said. “When you do that in a criminal case, they are considered by the prosecution and the defense as slow pleas of guilty.”

Whether a fair trial is possible also could be called into question; however, it is not likely to succeed in this instance.

“In the federal court, they are reluctant to change the venue because they draw form such a wide area from St. Louis for people to serve on the jury," Pleban said.

The jury trial also gives the defense a chance to file pretrial motions as well as motions for summary judgment. The judge makes legal determinations, and the jury makes the factual determinations.

“You are always better off with a jury making factual determinations,” Pleban said.

Entities such as police departments and municipalities also are covered by various insurance companies against lawsuits, which also can result in settlements before cases go to trial.

“There are protections in these policies against lawsuits,” Pleban said. “There are protections so that you can’t sue the entity itself, but you can sue individuals.”

As a result, most litigation is generally settled out of court. If not, Pleban said the wheels of justice just might grind to a halt.  

“If every case were to be tried, we may be backed up to the year 3010, I guess,” he said.

As with any case, the evidence will ultimately determine whether a settlement is reached before trial.

“It is going to depend on what their investigation shows,” Pleban said. “Not every case is sustainable by the evidence.”

The plaintiff in the case is represented by Adam M. Goffstein of Goffstein Law LLC in St. Louis and Daniel J. Orlowsky of Orlowsky Law LLC in St. Louis.

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Organizations in this Story

Hermann Police Department Pleban & Petruska Law LLC Rosebud Police Department

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