Mpls. city attorney: Timing of Floyd lawsuit settlement reflected a need to act fast

Lisa D. Small

Minneapolis agreed to the $27 million settlement in the lawsuit over George Floyd’s death at the same time as a jury was being selected for the first ex-officer because there was no guarantee the offer would still be available in the future, the city attorney said Thursday.

“In general, there is no good timing to settle any case, particularly one as complex, as involved and sensitive as this,” City Attorney Jim Rowader said during a news conference Thursday morning. “There’s no guarantee, for instance, that that deal would be available two, four, six, eight weeks from now.”

City officials largely refused to answer additional questions about the record-setting legal settlement, citing instructions from Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill, who is overseeing the first murder trial in Floyd’s death.

Rowader’s remarks, during a routine city press briefing, led to heated criticism from Cahill, who will consider on Friday a defense attorney’s request to postpone the trial or change the venue.

“I’ve asked Minneapolis to stop talking about it. They keep talking about it. We keep talking about it,” Cahill said. “Everybody just stop talking about it. Let me decide what the ramifications are. Are we clear on this? We’re adjourned for the day.”

Earlier this week, Cahill called the timing of the settlement “unfortunate” and said he wished city officials would stop publicly discussing the criminal case of former officer Derek Chauvin. On Wednesday, he dismissed two jurors who had previously been selected, after they said they heard about the settlement.

In court Thursday, Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, renewed his concerns about the city’s statements on the settlement.

“I would note that the city of Minneapolis indicated that the timing was of the essence, yet the agreement has not been finalized and will not be finalized for another month,” Nelson said. “It raises the question of whether the announcement was necessary, regardless of timing. I just wanted to make the court aware that this is an ongoing public discussion that the mayor and city attorney are engaging in.”

Rowader would not discuss whether city officials consulted with the criminal court on the timing of the settlement. He pushed back on criticism that the timing had affected jury selection.

“I disagree with the underlying premise,” he said.

On March 12, the City Council went into a closed session to discuss their legal strategy, as allowed under Minnesota law, and then returned to take a public vote authorizing the $27 million payment.

“These types of settlements happen frequently in federal court, and they have an important sort of normal procedure,” said Assistant City Attorney Brian Carter. “Once we have the public vote by the City Council, which is actually required to bind the city to a settlement, that public vote then binds the city and gives us, as attorneys, the authority to go through and do all of the papers necessary to reduce the settlement to writing.”

Rowader said Thursday that they are still working on the settlement paperwork, which must be approved by a federal judge. He estimated it could take a month to go through that process.

“I’m allowing for, I can’t control how fast the court will do their part,” Rowader said.

On March 12, after the settlement vote, Mayor Jacob Frey, Council President Lisa Bender and other city officials appeared alongside the Floyd family in a roughly 90-minute news conference. During that news conference, the Floyd family attorneys also defended the timing of the settlement, which was approved during the first week of jury selection in Chauvin’s trial.

“The one thing we know as Black people in America [is] that there is no guarantee that a police officer will be convicted for killing a Black person unjustly in our country,” attorney Ben Crump said. “That’s what history has taught us.”

Chris Stewart, another attorney for the Floyd family, argued it could be beneficial to settle before the criminal trial wraps up, because that would prevent information gathered in the civil case from being released during the criminal proceedings.

“This civil case doesn’t have anything to do with it,” Stewart said of the criminal trial. “Justice really doesn’t really wait. It happens when it happens.”

The city has released few details about the terms of the settlement or how it arrived at the total, which set a record in Minneapolis.

The size of the settlement exceeds the amount of money in the account the city typically uses to pay out lawsuits and other claims. To cover the costs, the city plans to dip into its rainy day fund.

City officials said last week that “the settlement alone” wasn’t likely to result in a tax increase for residents.

The city also has about 185 other open claims or lawsuits, dating as far back as 2015. Included in that count are several lawsuits brought over police conduct during the protests or riots that followed Floyd’s death.

Asked whether those factors, and a large number of PTSD claims filed by officers, could result in a tax increase, Frey on Thursday left open that possibility.

Frey said it “is accurate” to say the settlement alone would not result in a tax increase. He added: “When significant moneys are spent or provided, yes, there is an impact. We aren’t there yet.”

The city’s five-year financial plan, approved before the settlement was announced, already called for a 5.35% increase in property taxes in 2022, though that doesn’t mean every taxpayer’s bill would increase by that amount.

Staff writer Abby Simons contributed to this report.

Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994

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