RACINE — A civil rights lawsuit filed last month against the city and a host of local officials and organizations could turn into a long, costly fight, legal experts say.
Filed Feb. 25 in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin by attorneys representing the owners of six shuttered Racine bars, the lawsuit alleges that Mayor John Dickert and other local leaders conspired to drive minority-owned bars out of the city.
As City Hall prepares for court — it has already hired outside counsel and set a meeting to ask aldermen what direction the city should take — constitutional and civil rights law professors said the city could find itself looking at a pricey settlement or equally costly legal battle.
Proof and cost
There are really two aspects that could make the case an expensive one for the city and other defendants, Marquette University law professor Joseph Hylton said. One is the sheer number of people involved in the case — 19 defendants and eight plaintiffs.
Professors Andrew Coan and Donald Downs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison agree.
With the city facing the potential of having to defend close to a dozen current and former city officials and staff members, while also cooperating with the investigations of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the legal fees could add up quickly.
Add to that the specter of having to pay triple damages to the eight plaintiffs in the case as well as their legal fees if the city loses, and the costs for both the court battle and its outcome could be steep, Hylton said.
“These can be extremely expensive to litigate,” he said. “Sometimes they are just filed strategically to force along a settlement.”
Downs, a UW-Madison political science professor who also is affiliated with the university’s law school, added that the plaintiffs’ attorneys might have filed such a large and complex complaint hoping the city might consider settlement over a an expensive legal battle.
“If a judge sees smoke, and thinks there might be fire there, it is going to get even more in-depth during the discovery process,” he said.
Should the city lose or decide to settle, it would be on the hook for the first $100,000 of any settlement, after which its insurance and the insurance of an municipal organization it belongs to would kick in.
In addition to claiming they held the plaintiffs and other minority-owned bar owners to different standards than their white counterparts, the lawsuit accuses Dickert and others, including members of the Racine City Tavern League, of engaging in an elaborate scheme to fund Dickert’s mayoral campaigns that led to minority-owned bars being targeted and their licenses freed up for white bar owners.
The lawsuit claims the city and others, including police and the Public Safety and Licensing Committee, repeatedly violated Section 1983 of the U.S. Civil Rights code, by, among other things, conspiring to “target, unjustly scrutinize, discriminate, and unfairly burden” the plaintiffs’ bars simply because of their race.
The lawsuit also alleges defendants violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, often referred to as RICO.
Although Section 1983 of the U.S. Civil Rights code — passed in the 1870s — was originally designed to keep Southern white public officials from suppressing former slaves, today it has become the go-to law for individuals claiming their government violated their rights, Hylton said.
He adds that while it is “obviously much easier to allege a violation” of the law than it is to prove it, the basic question for any judge handling such a case is “are the allegations true?”
The main task facing the plaintiffs’ attorneys will be demonstrating to the court that “the government actions they are challenging” were “in fact based on race as opposed to some other motivation,” said Coan, a professor at the UW’s law school.
Dismissal seen as unlikely
While there is always a chance that a judge will dismiss the case as being without merit, that is not something Hylton, who reviewed the case, thinks will happen.
“If these allegations are true, they clearly have a case,” he said. “This is not the kind of matter that is going to be dismissed at the outset.”
He added that, at least in terms of the section 1983 portion of the case, the plaintiffs may not even need to provide a document or some other evidence showing their intent to treat minority-owned bars differently.
“If you could actually establish that the same type of conduct was happening in white-owned bars as well as minority-owned bars, but the kind of sanctions or intensified investigations were only directed at minority-owned bars, that would itself be evidence of discriminatory conduct,” he said.
The burden of proving such pattern or intent, however, lies squarely with the plaintiffs, Downs said. If the city can prove it treated white-owned bars similarly or that there were non-racial reasons behind its reasons for shuttering black-owned bars, it could prevail.
“It will be a question of who has the best evidence,” he said.
Asked for comment, Marty Kohler of Kohler & Hart S.C., one of the two firms representing the plaintiffs, sent an email Friday stating that the firm had “spent the better part of a year investigating” the case and believes in its “clients and the merits of the lawsuit.”
“The 50-page complaint lays out the details of the information we have uncovered to date and we intend to prove every allegation,” Kohler wrote.
The city’s attorney in the case, Michael J. Cohen of Milwaukee-based Meissner Tierney Fisher & Nichols S.C., was unavailable for comment Friday.
City officials will meet in coming weeks to discuss how to handle the lawsuit, while a trial date has yet to be set.
The Committee of the Whole will meet Tuesday to discuss the case, including which of the of defendants that have ties with the city it will pay to represent, Deputy City Attorney Scott Letteney said.
The committee’s recommendations will go before the City Council for a final vote on March 18.
The federal judge assigned to the case will likely set a tentative trial date relatively early on, although that date could well be months away, said Marquette University law professor Joseph Hylton.
In the event that the city ends up losing the lawsuit or decides to settle the case, it does have insurance it will be able to draw on, but only after paying out $100,000 in city funds.
“Assuming coverage is permitted by the insurer, the city would pay the first $100,000 and the insurance provider would then pick up the next $100,000,” explained Letteney.
If a settlement or court ruling requires any larger payment, then city could tap into a $10 million policy it has via its membership with the Cities and Villages Mutual Insurance Co.
If it gets to that point, CVMIC members would first have the privilege of weighing in on the procedures.
“It is just like any insurance policy. If you get in a car wreck, your insurer would decide whether to settle or not,” Letteney explained. “They can’t just make the city (settle) but they certainly would have an influence.”