The District of Columbia won more than $20 million in litigation damages in 2012, but will be on the hook for $17.1 million in settlements and judgments, according to testimony last week before the D.C. Council by Attorney General Irvin Nathan.
Nathan, testifying as part of the council's annual performance oversight hearings, said that the $20 million figure represented at least double the amount of litigation damages the city secured in the previous fiscal year. That amount included $8 million from consumer protection cases and more than $7.5 million from a tax matter involving Union Station.
The city will owe $17.1 million from settlements and litigation losses last year. According to Nathan's testimony, that figure represented less than 2.4 percent of the $732 million that the city faced in lawsuit demands in those cases.
Nathan appeared February 27 before the council's judiciary committee. Committee Chair Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said that he appreciated the progress Nathan's office made in handling several decades-long lawsuits over how the city cared for children, the mentally ill, and other vulnerable residents. In 2012, the city resolved two of these cases, ending court oversight of the city's mental health system in the Dixon case and its transportation services for students with special needs in the Petties case.
Exiting court supervision and resolving the remaining cases, which have cost the city millions of dollars in legal fees and reporting requirements, remains a top priority for the attorney general's office, Nathan said.
Other big developments in the attorney general's office last year included working with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to reestablish the city's alcohol breath testing program. Nathan said law enforcement officers began using the new machines on September 28 and that his office had already secured convictions using that evidence, although he didn't say how many. The city stopped using breath test machines in 2010 after learning that the machines were incorrectly calibrated; the city agreed to a series of settlements last year to resolve several civil lawsuits brought over the faulty machines.
Nathan also spoke about the upcoming switch to an independent elected attorney general in 2014. Last month, Nathan and Mayor Vincent Gray (D) introduced a proposal to the council on how to make the shift. Under the plan, agency legal divisions would report to department heads, as opposed to the attorney general. A Mayor's Office of Legal Counsel would be created to coordinate agency legal departments and provide legal advice to the executive branch.
Several witnesses at last week's hearing expressed reservations about pieces of the plan. Shana Frost, an assistant attorney general and acting president of the union that represents the office's lawyers, said she wanted more information on how the new elected attorney general would handle contracts between the union and the previous attorney general.
Ashley McDowell of the Legal Aid Society of D.C. said local civil legal services providers were concerned about a provision of the mayor's plan that would move child support enforcement cases out of the attorney general's office to the city's Department of Human Services. She said she hadn't taken a position on this yet because she needed more information, adding that it wasn't clear why the attorneys had to move.
Nathan will be back before the judiciary committee on April 25 to discuss the office's budget.