A federal judge has pushed Minneapolis city leaders to the table for mediated settlement talks in the lawsuit over the 2015 fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark.
Senior U.S. District Judge Michael Davis ordered city leaders to court on Wednesday after receiving notice that the City Council, acting in a closed session with lawyers, had rejected a settlement of the Clark suit.
The council rejected the settlement on the same day it agreed to a $20 million payout in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, an Australian woman who was fatally shot by then-police officer Mohamed Noor in 2017. Noor was convicted in Hennepin County District Court last week of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in her death.
Davis said he had no idea why the City Council rejected the proposed Clark settlement or what the amount was.
"The court wants a full understanding of where we are, where we're going in this matter," he said.
Typically when discussing legal matters, the council talks behind closed doors. Council members can provide direction to the attorneys, including acceptable dollar amounts. But those negotiations are private until the council reaches agreement and takes a public vote.
The rejected amount in the Clark case is well below $100,000, according to sources with knowledge of the proposed settlement.
"The settlement was rejected [because] we felt the number was way too low," Council Member Phillipe Cunningham posted on Facebook. Cunningham later deleted the post, saying he had been informed that he wasn't allowed to comment.
Clark, 24, was fatally shot in November 2015 during a struggle with Minneapolis police officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze on the city's North Side, sparking weeks of protest.
According to the investigation, Ringgenberg felt Clark's hand on his gun as he took him to the ground and told Schwarze, his partner, to shoot. Schwarze told investigators he warned Clark to let go of Ringgenberg's gun before shooting him.
Clark died the following day after being taken off life support. Separate state and federal investigations after Clark's death cleared Ringgenberg and Schwarze of wrongdoing.
Clark's family sued the city and the officers in 2017, arguing that his right to be free from excessive force was violated. Schwarze was later released from the suit because William Starr, the attorney for Clark's father, said his actions were "not unreasonable."
In her remarks at the hearing Wednesday, City Attorney Susan Segal said, "This is a City Council that is trying really hard to do the right thing" by balancing legal issues with a history of systemic racism and the need for police accountability.
Davis asked her pointedly whether it was worth trying to resume negotiations given the council's rejection. Segal said she'd have to talk to her clients, the council and the mayor.
"They're in the front row — why don't you go talk to them?" Davis responded.
"Right now, your honor?" Segal asked.
"Most definitely," Davis said.
The city leaders were there because Davis demanded their presence in his court order. Required to attend were Mayor Jacob Frey, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, City Council President Lisa Bender and Segal. Council Member Jeremiah Ellison also attended. The shooting occurred in his north Minneapolis ward.
Segal led the city leaders into a conference room for a discussion that lasted no more than a couple of minutes, returned and said, "Yes, there would be a purpose" in resuming negotiations.
After her comments, Starr told the court that the rejected Clark settlement was a "nominal" amount that had been negotiated earlier this year in a half-hour discussion at a coffee shop.
After the Noor settlement, he said he can no longer accept that amount.
"I need to have a transformative settlement," he said, echoing the description used by Bob Bennett, Damond's civil lawyer, in describing what that family received.
Starr said his Denver-based co-counsel is eager to go to trial.
The judge then ordered the lawyers and city leaders back to his chambers for a discussion. They came out less than a half-hour later, having agreed to mediation led by federal Magistrate Judge Tony Leung.
One by one, the city leaders stepped to the microphone and stated their agreement to mediation.
No timeline was set for reaching agreement, and negotiations will not be public.
"We also acknowledge there are other issues to be resolved," Segal said in court.
After the hearing, Starr said one of those issues regards who has standing to file the lawsuit. Clark had nine siblings. The lawsuit was filed by James Clark, who adopted Jamar when he was 9 and attended the hearing.
Both James Clark and Starr said race "absolutely" played a role in the difference between the Damond settlement and the proposal for the Clark case.
James Clark said he likened his son's shooting to that of Philando Castile, who was shot by a St. Anthony police officer during a routine traffic stop. Castile's family was awarded a $3 million settlement.
In a statement hours after the hearing, Bender wrote that the council has told attorneys to pursue a settlement that has "at its center a goal of racial equity and healing."