The judge overseeing the federal civil rights lawsuit filed recently on behalf of George Floyd’s family has led a legal career placing her squarely at the center of some of the nation’s most complex cases.
While in private practice in the 1990s, Susan Richard Nelson helped negotiate the state’s historic $6 billion-plus settlement with the tobacco industry. Shortly after being confirmed as a federal judge in Minnesota, she issued a ruling that staved off an NFL lockout. And, years later, she oversaw a settlement in a wave of concussion lawsuits against the NHL.
Now, her role in a discrimination lawsuit filed more than a decade ago by five high-ranking veteran Black Minneapolis police officers — one of whom, Medaria Arradondo, is now chief — has taken on new significance. Under Nelson’s supervision as the magistrate judge in the case, the parties reached a tentative agreement for a sweeping set of changes for the Minneapolis Police Department that ultimately fell through in the 11th hour.
Nelson had led a series of grueling, all-day settlement talks between lawyers for the officers and for the city and its police chief at the time. By July 2008, the parties were on the verge of a $2 million settlement that also included the addition of a new deputy police chief position focused on documenting and responding to reports of discrimination both within the department and in the community.
The tentative agreement included data collection about racially based policing and publication of that data; the Police Department’s adherence to terms of a previously proposed federal consent decree; and ongoing court oversight to ensure the settlement agreement’s terms were implemented and followed.
The case gave Nelson an inside view of policing in Minneapolis and what many characterize as its “institutional racism.” But she eventually was forced to declare an impasse after the City Council refused to sign off on the plan.
Andrew Muller, an attorney for the four plaintiff officers, said that the city’s attorneys had told his clients and Nelson that they would recommend approval of the settlement. But the council emerged from a closed-door meeting without voting. The case finally settled a year later but without the previously agreed upon policy changes.
“I think that if the settlement had been agreed upon we wouldn’t see a lot of the things we’re seeing today,” said Ralph Remington, a former City Council member. “You would have had a different kind of city at that time. We would have been a model for the nation.”
Both Muller and Remington say that former Mayor R.T. Rybak had urged against approving the initial 2008 deal for political reasons. Rybak disputes that.
“In 2009 [the] city reached a settlement with several African American police officers,” Rybak said in a written statement. “By law we cannot discuss a private settlement conference, but I will ... say the plaintiff’s attorney is inaccurate in saying the council and mayor did not want police reforms and feared political fallout. I recall the council and mayor being unified on the need for reform.”
Nelson declined to comment for this article, citing her role overseeing the pending lawsuit filed by Floyd’s family against the city of Minneapolis and the four former police officers involved in his death on May 25. The officers are awaiting trial in Hennepin County District Court on felony murder and manslaughter charges.
When it became clear that the hard-won initial settlement agreement would fall apart in 2008, Muller remembers seeing a look of “grave concern” from Nelson at one point. In trying to reach that point, Muller said, the judge had related a story from her 22 years as a private attorney about a woman she had represented who lost her family in a car accident because of a manufacturing defect. Her client eventually won a large financial reward but, at the end of the process, turned to Nelson and said, “Is this it?”
The point being, Muller recalled, that money alone can do only so much.
“She artfully encouraged the parties to work towards a potential resolution that included provisions beyond simply monetary relief,” Muller said. “Her encouragement prompted the parties to be creative, dig in, and come up with what could have been very meaningful [police] reform.”
‘She will not be swayed’
Colleagues, friends and others who have appeared before Nelson in court credit her deep background as a litigator for her ability to render decisions quickly and keep legal proceedings on track.
“The same attributes that she has today are the same attributes that she had when she started off,” said Annamarie Daley, a Minneapolis attorney who is close to Nelson and worked with her early in their careers. “She has been very consistent in her character and in her demeanor and in her commitment to being fair.”
Barry Landy, a Minneapolis attorney who clerked for Nelson in 2012 and 2013, is one of the many mentees to pass through her office — a club that also has included high school students Nelson allowed in her chambers to shadow her over the years.
“I think no matter who appears in front of her, she works hard to understand the legal issues that are before her and she treats everyone with dignity and respect,” Landy said.
Michael Ciresi was chairman of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi when the law firm brought Minnesota’s landmark lawsuit against the tobacco industry in the 1990s. Ciresi remembers Nelson and attorney Roberta Walburn engaging in settlement talks against a team of more than 30 opposing lawyers from around the country. Of her skills as a judge, Ciresi has been most impressed by Nelson’s commitment to creating an even playing field in the courtroom.
“She has got the right temperament; obviously she has all the smarts,” Ciresi said. “But being a judge is much more than that — it’s having the practical knowledge and experience to see when people are playing games and to move them off that without being too aggressive and offensive about it. She is able to get people to the right place.”
Nelson, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., graduated from Oberlin College before earning her law degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Since then, she has spent most of her career in Minnesota.
Magistrate judges handle many of the pretrial motions filed by lawyers and make recommendations to “Article III” judges — the ones with lifetime appointments — for their approval.
During her 2010 U.S. Senate confirmation hearing as a federal judge, Nelson described how her decade as a magistrate judge honed her skills at managing complex settlement talks.
“By nature, settlement is difficult. It’s a compromise and it’s difficult not to win,” Nelson said. “And so I think it requires certain skills, but most importantly, that the parties do trust you and respect your judgment on assessing the strength of their cases.”
But Nelson’s role as district judge is different. Should the parties involved in the Floyd family’s lawsuit fail to settle, Nelson would be tasked with overseeing a trial in the case, ruling on pretrial motions or approving any settlement proposals. The case is likely to attract international attention.
Legal experts have estimated that any financial settlement could match or exceed the historic $20 million agreement in the lawsuit filed against the city by the family of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who was shot dead by Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor in 2017.
“She will be incredibly fair,” said Robert Weinstine, an attorney who led the federal panel that recommended a second eight-year term as magistrate judge for Nelson in 2008. “She will not, in my view, be swayed by public opinion or the media.”