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June 19, 2019

J.C. Pleban’s Client Awarded $1.1 Million in Racial Discrimination Lawsuit

The city has settled a racial discrimination lawsuit involving a black St. Louis police captain for $1.1 million.

Former police Chief Sam Dotson fired Capt. Ryan Cousins in June 2016 after accusing him of ordering officers to alter a police report and ignore evidence at the scene of an attempted burglary in the Baden neighborhood that year. A resident there was suspected of firing a shot at someone trying to break in. Police put the resident in handcuffs after discovering he was a felon in possession of a firearm.

Cousins appealed his termination to the city’s Civil Service Commission and filed a civil lawsuit against Dotson and the city alleging that a group of predominantly white officers lied to cover up their own mistakes during an “illegal search,” and that the department failed to train, instruct, supervise, control and/or discipline its staff.

Cousins also alleged that the officers failed to read the burglary victim his Miranda rights.

The settlement brings the city’s total payouts for racial discrimination lawsuits involving police officers to close to $3 million since 2014.

Cousins mentioned the 2014 case involving former Sgt. David Bonenberger, who is white, in his lawsuit saying, in part, that the city had been warned then about racial discrimination. Bonenberger claimed in his suit that he had been passed over for a promotion in favor of a black officer, and won an additional settlement after claiming the department retaliated against him.

Cousins’ attorneys,J.C. Pleban, also represented Bonenberger in his cases, which ended in settlements of $800,000 and $725,000 respectively for a total of about $1.5 million.

In June 2017, the city settled a racial discrimination lawsuit brought by Maj. Mike Caruso, who is white, for $300,000. He argued that Dotson had promoted a black man, Ronnie Robinson, to a lieutenant colonel position even though Caruso was the more qualified of the two. An African American woman, Rochelle Jones, also sued Dotson and the city over the same promotion, saying she was the victim of gender discrimination. A judge dismissed her suit this week.

Dotson signed the settlement agreement with Cousins in May. Cousins withdrew his lawsuit against the city last week.

The settlement reads, in part, “The city and Dotson deny that that any of their actions with respect to Cousins up to the date of this agreement were improper or unlawful or violated any of Cousins’ constitutional or statutory rights; and deny that they are liable to Cousins.”

It continues: “Cousins, and the city and Dotson, in order to avoid the uncertainty, delay and expense of continuing the lawsuit or any other dispute between them have agreed to settle fully and finally all differences between them that are in existence now or that may arise in the future.”

Cousins and his attorneys will be paid $1 million as miscellaneous income and emotional pain and suffering and damage to Cousins’ professional reputation. The remaining $117,201 includes back pay for May 2016 through October 2017, according to the agreement.

A clause in the settlement agreement notes that the only comment to the media from any of the parties shall read, “The matter has been resolved to the parties’ satisfaction.”

The settlement agreement also ends a dispute between the city and its own Civil Service Commission, which reinstated Cousins in September 2017 with a written reprimand. Cousins had spent more than a year off duty when he was reinstated.

The three-member panel concluded that Cousins did tell officers to disregard a shell casing at the scene and omit from a report the fact that shots had been fired. They said he did it as “an exercise of police discretion not to arrest a crime victim in his home after a call to police for help.” Cousins’ conduct “was not serious enough to warrant dismissal,” the commission wrote.

The commission also agreed with Cousins’ attorneys when they argued that his discipline was more harsh compared with that of white officers involved in unrelated internal investigations. The examples were part of a report by the Ethical Society of Police, which represents black police officers, and included in the commission’s findings on Cousins.

The city hired an outside law firm to handle its appeal of the Civil Service Commission’s ruling, which slammed the Ethical Society’s report and said the commission’s decision to reinstate Cousins was “arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and involves an abuse of discretion.”

The city has dropped its appeal, per the terms of the settlement.

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