Claims buster

Sheriff’s Department again responsible for highest percentage of Sacramento County lawsuits

Like Julia Louis-Dreyfus at the Emmys, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department spent another year dominating a category made up of also-ran departments. Except, in this case, the category was for most sued county agency.

According to an annual report from the county’s primary handler of liability claims, George Hills Company Inc., Sacramento County was forced to cough up $17.4 million in claim payments and legal fees for the fiscal year that ended June 30, significantly more than the previous year.

“Quite frankly, we just had some bad losses,” Randy Rendig, George Hills’ account manager to the county, told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The Sheriff’s Department was responsible for the biggest bad loss. Last spring, a Sacramento Superior Court jury found the department retaliated against four female jail deputies after they complained of discrimination and improper relationships within the agency. That one case cost the county $6.9 million in damages and attorneys fees, almost double what was originally reported, a county spokeswoman confirmed to SN&R.

The Sheriff’s Department claimed 46 percent of all county lawsuits last fiscal year, by far the largest proportion. The runner-up with 22 percent of the county’s lawsuits were “public works and infrastructure,” which could refer to the county’s Community Development, Transportation or even Water Resources agencies.

In his August 8 presentation, Rendig offered competing reasons for why the Sheriff’s Department takes it on the chin more than other departments. He said law enforcement has become “an easy target” and “has gotten a bad reputation over the years,” leading to more “frivolous lawsuits.” But the Sheriff’s Department has been monopolizing legal fees for more than a decade; in 2005-06, it was responsible for 53 percent of county lawsuits, a staff report shows.

“You see excessive force lawsuits, you see civil rights cases,” Rendig said. “It’s just, that’s the way it is.”

While Rendig’s report didn’t go into specifics about any of the lawsuits, questions from elected representatives prompted a few details. Asked by Supervisor Susan Peters if any of the claims were avoidable, Rendig referenced incidents inside the jail and on the street “where deputies might become a little too aggressive … when they’re trying to take somebody down.”

Rendig, who is his firm’s president of claims administration, did provide some good news: There were 10 fewer lawsuits assigned to counsel and 57 percent of them were closed without a payout.

Peters was glad to hear that. “All we ever hear is the bad stuff in closed session,” she said.

But if money is what matters, next year could be far worse. That’s when the tab could come due for a $107 million federal judgment, awarded in March to a family whose gravel and sand mine was shut down through land use decisions made by supervisors a decade ago.