NEW ORLEANS -- Eyewitness News has learned the city is close to settling a lawsuit for withholding public police records, stepping in to pay the judgment that was lodged personally against NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas.
Serpas was supposed to appear in court Thursday for a financial assessment after the city lost a 2009 public records lawsuit filed by the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center.
Under a rarely utilized provision of state public records law, Serpas was held personally liable for fines and attorneys fees as the custodian of records that the city ultimately was forced to turn over.
But Thursday's hearing was cancelled after a 4 Investigates story last week prompted negotiations to settle the case.
Under the earlier judgment by Civil Court Judge Paulette Irons, Serpas was being held responsible for more than $15,000 in fines and attorneys’ fees. Now the cost has grown to more than $20,000, and it appears the city is on the verge of settling the case and getting Serpas off the hook.
Capital Assistance Center Attorney Richard Bourke, who won the judgment against Serpas, explained why he went after the chief, who wasn't even in office when the lawsuit was filed.
"When there is this finding that they're being so unreasonable and when civil penalties are awarded, it's very important that those civil penalties stick,” Bourke said. “Otherwise, there's no reason for records custodians to consider complying with the law or being worried about lawsuits at all."
But as of Thursday, there were still a few legal fine points to be ironed out before the city writes a check.
City spokesman Ryan Berni issued this statement about the lawsuit: "The matters scheduled for hearing today have been continued without a date to allow the parties to attempt to resolve the matter amicably. No settlement has been finalized at this time."
Despite the court order – and the fact that the city lost appeals all the way to the state Supreme Court – the city maintains that Irons’ ruling was erroneous.
“The city maintains its position that Superintendent Ronal Serpas is not personally liable for the judgment,” Berni wrote in his statement. “Again, the suit was filed under the previous administration and previous police chief.”
Bourke responded by saying he will continue to press the city – and Serpas – to abide by the courts’ rulings.
“Superintendent Serpas is not above the law,” Bourke wrote about the ongoing settlement talks. “There is not the slightest doubt that Superintendent Serpas is personally liable, along with the city of New Orleans for the breach of the Public Records Law. The law specifically makes the custodian personally liable in order to punish and deter breaches of the law such as occurred here. Notwithstanding the statement of the mayor’s office, we remain confident that following discussions between the parties this matter will shortly be resolved.”