MANHATTAN (CN) – A federal judge denied the New York City Police Department’s attempt to dismiss a landmark 1971 class action limiting its surveillance of private citizens. And, in the case originally brought by Abbie Hoffman, Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Haight Jr. awarded plaintiffs attorney’s fees for the NYPD’s “indulgence in meaningless litigation.”
The class action, which opposed the NYPD’s practice of maintaining videotapes and photographs of private citizens, was originally filed by attorney Barbara Handschu.
The original plaintiffs, who included Abbie Hoffman and Anette T. Rubenstein, settled with the Police Department, which agreed to abide by rules governing its surveillance of private citizens that came to be known as the “Handschu Guidelines.”
In 2007, Judge Haight allowed police to modify the guidelines, citing new security concerns after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The plaintiff class and the NYPD dwelt together under the Original Handschu Guidelines with a degree of amity and a lack of acrimony that, I am frank to confess, I had neither anticipated nor hoped for. But then the dreadful and tragic events of 9/11 occurred. The NYPD, viewing the circumstances in respect of intelligence gathering as having been materially changed, moved this Court for a modification of the Original Handschu Guidelines,” Haight wrote in his Feb. 25, 2007 opinion.
In that document, Haight allowed the NYPD to videotape and photograph political demonstrations, so long as the department’s methods conformed to the Handschu Guidelines.
He ruled on how those restrictions would be altered in what came to be known Handschu VIII and Handschu IX, according to a new opinion filed in January this year.
Handschu IX gave the plaintiffs class permission to pursue relief – and contempt actions – against the NYPD for violating rights in ways the modifications did not allow, Haight wrote.
The NYPD subsequently argued that the guidelines have changed so much that the plaintiff class could no longer be considered the “prevailing party,” Haight wrote.
The judge rejected that.
“Had the NYPD’s contention prevailed, much of the combined efforts of counsel and Court over years of litigating this case would have become ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ Macbeth, V. v. 17, ‘a consummation devoutly to be wish’d’ by the NYPD, Hamlet, III. i. 56,” Haight wrote, incorporating the Shakespearean citations in his ruling.
Haight refused to drop the curtain on the case.
Citing LaRouche v. Kezer, he wrote: “A party need not succeed on every issue raised by him, nor even the most crucial one. Victory on a significant claim will suffice to give him prevailing party status. The degree of success on the merits does not alter plaintiffs’ eligibility for a fee award, although it may decrease the amount of the award.”
Haight added: “In consequence, and contrary to the NYPD’s contention, the plaintiff class’s lack of success on its initial claims … does not preclude prevailing party status, so long as the class achieved victory on a significant claim which brought about a material alteration of the legal relationship between the parties and was which was judicially sanctioned. In the particular circumstances of the case at bar, it is entirely clear that the plaintiff class satisfies all three criteria.”
Haight compared the continuing importance of the Handschu Guidelines with Perez v. Westchester County Department of Corrections, a recent 2nd Circuit decision that forced Westchester County prisons to serve Muslim inmates halal meat.
In that case, “The Court reasoned that during the litigation the County defendants repeatedly acknowledged that ‘they did not serve Halal meat to Muslim inmates as often as they served Kosher meat to Jewish inmates and did not want to do so.’ Haight wrote that the NYPD regarded the plaintiff class as Westchester prisons did Muslim inmates.
“After the so-ordered opinions in Handschu VIII and Handschu IX, the NYPD is no longer free to disregard the plaintiff class because it wanted to, just as after the so-ordered agreement in Perez, Westchester County officials were no longer free to serve or withhold Halal meat whenever they wanted to,” Haight wrote.
In awarding attorney’s fees, Haight wrote, “Corporation Counsel’s indulgence in meaningless litigation imposed a cost on their client, it did not confer a profit.”
Haight has filed at least 10 opinions since 2007, according to a database search.
The literary-minded wrote in a Feb. 15, 2007 opinion: “To paraphrase Longfellow, this is the class action eternal.”