ZURIK: New Orleans council members push to rectify millions in unpaid judgments

“It’s been 20-something years. When is it going to be time to rectify what you guys did?”
Updated: Aug. 24, 2022 at 9:56 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - There’s a new push to pay hundreds of victims who are owed millions of dollars by the City of New Orleans.

A series of FOX 8 investigations show that New Orleans owes more than $36 million in nearly 500 separate cases. The oldest case dates back to 1996.

The city can ignore judges’ orders to pay because of an obscure provision in the Louisiana constitution that says funds can’t be seized and can only be paid out if municipalities appropriate the money. That means victims can sue the city and win, but the city doesn’t have to pay them the judgment.

More: New Orleans’ refusal to pay judgments leaves victims suffering

Two council members are now promising to make payments a priority.

“I think the first judgment is 1996. I was in college,” said Councilmember Joe Giarrusso. “So these things have been dragging on for such a long time. Let’s work down the list. Let’s get people paid. I think what we need to do as a council is say, ‘hey, look, this is a value of ours.’ I’ve said multiple times. I think this is a moral obligation.”

Carving out the money in the budget for the payments could help victims like Lance Stewart. In 2003, when Lance was seven years old, he was hit by a speeding NOPD cruiser. His sister, Angela, remembers rushing to Charity Hospital.

“He flipped up in the air, out of his shoes, landed on the pavement, and he was in a coma for a little over a month and a half,” said Angela.

Lance survived, but his brain never fully recovered.

Struggling to pay medical bills, the Stewarts sued. In 2006, a judge awarded the family $4 million. However, 16 years later, they continue to wait for full payment.

While Lance is a millionaire on paper, without the payment, the family was unable to provide him with proper medical care and struggled to make ends meet. For a time, they ended up homeless.

“When the judgment came, it was pretty much like still nothing, because the city wasn’t paying. My mom was homeless. My brother and my mother were homeless. We’ve all been struggling,” said Lance.

Lance is now 26 years old and works a part-time job at Walmart as part of a program that helps people with disabilities. Also on the claims list is George White. His company audited an agreement between New Orleans and former phone company Bell South.

“After we did the audit, the city sued Bell South based upon our work, and they were able to receive a considerable amount of revenue as a result of that,” said White.

He saved the city about $33 million dollars total. In return, he was owed about $3 million. However, the city refused to pay, and a 2005 ruling by a judge that the city owed White the money only landed him on a long list of unpaid judgments.

White says he can’t believe he’s been fighting for the money he’s owed for two decades.

“It just seems like it’s a closed loop. I’m thinking about 20 years of trying to collect something for work that we’ve done... and thinking about the list of others like me. You know, it is hard to fathom that it’s taken this long.”

Councilmember Oliver Thomas says he’ll also push for payments to victims like White and Stewart.

“Well, especially for the business who saved money, you know, from the 90s, who actually got their judgment in 2000s. I’m understanding that they save the city millions, and he can’t get the money,” said Thomas, “And then the other one about the young man who a police car hit, that caused some severe developmental and damage, who that if he had the money for treatment, would actually enhance and improve his quality of life. I think it’s taking a look at cases like that.”

New Orleans sets aside $2 million per year in a judgment fund, however, that’s not enough to ever catch up on the payments.

Giarrusso and Thomas say there needs to be more funding, but with crumbling infrastructure and an NOPD officer shortage among other priorities, it could be a tough sell.

“I mean, you know, this is an age-old discussion about where do you take the money from? Especially given what we’re dealing with now, with public safety, the police department, the fact that other groups also demanding we invest in recreation and in alternative activities for kids, and subsidies for home ownership,” said Thomas.

However, there are other possibilities for funding. Giarrusso suggested a line of credit to pay down the claims.

“The city issues bonds all the time, those bonds are usually for big capital projects, building things. The only difference here is we would do a line of credit for paying judgments down,” said Giarrusso.

Meantime, Thomas recommends exploring federal funding options.

“The Biden administration is dedicating a lot of money to cities, a lot of federal grants, maybe that’s an opportunity to eliminate some of those burdens,” said Thomas.

The council controls the budget and Giarrusso is the budget chairman. The process for next year’s budget is just getting started. Giarrusso says there is negotiating to be done.

“That’s always sort of this tricky line because the council is the appropriating body, but typically, the mayor prepares the budget,” said Giarrusso. “So, as we get to that negotiating point, about deals that people want to see, to benefit either the city or their districts, how much momentum can you build for this judgment issue?”

Both Giarrusso and Thomas stopped short of promising increased payments, but say they plan to prioritize the issue.

“I believe that my family has suffered enough. I believe Lance has suffered enough,” said Angela Stewart. “It’s been 20-something years. When is it going to be time to rectify what you guys did?”

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