Three years and millions of dollars later, litigation stemming from an altercation between Washtenaw County Sheriff's deputies and two brothers in Ypsilanti Township may be settled.
The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners will be asked Wednesday night to approve a $1.375 million settlement agreement to end two lawsuits connected to the incident - one filed by Bruce Lee, and another filed by Beatrice McKeown, his mother.
But that doesn't mean the case is over. The county still faces another lawsuit from three of the officers involved in the incident - and they remain on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation.
The lawsuits stem from the night of June 1, 2006, when Clifton "Pete" Lee Jr., 45, died of asphyxiation at the bottom of a pile of Washtenaw County Sheriff's deputies trying to restrain him. Bruce Lee said he was beaten by deputies that night in a separate but related incident.
The county previously settled another lawsuit with the estate of Clifton Lee for $4 million.
"We're still dealing with the aftermath of that night," Sheriff Jerry Clayton said today. "But moving forward, what we're trying to do right now in the sheriff's office is not allow ourselves to be defined by the incident on that night in 2006."
The county's attorney and administrative staff said in a resolution up for board approval Wednesday that they believe it's in the county's best interest to settle the lawsuits. The board will meet at 6:30 p.m. in the administration building at 220 N. Main St. in downtown Ann Arbor.
Clayton, who took over as sheriff earlier this year, released videos
showing the violent confrontations between sheriff's deputies and the two Ypsilanti Township brothers in 2006.
A number of deputies were involved in physical altercations with the Lee brothers in the West Willow neighborhood after the brothers intervened in a traffic stop involving their nephew.
Three of the officers involved in the incident were federally indicted
on civil rights charges; two were acquitted
in the case involving Clifton Lee, and the third pleaded guilty
to civil rights violations in the incident involving Bruce Lee.
Three separate lawsuits were filed by the Lee family against the county, the county sheriff and individual county defendants as a result, with the family alleging police brutality.
The incident occurred under former Sheriff Dan Minzey.
Clayton, who defeated Minzey in the 2008 election and took office in January, said the county's internal investigation of what happened that night is still pending.
Clayton said his department is already working to put in place some of the non-monetary demands being made by the Lee family as part of the settlement, including better training of sheriff’s deputies as it relates to community engagement and dealing with people of diverse backgrounds. The Lees are black, and all but one of the officers involved are white.
"We are putting in place what we believe are the most appropriate strategies to give our officers the best tools," Clayton said. "Our organization has already moved forward in our attempts to enhance relationships with communities in the county, understanding that our success is grounded in having strong relationships with the community."
The county's insurance limit to cover civil claims arising from the Lee incident was $5 million, with a $250,000 self-insured retention amount that must be paid by the county before insurance proceeds kick in.
The estate of Clifton Lee filed the first of the three lawsuits, alleging, in part, wrongful death and a federal violation of civil rights. The case settled for $4 million with the county contributing the first $250,000 and the remaining $3.75 million coming from insurance.
After the settlement, the county had $1.25 million of insurance proceeds left to cover any other claims stemming from the incident.
Bruce Lee then filed suit alleging, in part, physical and psychological damages, as well as violation of his federal civil rights. Beatrice McKeown, the mother of Clifton and Bruce Lee, filed a separate lawsuit alleging, in part, intentional interference with familial relations, as well as violation of her federal civil rights.
The two remaining lawsuits have been consolidated before Judge Julian Abele Cook Jr. in federal district court in Detroit. County officials said the parties voluntarily entered mediation and agreed to settle both cases for $1.375 million. That means the county must pay $125,000 out of pocket, with the rest paid by insurance.
The county's insurance coverage provides for reimbursement of about 94 percent of attorney fees spent in defending litigation once the self-insured retention amount has been met, county officials said. To date, the county has spent $201,382 defending itself, and will be reimbursed $189,299. The county plans to use that reimbursement to cover its $125,000 portion of the latest settlement.
But even with the Lee family lawsuits settled, the county is still dealing with the aftermath of the 2006 incident.
Three officers involved - Shawn Hoy, Joseph Eberle, and Aaron Hendricks - are now suing the county, claiming they were racially discriminated against by the former sheriff and police investigators. They claim the previous sheriff's administration wrongfully suspended them because they're white officers involved in a fight with black men, one of whom died.
Jim Fett, a Pinckney attorney representing the three officers, could not be reached for comment today.
Bill Goodman, a Detroit attorney representing the Lee family, said the Lees have suffered enough and want to put the case behind them.
"The mother, she watched her own son basically die in front of her eyes after a really inexcusable attack by a variety of Washtenaw County Sheriff's deputies," he said. "We're willing to spare the family the ordeal of going through this litigation, reliving all these things yet again, and we feel it's in everybody's best interest to settle the case at this time. We feel that it's a modest settlement, but a fair one."