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City, local man settle civil rights case for $75K

Aug. 02, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- A Huntington man who accused the city and three of its police officers of violating his civil rights has reached a $75,000 settlement with the defendants.

The plaintiff, Joseph Pniewski, had claimed the Huntington police officers violated his rights Sept. 29, 2011, when they arrested him, seized his video camera and erased its footage. He had been recording their search of a vehicle near Northcott Court.

The city, represented by local attorney Steven K. Nord, strongly denied the allegation in a late June court filing, but then agreed to settle the case, according to court records and representatives from both sides.

The settlement includes a $75,000 award to Pniewski with no admission of wrongdoing by either side. An order dismissing the case, signed Thursday by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers, states each party will bear its own costs.

Courtenay Craig, one of three attorneys representing Pniewski, expressed satisfaction with the financial award. He also claimed indirect victory noting that since the lawsuit was filed, but not as part of its settlement, the police department has mandated officer training on the First Amendment and obstruction.

"We're thrilled they agreed to settle," Craig said. "That's clearly the best outcome, because if they're better trained and better informed, then in the long term the public is better served and protected."

Pniewski was not as satisfied and called his decision to settle one of financial necessity and duress, while City Attorney Scott McClure issued a prepared statement saying the city stood by its denial of liability and referred to the settlement as a financial decision made by the provider of its police liability insurance. That policy does not allow the city to block any such settlement, McClure added in a later interview.

"They basically, looks like to me, made an economic decision to resolve the matter as opposed to risking future exposure for more costs," McClure said.

Nord, who deferred comment to the city, filed a late June motion to dismiss Pniewski's lawsuit, arguing the plantiff had provided no supporting evidence for his claim that officers erased the video recording. It also noted a pill bottle with Pniewski's name found in the vehicle gave officers reason to suspect his involvement and consider his presence as hindrance to the investigation.

Nord's motion also described Pniewski as a nuisance with a history of harassing police and the court system with frivolous lawsuits.

Craig and fellow attorney Rich Weston said Nord's arguments had no impact on their client's decision to accept the settlement. Both said the video, which was later retrieved by an employee at Marshall University, was their best evidence to support Pniewski's claim.

Craig called his client's unsuccessful history with previous lawsuits the result of lacking representation in those cases.

"He's tried to go about settling his grievances through the system, which is what you much prefer," he said. "They tried to paint him as an overly litigious person ... He wasn't a lawyer. He didn't know how to go about doing it procedurally, but to fault him for doing that is ridiculous. That's what the legal system was created for."

McClure confirmed the implementation of officer training on the First Amendment and obstruction, and agreed with Craig saying it was not a direct result of this week's settlement. He said any time the city faces litigation there is nothing wrong with conducting a review to gauge current procedures and assess the need for improvement.

Officers listed as defendants in Pniewski's lawsuit were Dana Cowell, James Leist and Ryan Bentley.

Craig and Weston were joined in the case by fellow plaintiff attorney Connor Robertson.

Follow Curtis Johnson at Facebook.com/curtisjohnsonHD and via Twitter @curtisjohnsonHD.

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