Jim Kenyon: Justice Delayed for Falsely Accused Grandfather

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jim Kenyon: Geoff Hansen

Published: 7/23/2017 1:04:49 AM
Modified: 7/23/2017 1:04:50 AM

When will Ernie Simuro see the $300,000 that a federal jury awarded him last November in his 2014 civil rights lawsuit against Windsor police?

Apparently, never — if the town of Windsor and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns have their way. They seem bent on dragging out the case for as long as they can.

Next stop: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York.

The appeal, which is expected to take a year or so, comes after U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions III denied the losing side’s request to reduce Simuro’s award from $300,000 to zero last month. Short of that, they wanted a new trial. Sessions rejected that motion as well.

No doubt Windsor officials and the League of Cities and Towns, which is bankrolling the defense, have the legal right to take this case to the mat.

But is it the right thing morally?

As I’ve written before, Simuro is a 73-year-old Vietnam War veteran who was arrested by Windsor police in October 2010 for allegedly sexually assaulting his 7-year-old learning-disabled grandson.

Simuro’s attorney, Wayne Young, of Norwich, fought for nearly a year to get the case dismissed. In the meantime, Simuro, who has no criminal record, spent time in jail and used his retirement savings to pay legal and bail bond fees.

Being falsely accused of such a horrific crime, however, has cost Simuro much more than money. As Richard Steingard, a civil rights attorney from Los Angeles who is working with Young, told the jury, “In the Google age, that claim is never going to leave him.”

Simuro’s arrest was front-page news. In the court of public opinion it doesn’t necessarily matter that the case was eventually dismissed over concerns that Windsor Police Sgt. Linda Shedd had mischaracterized information in her probable cause affidavit.

Shedd, who left Windsor in 2012, built her case around unsubtantiated allegations made by Debra Pitts, Simuro’s daughter and the boy’s mother. Pitts was a longtime heroin addict who had battled with her parents over the custody of her son.

Simuro and his wife, Laureen, had raised their grandson, who is not identified by name in court records, almost from birth. After his wife died of cancer in 2007, Simuro became his grandson’s primary caregiver.

In his 2014 federal lawsuit, Simuro asserted that Shedd had violated his civil rights by initiating his false arrest and malicious prosecution.

The jury rejected four of Simuro’s five claims, including false arrest, but found in his favor on the malicious prosecution claim.

The Vermont Department for Children and Families, which assisted in the police investigation, was also a defendant in the lawsuit. Simuro and his grandson reached a $400,000 out-of-court settlement with DCF in 2015.

Why didn’t Windsor settle before trial? And why is the legal fight continuing?

No one’s talking — at least not to me.

Windsor Selectboard Chairman Rich Thomas didn’t respond to my email last week. Joe Damiata, director of risk management services for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, told me that he generally doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.

The League of Cities and Towns is a powerful and deep-pocketed nonprofit corporation founded in 1967. Along with lobbying for municipalities at the Statehouse, the League provides insurance coverage for its members, which includes Windsor. In its self-insurance fund, the League sets aside about $16 million a year for claims.

But it’s my impression that the League seldom pays up in civil suits against municipal police officers until all legal avenues are exhausted. It doesn’t want to set a precedent.

The League and its attorneys are well aware that alleged victims of police wrongdoing rarely win in court. Cops enjoy what’s called “qualified immunity,” which protects them from virtually all civil lawsuits.

In his Second Circuit appeal, Rutland attorney Kaveh Shahi, whom the League hired at the outset to represent Shedd and the town, argues that Sessions erred in ruling that Shedd wasn’t entitled to qualified immunity in this claim.

The League might also be taking a hard line for another reason. If Simuro wins, it will have to pay his legal bills. On the other hand, if Simuro loses, his attorneys, who are working on a contingency fee basis, get zilch.

Last month, Young and the Los Angeles law firm of Lightfoot, Steingard and Sadowsky filed court documents seeking $892,070 in legal fees for the 3½ years that they’ve spent on the case.

I get that it’s tough for Windsor officials to stand up for what’s right when someone else is paying their bills. But wouldn’t it be refreshing for the Selectboard to take a public stance on ending this legal battle now?

Last week, I caught up with Simuro, who moved to Connecticut with his grandson to get a fresh start. To help make ends meet, Simuro’s working as an Uber driver.

Simuro still talks regularly on the phone with his daughter. Pitts, 31, has been in the news quite a bit lately. Last month, she was sentenced to 5 to 10 years in prison for the armed robbery of a pizza delivery driver in Claremont.

“Drugs are a sickness,” Simuro said. “It’s always been her issue. I just hope she spends her time in prison getting herself clean.”

He tries not to dwell on the past, or the latest developments in his lawsuit — what happens is beyond his control. “They could have settled this early on, just like (DCF) did,” he said.

Simuro isn’t counting on the $300,000 jury award, but admits it would be a big help. He’s trying to put aside as much as he can these days for his grandson, now 14, who will need looking after once he’s gone.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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