The Price of Viral? $625,000

Jazmine Headly did well. Her cause of action was solid, and there is no question that she suffered in the hands of New York City police, as it was the subject of a viral video. Just about a year ago, video of cops yanking her 1-year-old child from her arms as they arrested her for sitting on the floor poor evoked outrage, as well it should. After prosecution was declined, she sued.

The episode, in December 2018, touched a nerve, capturing what New Yorkers who rely on public benefits say is the uncaring and even hostile treatment they often get from city workers who themselves feel pressure to follow rules.

The charges against Ms. Headley were ultimately dropped. Her public benefits, which had been stripped, were restored, and Mayor Bill de Blasio apologized to her publicly. Nonetheless, saying she was standing up for herself and others in similar circumstances, she filed a federal lawsuit against the city.

A year later, the case settled.

“From Day 1, Ms. Headley insisted that this incident was not just about her, but about the dignity of every young woman of color raising her family with immense love and hard work, in a difficult world,” her lawyer, Katie Rosenfeld, said.

And the City claims it made changes as a result of this incident.

The city’s most notable moves in the wake of the episode involving Ms. Headley included the introduction of mandatory training in how to de-escalate tensions for the security guards who work in the city’s public benefits offices. Twenty-two security guards at the city’s welfare agency resigned or were fired.

The Department of Social Services established an Office of Constituent Services to handle complaints from benefits recipients. The agency is now required to issue quarterly reports on use-of-force incidents. And within a few weeks, security guards will begin wearing body cameras that will capture their encounters with the public.

There were, obviously, problems with the security guards, who treated the poor who over-occupied their waiting room like dirt, unworthy of ordinary human courtesy. Whether these changes will improve matters is a different story, as getting rid of bad guards only helps if they’re replaced with good ones. Mandatory training always sounds like a decent palliative solution, but it never seems to change anything. And a place to complain is no better than the “internet butthurt” form on the sidebar here if nothing comes of it. And cameras.

“The steps that we said we would take that would mitigate the horrible things that happened to Ms. Headley have been taken,” Steven Banks, the social services commissioner, said in an interview on Friday.

So there will be fewer lines at the SNAP office? More seats? Shorter waiting times? That’s why Headley was sitting on the floor, which put in motion all that followed, yet there’s no mitigation of the source of the problem, even if they now have 22 scapegoats.

But what of the woman who went to jail, who clung to her child as female cops tried to yank him from her arms? She got something out of this for herself as well. She settled her case for $625,000.

That is a lot of money. It’s not money that grows on trees in Brooklyn, but money that begins in the pockets of taxpayers and could end up in a variety of places, but ended up instead in Headley’s (and her lawyer, Rosenfeld’s) pockets. There’s a decent chance that Headley’s pockets have never been quite so full before.

To non-lawyers, numbers with zeroes behind them seem magical. What happened to Headley was terrible and should never have happened, so the least the City could do is pay her a big number in settlement. Some would argue it should have been millions just because it was so awful. And it was awful, but that’s not the way the amount of money is determined.

Headley was offered, and refused, medical care for her and her son after the incident, from which we can deduce that there were no physical injuries. She was embarrassed and humiliated at the time, but went on to become an internet and media darling for being a victim. She spent time in jail before her charges were dropped, but so do a lot of people, and in her case, there was an open warrant from New Jersey as well.

What’s a needless night in jail worth? Did she lose her job, her apartment, her license, her child? Will there be a cost for future therapy for Headley to get over the trauma of the incident, or did she overcome it when the 24-year-old gave cathartic testimony before the City Council?

If this wasn’t just for her, but for the “dignity of every young woman of color raising her family with immense love and hard work,” does she plan on sharing her settlement with others? Maybe she does.

The amount of money paid in settlement of a claim usually has some relation to the damages suffered, some of which are derived from hard numbers such as medical costs, while an amount relates to the pain and suffering a person was put through. Headley may not have the former, but she has a legitimate claim to the latter. Yet, that doesn’t really help in figuring out what that number should be.

Had the video of cops ripping her child from her arms not been made, not gone viral, would she even have a case? Would her suit, if any lawyer would take it, have ended with a $625,000 settlement? Will the next “young woman of color raising her family with immense love and hard work” who’s treated like dirt at the welfare office demand the same pay day? If so, I suspect she’ll be very disappointed, unless there happens to be a video that goes viral like Headley’s.

7 thoughts on “The Price of Viral? $625,000

      1. Guitardave

        Hate to spoil your well wishes, but driving my Amish neighbor around in holiday traffic doesn’t qualify…. but i think his horse likes me…go figure.

  1. Hunting Guy

    I’m here but I try to go by Proverbs 17:28.

    “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.”

  2. Michael Montemarano

    What happened to the guards? Their supervisors? Their supervisors? Indemnification? Why? They have assets to lose — THE most effective way to school them and their cohorts not to do this, eh?

    1. SHG Post author

      To understand the answers to your questions, you would have to understand law. But this is a blawg for lawyers, not law school.

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