Civil Rights is a passion for the Merman Law Firm, but it is an increasingly difficult pursuit. Despite what appears to be rapidly eroding protection of our constitutional rights, Mr. Merman is usually fighting at least one egregious civil-rights case at any time.
Civil rights cases involve a state actor (police officer, county official, public high school or university) depriving a citizen of his or her constitutional rights under the color of state law. Normally the state and its employees have immunity from lawsuits (they cannot be sued) except under certain statutes that eliminate immunity. The most common of these federal statutes by far is 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. To prevail against an employee under Section 1983, the plaintiff must show that the constitutional deprivation was committed in bad faith - which is a fancy way of saying the police officer, or teacher, or principal had evil intent when he robbed the victim of his constitutional rights. To hold the City, County, or school liable for the actions of one of its employees, the plaintiff must show that the constitutional deprivation was committed pursuant to a written policy or a custom and practice so widespread it should be imputed on the municipality. Unless there is a written policy stating that it is fine to rob someone of their constitutional rights (and there never is), The Fifth Circuit has adopted an interpretation of the law that requires a plaintiff to prove that the same type of abuse has occurred more than twelve times in the past and went unpunished. Mr. Merman argued in the Fifth Circuit recently in an attempt to show the Court of Appeals that there are other ways to prove that constitutional deprivations are so common that the municipality should be held responsible.
For the past four years, Derek Merman has represented Joseph Roberts, who was assaulted twice at the Jefferson County Jail in Beaumont. The Federal Judge dismissed the lawsuit against Jefferson County, so Mr. Merman went to trial against the two police officers who assaulted Joseph and won the largest civil rights verdict ever reported in Texas...more than four times the Rodney King verdict. The verdict was not collectible but sent a resounding message that, despite the difficulty in recovering any expenses, someone is watching the police and will hold them responsible when they abuse their power.
Mr. Merman then appealed the dismissal of the County. You can hear his passionate oral argument here and on our home page. Mr. Merman argued that the testimony of two officers who said that people were routinely beaten up and even tortured at the Jefferson County Jail, the testimony of a respected law enforcement expert and a video of the events presented at least a fact issue as to whether there was a custom and practice of using excessive force that was so well-settled that the County should be held responsible. Most compelling was a video of the two assaults that show the supervisor and another officer "high-fiving" each other after the second assault. You can see the video of the first assault and second assault, and the total lack of surprise of the witnessing officers, here. Despite the Court of Appeals’ admission that Mr. Merman would probably win at trial, they nevertheless refused to overturn the Trial Court's dismissal—so a jury will not get to decide whether it’s County should be held responsible. Mr. Merman is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Merman has spent thousands of dollars and thousands of hours working on Joseph's case because it is the right thing to do. He has no expectation that he will ever be paid for his time or repaid his personal money that he invested in the case—and he refuses to give up until the problem is solved.
Obviously, Mr. Merman cannot take every Civil Rights case. But if you have strong evidence that there are serious problems with a jail, school or police department that needs correction, Mr. Merman is the man for the job.