A federal judge has denied the city of Arvada’s request to dismiss a use-of-force lawsuit against its officers, but not before excoriating one of the lawyers involved for disclosing information that he pledged to keep confidential.
“I hope that a lesson has been learned very clearly. This is not the way to practice law. This is not what it means to be a professional. This is not okay,” wrote U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson in an unorthodox reprimand to Adam Frank, the original attorney for plaintiff Travis Cook.
As part of Cook’s criminal case in Jefferson County, Frank sought and obtained personnel and investigation files for the Arvada police officers involved in the arrest. As part of the agreement for receiving the documents, Frank stipulated he would not publicly disclose the contents. He assured the state judge at the time that “this has nothing to do with setting up a civil case” and he would only use the documents for the criminal proceedings.
However, when Frank filed the use-of-force lawsuit in January 2020, Arvada accused him of using the personnel information in court documents and forwarding the information to the media. Frank subsequently admitted that he “inadvertently violated the Protective Order from the criminal case.”
“The degree of obstruction to the judicial process by Plaintiff’s violation of the Protective Order is great,” the city argued, asking Jackson to dismiss the case entirely. “Plaintiff’s repeated defiance of the Protective Order has interfered with one of the principal purposes of our court systems – to provide a safe, effective forum for resolving disputes that is characterized by civility while at the same time undermining the public’s confidence in the enforceability of a court’s protective order.”
The judge agreed that while he was allowed to toss the lawsuit based on the violation of confidentiality, he was not inclined to do so. Any news articles that contained the information were now old and would likely not affect potential jurors as severely. And there was no evidence that Cook knew about his lawyer’s plan to violate the protective order.
Instead, Jackson chose to bar Cook from using the personnel information in his civil case, which he acknowledged would hurt the likelihood of success against the city and its officers.
“I notify the parties and Mr. Frank that I am sufficiently troubled by what I consider to be misrepresentation to the district judge in state court and the improper publication of information obtained upon assurances that its confidentiality would be maintained that I seriously considered dismissing the claim against the City,” the judge warned.
He added that the dispute did not implicate Cook’s current lawyers, but he would be “quite disappointed” if he had to referee attempts to use any of the confidential information.
In the remainder of the Jan. 25 order, Jackson considered the remaining other of Arvada and its officers to dismiss the use-of-force claims, and rejected each of them in turn.
On Feb. 11, 2018, Cook and his then-girlfriend began arguing in the basement of her parents’ home. Her father called the police and three Arvada officers — Brandon Valdez, Scott Thomas and Ryan Clark — responded. After speaking to Cook, the officers decided to arrest him.
The men, according to Cook’s complaint, gave contradictory orders that made it difficult for Cook to comply. The officers then pulled Cook out of a chair, and Valdez allegedly punched him in the face repeatedly. Clark reportedly threw Cook to the floor and Thomas used a taser on him.
Cook stood trial for charges of assaulting his girlfriend, assaulting Valdez, resisting arrest and obstructing a peace officer. The only conviction he received was for obstruction.
In January of last year, Cook sued the officers for excessive force and the city of Arvada for failing to train, supervise and discipline its officers. The complaint read, in part, that “[w]hen Defendant Valdez was done, Mr. Cook was almost unrecognizable.” The plaintiff also noted that the father of Cook’s then-girlfriend — who was not “predisposed to testify favorably for Mr. Cook” — said that Cook did not assault the police. There was no body-worn camera footage of the altercation.
A statement from the Arvada Police Department at the time argued that Cook had resisted arrest, “so officers were required to use force to protect the alleged victim and to take Mr. Cook into custody.” Cook countered that Arvada, in the case of Valdez, "has a long history of ratifying, condoning, and covering up his use of excessive force."
The officers asserted a defense of qualified immunity, a judicial doctrine that shields government employees from liability absent a violation of clearly-established legal rights.
“Officers are generally permitted to use some force to exercise an arrest, particularly when the crime for which the suspect is arrested is a violent one,” Jackson explained, noting that a suspected incident of domestic violence was serious.
However, Cook “had no weapon on him, and officers found no weapon at the scene,” the judge continued. “Nor did Mr. Cook threaten any of the officers or anyone else around. Meanwhile the officers went ‘hands on’ immediately.”
Moore concluded a reasonable jury could find the officers violated Cook’s constitutional rights given his reported behavior toward them, and declined to grant qualified immunity. The judge added that it “should have been evident to Thomas and Clark” that, in light of photos showing Cook’s bloodied and swollen face from receiving Valdez’s punches, “they needed to intervene.”
Neither Frank nor the current attorneys on the case responded to a request for comment.
The case is Cook v. Arvada et al.