But it doesn't seem that way to 75-year-old Nonna Osipova. She's been struggling to bring lawsuits against various police officers for nearly 20 years now, charging them with various crimes?but not a single case has made it to a courtroom.
Ms. Osipova grew up in Russia with dreams of being a writer and a filmmaker. She taught English while waiting for a chance to attend university. When she finally got in, however, things didn't go well. "I could not do what I wanted," she told me. "At last I rebelled. I was blacklisted, was connected with dissidents. I gave private lessons in English and figure skating. I was in prison. I tried to emigrate for 11 years. I had a brother here."
Unfortunately, by the time she reached New York in 1977, her brother had died, and she was alone, without a home, without anyone to help her, and with no work. She writes in her most recently filed court papers that she couldn't even get work cleaning toilets because she was overqualified.
She began writing a book she hoped to sell, concerning her experiences in Russia. She also began writing small articles and peddling them on street corners. Ms. Osipova's troubles deepened in 1982 when she was arrested for selling her manuscripts and artwork on the sidewalk. By her account, the arresting officers savagely threw her to the ground, stood on her while she was handcuffed, then dragged her by the hair into the back of the police cruiser. Which, granted, sounds like awfully harsh treatment for a sidewalk book vendor. The manuscripts and watercolors she was selling were destroyed, and Ms. Osipova spent the night in jail. She was brought before a judge the next morning, who dismissed the case.
"At that time," she told me, "I did not file a complaint with Internal Affairs. I did not know. So nothing happened." She did, however, attempt to bring charges against the arresting officers.
While the law against selling books on the street was eventually overturned in a federal court, Ms. Osipova's police brutality suit was thrown out.
Ten years later, in 1992, the gas stove in Ms. Osipova's Harlem apartment was removed by her landlady and sent away for repairs. Unfortunately, it was never replaced. After waiting for several months, she stopped paying her rent. In response, she says, the landlady called the police, who kicked down her door and pulled their guns on her. Ms. Osipova fled the apartment, leaving everything behind?her artwork, her writings, her cats?and found herself homeless.
"I lost everything. I filed a case and filed a complaint with Internal Affairs. The judge dismissed the case." She says the judge argued that the police were justified because there had been no hot water in the apartment, and that there were concerns about her well-being. "In this building, there was no hot water for 10 days," she said with grim humor. "So I called the police. And I told them, 'Come, break down the door!' And they said 'No, it has nothing to do with us.'"
At this point, she says she contacted both the Civilian Complaint Review Board as well as Internal Affairs, but her case was never investigated. Again, she filed a suit in federal court, citing a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights, and, once again, the case was thrown out.
After living in shelters for several months, Ms. Osipova?in very poor health and whose only income was her monthly SSI check?took a $90-a-week room in an SRO hotel on the Upper West Side, where she still lives today. And she lives there in fear.
The building, she says, is a hotbed of violence and crime. She's been raped and threatened with murder, but the police have never come to investigate. She says people try to break into her apartment to "fix things," and still the police don't come when she calls 911. None of these crimes, she says, has ever been investigated. In fact, the one time they did show up, the officers told her to never call them again.
"They refused to do anything after I was threatened. I filed complaints with Internal Affairs. Now I understand why it is that nothing happens. Recently, I wanted to know the names of the officers who came to my room. They did not know the names or badge numbers... The detective told me that the complaint was received by [a certain officer]. I talked to him. He knows nothing! He cannot find it. They could not find the names of the officers who came to my apartment on a certain day? They have everything on record. So that's the end of Internal Affairs. I went to the Civilian Complaint Board. Absolutely nothing."
Having no money for lawyers, she decided to handle her suits pro se. But, she soon discovered, the pro se office is "a legal ghetto."
"It could be months before anything happens," she explained. "Why? It should be like a line to a cashier?you stand in line, you get taken care of. It should be equal. Pro se doesn't decide anything. They look at the case and see if it's nonsense, and if it isn't, then it gets sent to a chief judge, who also doesn't decide."
Ms. Osipova discovered that she might not have to wait eight months (or longer) if she paid some people under the table. "If anyone pays several hundred dollars, they get taken care of. This I don't understand. Then I decided to pay money. I went to the cashier and was told that I couldn't file because I wasn't a lawyer."
Things got very complicated at this point, especially for an old woman in poor health who was trying to forward seven separate lawsuits?two against her landlord, two against the United States government and one each against the SSI, the NYPD, the Mayor and the FBI?for a total of $1.6 million in damages.
She ended up in a tangled bureaucratic nightmare, trying to serve papers on the NYPD and the Mayor and the owner of her building. If she served the papers on the wrong person, her case would be immediately dismissed.
No one at City Hall, she says, was able to tell her who gets the papers if she's trying to sue the Mayor. One person even told her that she wasn't allowed to sue the Mayor. This was ridiculous, as you'll know from a simple glance through any random issue of the New York Law Journal. Everyone's suing the Mayor. The Mayor, in fact, may well be the most sued individual in the city.
This seemed like an intriguing question, so I got on the phone myself with one of the lawyers at the Mayor's Corporation Counsel office and asked: Who does get served the papers if you're trying to sue the Mayor?
"I really can't answer these kinds of questions," I was told by a reasonably frantic attorney. "Those are questions for the plaintiff's lawyer?I can't give legal advice. You can't serve papers at City Hall. Here's the problem?I'm a lawyer, and I'm not sure exactly where you'd serve the Mayor. I'm not sure where you'd do it. It's a legal question. It's a question of jurisdiction. If you don't do it correctly, you're out of court. I don't want to be in the position of giving out legal advice, because I don't know. It involves research, and we don't do that for the press. Call the Legal Aid Society, call the ACLU and try to get from a lawyer what the proper way [is] to serve process on the Mayor."
Ms. Osipova's problems suddenly seemed much clearer. In the end, she believes her main problem is the fact that she's poor, and can't afford a fancy lawyer to handle these things for her.
"It reminds me of the huge cement blocks surrounding the federal courthouse to protect it against terrorists," she says. "Legal roadblocks protect the court against access to justice for the poor."
Nevertheless, her fight continues. She's preparing a new set of complaints to send to the courts, and studying the law on her own.
And I haven't even told half her story yet?namely, why she wants to sue the Mayor, the FBI and the United States government.