“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” goes the adage. In Al Sharpton’s family, the words are doubly true. This past weekend, Dominique Sharpton, the eldest of Reverend Al’s two adult daughters, announced she has sued the City of New York for $5 million over a sprained ankle she sustained last October while tripping over uneven pavement in the middle of a Lower Manhattan street. She claims that she was “severely injured, bruised and wounded” and “still suffers and will continue to suffer for some time physical pain and bodily injuries.” Yet given the outsized award sought, and her seemingly healthy condition only a couple months later, this may be an attempt to game our liability system; i.e., a hoax. And there is another issue: Is dad looking for a cut?
The Reverend Al Sharpton is a master of the shakedown of white-run organizations under the guise of “civil rights” and “social justice.” My recent book, “Sharpton: A Demagogue’s Rise,” chronicles his varied campaigns over the decades to vilify whites allegedly guilty of perpetrating crimes against innocent blacks out of racial motives. The claim, for example, that Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson last August shot an “unarmed” black youth, Michael Brown, who had his back turned and his hands up, turned out to be a hoax. Yet Sharpton stood by the claim, and in so doing, contributed to the powder keg of tensions that led to local rioting. And most notoriously, there was Tawana Brawley, the teenaged girl in upstate New York who back during 1987-88 claimed to have been assaulted and raped over several days by a group of white men. Her claims, as a state grand jury eventually concluded, were completely fraudulent, yet Sharpton to this day defends his highly inflammatory promotion of her cause.
To fund such campaigns, Sharpton since the late-Nineties increasingly has relied upon tax-deductible donations from corporations, unions and philanthropies to his New York City-based nonprofit organization, National Action Network (NAN), which in recent years has taken in over $4 million annually (the figure for 2014, though not yet available, may be far higher due to rapidly rising corporate donations). His guilt-ridden donors, Embracing Diversity, pretty much agree with him on race-related issues anyway. That makes fundraising all the more easy. Sharpton, who last October turned 60, is a public figure of the top rank. Aside from leading NAN, he is a syndicated radio talk show host, an MSNBC news anchorman, and a close friend and ally of President Obama. He arguably wields more influence than any black civil rights leader in American history – more than Jesse Jackson, more than Adam Clayton Powell Jr., more even than Martin Luther King Jr., for whom Sharpton worked as an adolescent. Yet despite his rising credibility and net worth, he has been heavily in arrears to federal and New York State tax authorities for a long time. The best estimate of his current personal and organizational tax liability is $4.5 million.
The answer to his problems, of all places, may lie within his family. Dominique Sharpton, now 29, like her younger sister Ashley, is the daughter of Al Sharpton and his estranged wife, Kathy (the two have been separated for about a decade). Each daughter plays an active role in the affairs of National Action Network. Dominique is the group’s director of membership. It is entirely possible she will succeed her father as NAN president. If nothing else, she has learned a few things about how to turn the legal system to one’s advantage.
Our story begins on October 2, 2014. Dominique Sharpton was walking along a crosswalk at the intersection of Broome Street and Broadway in Lower Manhattan, when she suddenly tripped and fell on an uneven pavement. And the result was a sprained ankle – or perhaps more. In Ms. Sharpton’s own words, she was in a state of “permanent physical pain.” In an Instagram social media posting, she wrote: “I sprained my ankle real bad lol.” Somewhere during the following months, she sued the City of New York’s Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Protection for $5 million for failing to address the safety hazard caused by the defective pavement. She is claiming “internal and external injuries to the whole body, lower and upper limbs, the full extent of which are unknown, permanent pain and mental anguish.” The award would compensate for her “loss of quality of life, future pain and suffering, future medical bills, [and] future diminution of income.” Yes, the crosswalk is uneven (see photo). Yet for several reasons, this doesn’t look like a strong case.
First, suing the City of New York for uneven sidewalks or streets is a game that many play. During fiscal year 2014 alone, the City of New York received fully 774 such claims. And payouts can be lucrative. One plaintiff, Denise Giles, managed to collect a $2.25 million out-of-court settlement seven years after she sued the City’s Health and Hospitals Corporation for failing to fix a broken sidewalk outside one of its clinics. Her payout was one of 885 totaling about $60 million the city made over a recent 22-month period for defective sidewalks. That’s about $70,000 per payout. It’s hard to imagine all these cases as justified. Quite plausibly, Dominique Sharpton sees a big payday, especially given the come-and-get-it attitude of the current de Blasio administration when it comes to resolving lawsuits (see later discussion).
Second, $5 million is a lawyer’s opening figure and does not necessarily reflect actual harm or even close to it. Dominique Sharpton’s lawyer, John Elefterakis, admits as much. Claiming his client has suffered “multiple ligament and tendon tears,” Elefterakis states Ms. Sharpton “has not had any involvement in selecting a figure that would be fair and adequate compensation for her pain and suffering.” He emphasizes: “The number was selected by my firm and is meant as a safeguard for Ms. Sharpton in a worst-case scenario.” It’s almost a certain bet that he and his client will settle for a lot less, even if they can prove negligence on the part of the City. That’s the way our legal system works.
Third, for someone allegedly in excruciating anguish from “permanent” injuries, Dominique Sharpton has made a remarkably quick recovery. Last December, she attended National Action Network’s “Justice for All” march in Washington, D.C. Around that time, she also posted a photo of herself on Instagram decorating a Christmas tree. During a New Year’s Eve vacation in Miami Beach, she appeared to walk freely. And in a very recent vacation in Bali (Indonesia), she posted a pair of online snapshots of herself with the accompanying words, “#Balidays on the Gilis,” a reference to the Gili Island retreat. This entry came the same day that the New York Post revealed other photos in which Ms. Sharpton boasted of having climbed a mountain there. Were this not enough, she also has been photographed wearing high heels at a party and climbing the rough terrain of Red Rock Canyon in Nevada. In the process, she most likely has sabotaged her case. Leading Manhattan personal injury lawyer Howard Hershenhorn puts it this way: “Her (Sharpton’s) gallivanting around in high heels and climbing a mountain in Bali drastically diminish the value of her case because it clearly shows that her injuries are not severe, and as a result, she will not be paid or awarded any substantial amount of money by any rational jury.” Another top personal injury lawyer, David Jaroslawicz, similarly states: “If she’s going to claim she’s disabled, the first thing you tell your client is, ‘Don’t live on social media, because even if you don’t lie, it makes you look bad.” He adds that she would stand to win only $5,000 to $7,500 from the City, not even deducting legal and expert witness costs, because sprain cases typically aren’t worth pursuing.
Fourth, the person who stands to benefit most from a $5 million settlement is the plaintiff’s father, Al Sharpton. For a decade or more, he has been in continuous hot water with the IRS and the State of New York over back taxes. Early last October, at his gala 60th birthday celebration, the very time frame during which his daughter sustained her injuries, Reverend Al claimed he had worked out a repayment plan with the authorities and was making strong progress. But is he? He has made this claim several times, even when his tax liability was lower. The most commonly cited recent figure for his combined federal and state tax bill is $4.5 million. It is not unreasonable to suggest that he sees a $5 million award as covering his back taxes and leaving a nice $500,000 gift for his daughter. Reverend Sharpton insists that he and his daughter are not working in tandem. He stated: “She’s 29 years old. Why would she have to talk to me about that? I just know that she was hurt and that she got a lawyer and she’s a grown woman. [Where] she goes from there, I have no idea.”
Exploiting the system is one of Al Sharpton’s specialties. It would be naïve to believe that he lacks the capacity, let alone the motive, to pull some strings at City Hall to win a large negligence settlement, even if well short of $5 million. He and Mayor Bill de Blasio are close. Elected mayor in November 2013, de Blasio won an estimated 96 percent of the black vote. Sharpton’s former longtime NAN communications director-image makeover specialist, Rachel Noerdlinger, in fact, worked for a while as a high-paid assistant to the mayor’s wife, Chirlane McCray. Since taking office in January 2014, Mayor de Blasio has been on a spree to settle a backlog of lingering lawsuits. Last June he and leading officials brokered a $40 million-plus settlement with lawyers for the “Central Park Five” (convicted in the early Nineties for the near-fatal beating of a white female jogger in 1989), an outcome the Rev celebrated as “a monumental victory.” Even if Dominique Sharpton’s claim to have severely debilitating injuries turns out to be a hoax or at least a wild exaggeration – as it likely will be – give her father some credit for the effort: Few can promote a hoax as well as he can.