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Han family loses round in federal appeals court

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — An appeals court on Friday upheld the dismissal of a federal lawsuit alleging Albuquerque police inadequately investigated the death of Mary Han, a prominent civil rights attorney who had often sued APD.

But the court also affirmed that the city of Albuquerque was entitled to only $5,000 in attorneys’ fees – a fraction of the $63,000 the city had sought from the plaintiffs.

Some of the Han family’s claims, however, are still pending in state District Court, unaffected by the federal dismissal.

The litigation – in both federal and state court – centers on Han’s death in 2010, when Han’s law partner found her dead in a car in her garage.

An autopsy report described it as suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning. But the state Attorney General’s Office later concluded that Albuquerque police had “terribly mishandled” the investigation at the scene.

Han’s daughter and sister filed suit in 2012 alleging that the inadequate investigation violated their constitutional rights to due process and access to the courts – that, if there had been a proper investigation, they could have filed a wrongful death suit.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Denver, affirmed on Friday a lower-court ruling dismissing the claims.

“The complaint provides no theory as to how Han died or who allegedly caused her death, let alone the type of action that Han would have had against the party at fault had she survived,” the Appeals Court said in a 13-page order.

The ruling, however, isn’t entirely favorable to the city.

The court affirmed the $5,000 award of attorney fees to the city, not the $62,594 requested by the city. The lower court had reduced the city’s award “in light of overbilling, duplicative work, and equitable considerations,” according to Friday’s decision.

Rosario Vega Lynn, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the Han family has “been fighting the city because the actions by those in charge of the police department cannot go unanswered and should never happen to Ms. Han or anyone else – whoever they are. Police must do their jobs properly because we depend on them to do their jobs without bias or prejudice or fear.”

The city, in turn, has repeatedly described the suit as frivolous.

“We are pleased that this case is one step closer to being resolved,” City Attorney Jessica Hernandez said.