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$5 million in legal fees awarded to jail brutality victims

$5 million in legal fees awarded to victims of jail brutality is in addition to $950,000 in damages

Five jail inmates who alleged that they were brutally beaten and shocked by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies have been awarded more than $5 million in legal fees.

The amount, approved by a federal judge last week, is unusually large for such cases and may encourage more attorneys to represent indigent plaintiffs who claim abuse by their jailers. It comes on top of $950,000 in damages that a federal jury awarded to the inmates after a trial last February.

Heriberto Rodriguez and the other inmates say that they suffered broken bones in beatings by sheriff's deputies when they refused to leave their cells at Men's Central Jail on Aug. 25, 2008. The county argued that deputies took the steps they felt were necessary after a riot broke out, with inmates setting fires and throwing porcelain shards from broken sinks.

In a Dec. 26 order, U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall accepted the winning attorneys' assessment that they spent nearly 6,000 hours on the case at rates of up to $975 an hour. The attorneys said they had been willing to settle the case, including legal fees, for about $900,000, but the county refused.

Of the $950,000 jury award, $210,000 was for punitive damages and $9,500 will go to the inmates' attorneys, in addition to the nearly $5.4 million in attorneys fees granted by the judge's order.

"This should be a wake-up bell for the county," said Ronald Kaye, one of the attorneys. "This was an outrageous violation of the civil rights of these inmates and resulted in outrageous injuries."

Attorneys for the defendants, who included the county, the Sheriff's Department and nearly 30 sheriff's officials, did not respond to requests for comment. A note on the website of the law firm Lawrence Beach Allen & Choi, which litigated the case, said an appeal is planned.

In 2012, a blue-ribbon commission found that a culture of violence flourished in the county jails among sheriff's deputies who were permitted to beat and humiliate inmates, cover up misconduct and form aggressive cliques. Among the 21 sheriff's officials charged with federal crimes in recent years, nine are accused of brutally assaulting inmates or visitors to the jails.

In another jail brutality lawsuit, the county reached a settlement last month requiring a court-appointed panel to monitor the use of force by sheriff's deputies. The settlement also granted $950,000 in legal fees to the ACLU of Southern California.

Peter Eliasberg, the ACLU of Southern California's legal director, said the punitive damages awarded by the Rodriguez jury indicated that the inmates had a strong case and suggests that the county should have settled for less than $1 million instead of ultimately paying more than $6 million in taxpayers' money.

Rodriguez alleged that deputies kicked him, punched him and choked him until he was unconscious. After being shocked back to consciousness with a stun gun, he was given shocks all over his body, including his testicles, and then hit on the head with a flashlight. His skull was fractured in the incident, he said in a court filing.

Another inmate, Juan Carlos Sanchez, said he was kicked in the head and face, shocked with a stun gun and struck with a flashlight, leaving him with a fractured leg and scars on his face.

The large award for attorneys' fees was possible because the inmates won on both state and federal civil rights claims. Although the federal portion is subject to caps both on the total amount and on hourly rates, the judge doubled the state portion based on the financial risk to the attorneys and the difficulty of representing "the worst of the worst."

Kaye said in a court declaration that he worked more than 70 hours a week preparing for trial, turning down another lucrative case to focus full time on the case.

The ACLU takes on a limited number of high-profile jail lawsuits, leaving most to private attorneys, who are only paid if they win and will not accept a case unless they stand a good chance of being compensated.

Eliasberg said: "99.9% of people in jail are not going to be able to pay. The only way it'll happen is if you think the damages are significantly large enough to get a decent contingency, or if you get attorneys fees."

cindy.chang@latimes.com

Twitter: @CindyChangLA

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