Lawyer's fee in CHP beating case sparks courtroom drama, divided loyalties

Federal judge overseeing CHP beating case jailed attorney for not answering questions about her $625,000 fee

The shocking video images captured on the side of the Santa Monica Freeway quickly went viral.

It showed a California Highway Patrol officer repeatedly punching a black woman, Marlene Pinnock, seemingly with no provocation.

As outrage grew, Pinnock's outspoken attorney Caree Harper was at the center of the story. She decried the officer's actions, demanded justice for her client and rallied community groups to Pinnock's defense. Harper ended up securing a settlement in which the officer resigned and the CHP gave her client $1.5 million.

But that victory last year has given way to vitriol and bitterness.

A federal judge overseeing the case has questioned whether Harper's $625,000 fee was excessive given the amount of legal work she did. The judge also raised questions about whether Pinnock, given her mental health history, was competent to agree to her deal with Harper without a conservator present.

Judge Otis D. Wright III grilled Harper about the issue in early March and, when he concluded that she wasn't answering his questions, held her in contempt and sent her to jail for two days. Harper has defended her actions, saying that she has done nothing wrong and that the judge's questions were unfair.

The dispute has divided the once-unified civil rights activists who had stood behind the attorney.

"There are serious questions about how much of the more than $1 million in the agreed on settlement in the case has been used," Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, said in a statement.

The tension between Wright and Harper grew in a series of hearings that started in February. The judge told Harper that he was concerned about Pinnock's mental state when he learned her portion of the settlement was going into a special trust overseen by a bank.

"This is the first I've heard that Ms. Pinnock may have been incompetent," Wright said. "Otherwise, she would not need a special needs trust; she would manage her own funds."

Harper and the state's lawyers returned to Wright's courtroom in March. This time, the judge pressed Harper about the first time she met Pinnock and prodded her about whether she thought Pinnock was mentally competent; his back and forth with the lawyer became increasingly tense.

"I want you to describe your first encounter with Ms. Pinnock.... Under what circumstances did you meet Ms. Pinnock?" Wright asked Harper.

"I'm not going to answer that question," Harper replied.

"Pardon me?" the judge responded.

"Without my counsel being here, answering questions that may or may not be attorney-client privilege items, I'm not in a position to answer that," Harper said.

Wright ordered Harper taken into custody, with U.S. marshals handcuffing her. Wright said he wouldn't release her until she was ready to answer his questions.

Two days later, Harper was back in the judge's courtroom. She answered the judge's questions and was ordered to provide proof that she paid Pinnock money her client was owed — at a fourth and final hearing March 17.

When March 17 arrived, Harper didn't go to court, sending two other attorneys with the legal paperwork. Two of Harper's critics — Pinnock's daughter and son-in-law — were in the courtroom. So were many of the lawyer's supporters. A Facebook post urged people to attend the hearing and confront Wright about his dealings with Harper.

Pinnock's daughter, Maisha Allums, told the judge that Harper had driven a wedge between her and her mother. But Pinnock's aunt defended the lawyer, saying that she had looked after Pinnock's best interests.

Wright, who has been on the bench for nearly eight years, asked for people in the audience to stand if they had questions.

Sha Dixon told Wright she wrote the Facebook page encouraging people to show up. "It says 'Come down to court and ask Judge Wright to stop abusing his power.' "

Wright responded: "Got you. You want — what you want is for Judge Wright to stop trying to protect Marlene Pinnock, right?"

Dixon elaborated, "So if you're trying to protect Ms. Pinnock's interest, you would actually be trying to speak up about the officer who beat her. That's actually protecting [her] interests."

"No. Making sure that she isn't ripped off by her lawyer protects interests," the judge replied.

The moment was an unusual interaction between a sitting judge and members of the audience in a courtroom — especially a federal one, said Stanley Goldman, a law professor at Loyola Law School, who added that he thought Wright's questions to Harper were legitimate.

Goldman said a lawyer typically charges 33% to 40% of a civil award in a lawsuit when they are not paid up front as an incentive for taking clients who are not well off. Harper received $625,000 as part of the settlement but gave Pinnock $25,000 of that in cash so Harper's take was ultimately about 40%. But Goldman said an attorney's share of a settlement is related to their legal work in the case.

The CHP beating case took less than three months to settle. In court, Harper said she didn't do any depositions, didn't do any discovery, or evidentiary work on the case, and saw the video on television "like many millions of others." She said her client is mentally capable when on medication.

"A first-year lawyer would have been able to try and successfully win this case with a videotape, all right?" Wright told the attorney at one hearing.

Harper and her supporters said she did more than just represent Pinnock in court. The attorney put Pinnock up in a new apartment, paid for new clothes, her food and her medication all out of pocket, said the woman's aunt, Brenda Hall Woods.

Woods said Harper has been fair and earned her share of the settlement.

"Judge Wright is ignorant to the difference between 'mental illness' and 'mental incompetence,' " Harper told The Times in an email. "I take cases that may take two months or two years — when I earn a low wage, what then? If Wright was really concerned about Ms. Pinnock, what took so long to chime in?"

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