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Judge opts not to penalize L.A. over destruction of documents

Judge opts not to penalize L.A. over destruction of documents
Boxes of files from the office of then-Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge that were marked for destruction but preserved. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

In a legal battle with the city, a Hollywood Hills couple argued that the destruction of documents by former City Councilman Tom LaBonge had hampered their lawsuit so badly that it should cost Los Angeles in court.

But a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has turned away their claim, saying there was no proof that any relevant documents had not been turned over to the couple.

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Kenneth and Annette York sued the city after it rejected some of their building plans for a Hollywood Hills property west of Griffith Park, restricting how much of the hillside land they could cut and fill with grading. The Yorks argued that the city decision made it impossible to build a home there.

They claimed that the city had unlawfully thwarted them so that the hillside area could remain open and undeveloped. LaBonge, who represented the area at the time, had made it clear that he wanted to expand the park to include their property, the couple said.

After news emerged in the Los Feliz Ledger and other media outlets that LaBonge had sent off scores of boxes of documents to be destroyed when he left office, the Yorks sought a default judgment in their favor, arguing that the city had intentionally trashed evidence that could help their case. Lawyers for the Yorks also argued that some documents from LaBonge's office that were bound for the shredder — but later found and made public — had proved to be highly relevant to their case.

City attorneys countered that the Yorks had gotten all of the documents tied to the case and that "any allegations that more files exist … is speculation not supported by the facts."

In January, a Superior Court judge ruled that the decision by an area planning commission to restrict the amount of allowed grading was justified, and that a LaBonge aide had not unfairly affected that decision. But the court had yet to rule on whether the Yorks, who were seeking $50 million in damages, should be compensated by the city on their claims of economic harm and violation of their rights.

Judge Richard L. Fruin Jr. ultimately sided with the city on those remaining issues Thursday, saying that the Yorks had not exhausted their possible options for developing the Hollywood Hills property before going to court.

Fruin said that made it unnecessary for him to rule on the alleged destruction of evidence, but that he would not have agreed to the penalties that the Yorks were seeking anyway.

Attorney Eric J. Lorenzini, who is representing the Yorks, said they were disappointed and would consider all options, including a possible appeal.

LaBonge said this week that he was not up to date with all of the issues raised in the York case, but maintained that city departments had all the necessary files. The former councilman previously said that he had not gotten rid of documents to hide any wrongdoing or to hinder his successor, David Ryu, who ran against LaBonge's former chief of staff last year.

The destruction of documents raised concerns about whether the city was complying with state law, which limits when and how public records can be tossed out. The junked papers also became a bone of contention in the ongoing legal battle over a Sherman Oaks development: Earlier this year, attorney Robert P. Silverstein had pressed for a court to impose financial penalties on the city over the discarded papers, arguing that evidence might have been destroyed.

The court turned that down in February, though Silverstein said the judge in that case left it open for the plaintiffs to pursue the matter in the future.

Follow me on Twitter at @LATimesEmily

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