The Beverly Hills lawyer who is representing Rodney G. King in a civil suit is being accused of using unethical tactics to get hired in another high-profile case of alleged misconduct by law officers.
In a complaint filed last week with the State Bar of California, lawyer Geraldine Green alleged that Steven Lerman used "outrageous" and "reprehensible" means to lure away a client who was expected to file a lawsuit in the death of Keith Hamilton, a mentally ill man killed Aug. 13 by sheriff's deputies.
The complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, contends that Lerman pressured Hamilton's mother, Clara Maxie, into retaining him. The complaint said Lerman made a "steady barrage" of phone calls to Maxie in the days after the shooting and that the calls persisted even after Maxie informed Lerman that she already had legal representation.
Lerman also sent Maxie a large floral arrangement "to further his solicitation," according to the complaint, and finally dispatched a limousine to bring Maxie to his office where he "wore her down" by disparaging Green's ability to handle the case.
As a result of the meeting, Maxie fired Green and hired Lerman, Green's complaint alleges. Last Friday, for undisclosed reasons, Maxie fired Lerman and hired veteran civil rights lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran. Through Cochran, she confirmed Green's account of Lerman's actions.
"Mrs. Maxie was so distraught . . . she told me that she felt . . . if she terminated my services and retained Mr. Lerman, at least the phone calls would stop," Green wrote in her complaint.
Lerman, contacted Wednesday, denied any wrongdoing and said Maxie hired him without being pressured. He noted that a member of Maxie's family initially had contacted him about the possibility of representing them--which Green acknowledges.
"Any contentions (Green) made are unfounded and untrue," Lerman said. "I think (she) is confused and perhaps upset. Clients ultimately have the right to make their own decisions."
Lerman said he did send flowers to Maxie. They were for Hamilton's funeral, he said, and arrived after Maxie orally agreed to hire him.
He would not discuss other details in Green's complaint, saying, "I don't think it's appropriate for attorneys to wash their laundry in the media."
Susan Scott, a spokeswoman for the State Bar, said the agency does not publicly discuss allegations against lawyers unless they have been substantiated. An investigative process could take months, she said.
Without commenting specifically on the Lerman complaint, Scott said state rules of ethical legal conduct strictly prohibit lawyers from interfering in the cases of other lawyers and using intrusive tactics to solicit business.
If lawyers are found to have violated those rules, they face penalties ranging from a sealed or public reprimand to suspension of their licenses. Disbarment in such cases is technically possible but unlikely, legal experts said, unless the lawyer already has a checkered disciplinary record.
A suspended or disbarred attorney is prohibited from doing legal work and must turn his caseload over to someone else.
Lerman, who has practiced law in California since 1973, has had no disciplinary actions against him here. In Florida, where he also holds a license, he is "an attorney in good standing," said a spokeswoman for that state's bar association.
Richard Zitrin, a legal ethics expert from the University of San Francisco, said "there is something wrong" with behavior such as that described by Green, if her account is accurate.
"That's not the way lawyers should do business," Zitrin said. "It doesn't meet reasonable standards of ethical behavior."
Lerman was catapulted to prominence this spring when he was hired by the family of Rodney G. King to represent King after he was beaten March 3 by Los Angeles police officers. He filed an $83-million claim against Los Angeles on behalf of the Altadena man. When the claim was rejected, he filed a federal lawsuit seeking an unspecified amount in damages.
Local civil rights lawyers who routinely handle police misconduct cases expressed dismay that Lerman, a personal injury specialist, was hired. Lerman attributed such criticism to envy.
Authorities say deputies shot Hamilton, 33, eight times in the back and once in the shoulder Aug. 13, after they were summoned to his mother's Ladera Heights home because he was behaving erratically. Investigators say Hamilton wore a buck knife in a sheath at his waist, but acknowledge that he never threatened anyone with it. The two deputies who shot Hamilton have been removed from duty pending the outcome of an investigation.
Like the King beating, the Hamilton shooting has prompted calls for an independent investigation of the law enforcement agency involved and has focused public attention on allegations of brutality by the Sheriff's Department.
Green said this week that she "thought long and hard" before filing the complaint against Lerman, but felt that the attorney took advantage of Maxie's grief.
"I didn't want this to overshadow the killing of Keith Hamilton," she said, "but I felt his action was so improper."