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Judge Real’s Sanctions Against Lawyer Killed but Feud Goes On

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the longest running controversies in local judicial history appears to have ended, with a federal judge ruling that a $250,000 sanction imposed on Venice lawyer Stephen Yagman more than seven years ago by another federal judge was unwarranted.

In an order made public this week, U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. refused to reinstate the sanction imposed in May, 1984, by Manuel L. Real, the chief federal trial judge in Los Angeles.

However, Hatter also criticized Yagman’s handling of a libel suit that led to the sanctions and the way an appeals court limited the judge’s ability to review the case.

Yagman has criticized Real’s conduct on numerous occasions and retained Ramsey Clark, former U.S. attorney general, and Brian O’Neill, a veteran trial lawyer, to represent him in getting the fine overturned.

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The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and the brouhaha between the blunt Real and the outspoken Yagman has not abated. Earlier this year, Yagman unsuccessfully attempted to get Real recused from presiding over one of his cases, contending that the judge was biased against him.

The controversy was precipitated by a libel suit stemming from the 1981 jailhouse death of Cal State Long Beach football star Ron Settles. An hour after being booked on speeding charges, Settles was found hanging in his Signal Hill jail cell.

An autopsy conducted by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office concluded that Settles committed suicide. But a coroner’s jury ruled 5 to 4 that Settles’ death was caused by another person or persons. Settles’ family filed a civil suit against Signal Hill and two officers.

In July, 1982, Yagman filed a $20-million defamation suit against two pathologists hired by the Settles family to do an independent autopsy. The suit claimed that the doctors defamed a Signal Hill detective and a police cadet at a news conference when they expressed doubts that Settles had committed suicide.

Real dismissed the suit in April, 1984, after Yagman presented his case. The next month, Real imposed $250,000 in sanctions, ruling that Yagman had filed the suit in bad faith. He agreed with assertions by the doctors’ lawyers that Yagman conducted himself “in a frivolous and cavalier manner” and criticized Yagman’s “lack of preparation” and “groundless objections.”

Yagman then charged that Real “suffers from mental disorders.” The Los Angeles County Bar Assn. rebuked Yagman for his “personal” attack on Real.

Yagman appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, saying he and his clients had been subjected to a “judicial mugging.” Two years later, in August, 1986, the 9th Circuit overturned the fine, saying it constituted a “massive, post-trial retribution, with no indication whatsoever of reasonableness.”

Such large fines could have a chilling effect on attorneys attempting to aggressively represent their clients’ causes, the judges said.

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Nonetheless, the judges said that Real was correct in throwing out the libel suit. By overturning the fine, the judges stressed, “we do not condone any of Yagman’s misbehavior.”

The judges noted that Yagman did not present an opening argument and did not oppose the defendant’s motion for a directed verdict.

The appeals court sent the case back to the District Court and said it should be randomly transferred to another judge, who would assess whether any sanctions were appropriate. The judges said: “We do not doubt Real’s ability to act fairly,” but said the case had to be reassigned “to preserve the appearance of justice.”

After several attempts to keep the case, Real finally relinquished it to Hatter when the Supreme Court refused his request. Hatter held a hearing on the sanctions issue in June, 1988.

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In his opinion, Hatter criticized some of Yagman’s tactics but said that they were not necessarily evidence of bad faith. Hatter also criticized the appeals court for taking the case away from Real, saying that only the judge who presided over the trial was in a position to assess Yagman’s conduct.

Real declined comment on Hatter’s decision, as did Yagman and attorney Mark Beck, who represented the New York doctors.

O’Neill praised the decision “as a thoughtful opinion which led to a fair result.”


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