Rodney King’s Lawyers Bill City: $4 Million
Attorneys for Rodney G. King are asking the city to pay $4.4 million in legal fees to settle the bill for King’s civil rights lawsuit--an amount exceeding the $3.8 million that a jury awarded King last spring to compensate him for the 1991 beating by Los Angeles police officers.
The lion’s share of the bill is from attorneys Milton Grimes ($2 million) and Steven A. Lerman ($1.2 million), who at various times have each been King’s primary counsel. In addition, civil rights attorney John Burris and medical malpractice attorney Federico Sayre have each billed the city for $600,000.
City officials, who believe that they should pay no more than $1 million in legal fees, say the claims are preposterously high, are duplicative and in some cases represent work that was irrelevant to the case.
For example, some attorneys for King are asking to be compensated for the hours they spent in interviews with the news media, in appearances on the Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue television shows and, in one case, attending the premiere in Oakland of a three-hour movie about Malcolm X.
Under federal law, plaintiffs who prevail in civil rights cases are entitled to have legal fees paid by the defendants.
In a court hearing scheduled for next month, U.S. District Judge John G. Davies, who heard the King civil rights suit, will determine how big the legal tab should be.
“It’s an incredible, staggering amount of money to ask for,” said Don W. Vincent, supervising deputy city attorney.
Even veteran civil rights attorney Stephen Yagman, who has made a career out of suing law enforcement agencies on behalf of beating victims, believes that the fee requests are out of line.
“Nobody should hold their breath on this one,” Yagman said. “It’s not in the cards that the court is going to award that amount in legal fees. . . . It seems to me that the amounts are a bit inflated.”
The case holds a different reality for those who represented King during the three years between the time the civil suit was filed and the verdict was won after a 2 1/2-month trial.
“There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears between the lines of these fee motions,” said Lerman, who at one point was fired by King but is now again his chief lawyer. “I only wish that I could be compensated for the emotional effort I put in the Rodney King case. . . . The case took over my life. I had to put the rest of my practice on hold.”
Lerman was King’s first attorney after an amateur video operator captured the famous beating March 3, 1991, that catapulted King into the world spotlight. The announcement of not guilty verdicts for four LAPD officers on criminal charges by a Superior Court jury in 1992 triggered the Los Angeles riots. In 1993 a federal court jury convicted two of the policemen, Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officer Laurence M. Powell, of criminally violating King’s civil rights. They are serving 30-month prison sentences.
While Lerman put together King’s early medical evaluation-and-treatment team and laid the foundation for his lawsuit, much of his time was also spent dealing with the media.
But legal experts say the court is not likely to compensate attorneys for time spent answering questions from the press.
“It undercuts the notion that cases are to be tried in the court but not in the press,” said Jeffrey Brand, a law professor at the University of San Francisco. “The test is whether it reasonably relates to the litigation.”
After King fired Lerman, he hired Grimes. When numerous attempts at reaching an out-of-court settlement with the city proved unsuccessful, Grimes hired a team of nearly 20 lawyers, including Oakland civil rights attorney Burris and medical malpractice attorney Sayre. The change in legal teams and long delays led to increased costs.
Among Grimes’ services being challenged by the city are travel with King around the country and expenses paid to tutor his client about African American history and culture--an effort to prepare King for trial and make him a more attractive public figure.
Responded Grimes: “It was important for me to help give him a sense of his own self-worth, to help him gain some self-esteem and appreciation of who he was and what King has meant to people.”
After winning the civil suit, King fired Grimes, concerned that his multimillion-dollar court award could be eaten away by excessive bills from lawyers, doctors, private investigators and others. He rehired Lerman, who said he will administer disbursement of King’s jury award. The City Council has approved paying the award but King has yet to receive the check.
The city attorney’s office has petitioned the judge to waive all legal fees, arguing that normal civil rights provisions should not apply in this case.
Federal civil rights laws require that attorney fees be paid to any victorious plaintiff. The intent is to compensate for the fact that civil rights cases are often unpopular, and attorneys are often hard to attract.
Deputy City Atty. Vincent argues that the King case is an exception because it has always been attractive to lawyers as a potential gold mine.
King lawyer Burris said the city’s position is hypocritical. After all, he argued, in its defense the city stressed that King was an unattractive defendant: an ex-felon who had contributed to his own beating by being arrested after a drunken high-speed chase. “This was not a slam dunk,” Burris said.
He added that the defense could have been less expensive if King had maintained a consistent counsel.
“If the case had been properly managed at the outset, it would have required only three or four attorneys to try the case,” he said.