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Judge Grants Reduced Fees to King Attorneys : Courts: He orders Los Angeles to pay $1.6 million to lawyers who helped the beating victim win a $3.8-million judgment against the city. They had asked a total of $4.4 million.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The federal judge in Rodney G. King’s successful lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles has ordered the city to pay nearly $1.6 million in legal fees to a variety of attorneys who represented King, attorneys disclosed Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge John G. Davies awarded King’s team of more than a dozen lawyers considerably less than half of the $4.4 million they sought for representing him in the civil suit, which grew out of his 1991 beating at the hands of Los Angeles police officers. King won a judgment last year of $3.8 million.

The two most prominent King lawyers, Milton Grimes and Steven A. Lerman, were awarded barely one-fifth of the fees they sought.

The most common reasons used by Davis for disallowing claims by the lawyers were duplicative work, over-staffing and claims for the punitive phase of the civil trial, in which the jury ruled against King in his attempt to recover damages from some of the officers involved in the beating.

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Davies was particularly critical of attorneys who sought reimbursement for representing King at news media events. Those appearances had nothing to do with “the purpose of obtaining a favorable result for Mr. King, but for their own benefit,” the judge wrote in a 48-page decision.

“The judge kicked some of the lawyers in the butt,” acknowledged one of the attorneys, John Burris, a civil rights specialist who sought $600,000 for representing King but was awarded only about $325,000 in Davies’ ruling, issued Friday.

Davies awarded $456,000, the largest share of fees, to Grimes, who was King’s lead attorney and represented him through the civil trial. Grimes had asked to be paid $2 million. Fees for Lerman, who now represents King and handled his case before the trial, were set at $221,000, instead of the $1.2 million he sought. Another attorney, Federico Sayre, who specializes in medical malpractice, was awarded about $325,000; he had sought $600,000.

Davies refused to allow compensation for interviews with the media, appearances with King on the Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue television shows and Grimes’ attendance at the premiere in Oakland of a three-hour movie about Malcolm X.

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“Mr. King’s lawyers and Mr. Lerman especially basked in the friendly glow of media attention” to promote themselves, Davies wrote. “It is inconceivable that the jury verdicts were related even in the remotest fashion to appearances by the lawyers on talk shows or by the media spin of Mr. King’s trial lawyers.”

Lerman said he was disappointed.

“The intensity of the media coverage created the need to work 24 hours a day,” he said. “What I billed was just a small fraction of the time I spent. The entire world media looked to me to offer commentary on Rodney King as a person.”

Burris, who did not submit bills to compensate him for time dealing with the news media, said he was not surprised by Davies’ decision. However, he also was dismayed. The judge “was ruthless in disallowing hours associated with the media. Likewise, he was also unkind as it related to any appearance that work was duplicated,” Burris said.

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King’s lawyers were automatically able to seek reimbursement from the city because under federal law, plaintiffs who prevail in civil rights cases are entitled to have legal fees paid by the defendants.

City officials, who had urged that their share of King’s legal fees be limited to $1 million, characterized the plaintiff’s attorneys’ initial claims as staggering. The city now has the option of appealing the judge’s order, but that appears unlikely, officials said.

“The judge looked at the matter very studiously and came up with something that on its face doesn’t appear to be unfair,” said Deputy City Atty. Don Vincent, who is in charge of police litigation. “We would have liked it to be a little lower, but I don’t think we will have many complaints.”

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Davies’ limitation of attorneys’ fees may set the stage for another battle in which some of the lawyers attempt to seek further compensation from King’s $3.8-million jury award, sources familiar with the case said Tuesday.

King’s decision to switch lawyers during the past three years created a crowd of sometimes competing attorneys.

Lerman was King’s first attorney after an amateur video operator taped the infamous beating March 3, 1991, that catapulted King into the world spotlight. A Superior Court jury’s announcement of not guilty verdicts on criminal charges against four LAPD officers in 1992 triggered the Los Angeles riots. In 1993, a federal court jury convicted two of the officers, Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officer Laurence M. Powell, of criminally violating King’s civil rights. They are serving prison sentences.

Lerman put together King’s early medical evaluation and treatment team and laid the foundation for his lawsuit against the city. Then King fired Lerman and hired Grimes.

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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 attorney Burris and medical malpractice attorney Sayre. The change in legal teams and long delays led to increased costs.

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. Lerman said Tuesday that King has received part of the $3.8-million award but would not disclose the sum.


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