Rodney King in Legal Quagmire


Nearly a decade after he was brutally beaten by Los Angeles police, Rodney G. King says he is still taking a beating--from his lawyers.

He says they have made more money on his case than he has and, by his reckoning, have cheated him out of more than $1 million.

“I feel like this,” King testified last year in a deposition in a civil lawsuit against some of them. “I feel like first I took an awful beating from the police, and now my own lawyers are beating up on me.”


In a nutshell, the man whose 1991 videotaped beating made him an international symbol of police abuse says he thought he had a deal with his lawyers to pay them only 25% of his awards. But, he says, they tricked him and wound up collecting more than half.

“I feel like they took advantage of my lack of understanding and, you know, they muscled their educational background to deceive, mislead and rob me out of monies that belong to me,” he testified.

Although a legal expert hired by King said the money had been divided in the worst possible way for him, courts have been unsympathetic.

Partial accountings in court filings suggest that King’s lawyers received about $2.3 million, while he got about $1.9 million. Hundreds of thousands more went to pay medical bills and expenses incurred in preparing King’s successful federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles.

That suit ended in 1994, when a jury ordered the city to pay King $3.8 million in damages and a judge ordered the city to provide an additional $1.6 million that he could use to pay his attorneys.

In the six years since, Southern California courts have had to referee a legal free-for-all as King sued some of his attorneys, some of them sued him and some of them sued each other.

King has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees in these fights. But so far he has come out the loser.

One key case involved a fee dispute with his principal trial counsel, Milton Grimes. King said he spent $300,000 on a new lawyer for that fight alone, ultimately agreeing to binding arbitration.

But the arbitrator, retired Court of Appeal Justice John Trotter, came close to giving Grimes everything he wanted, awarding the attorney nearly $1.2 million.

King then sued another set of lawyers, seeking to recoup a little more than the $1 million he said he had already signed over to them.

His argument was that Grimes was responsible for paying them.

But a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled earlier this year that King had missed a critical deadline in that case and had filed his lawsuit too late.

King claimed that those lawyers--Steven Lerman, John Burris and Federico Sayre--tricked him into signing over attorneys’ fee checks from the city.

They denied it, and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ann Kough said King had presented no evidence that they had conspired. King testified at one point that he acted solely on Lerman’s advice.

Judge Kough also said that, at the time King signed over the checks to these lawyers, he had independent legal advisors who told him he did not have to.

He is appealing the dismissal of that case.

Arrested for Seventh Time Since 1991

King spends his spare time these days surfing, one of his new lawyers said. She said he is a partner in his brother’s Pasadena area construction firm but moved his own residence from Altadena, where he was raised, to the Inland Empire. She would not be more specific and King did not respond to an interview request.

He has not been able to stay out of trouble with the law. He was arrested last year for the seventh time since 1991, accused of striking his 16-year-old daughter and her mother in San Bernardino County, and he spent the first part of this year in jail. He had decided, the new lawyers said, to serve his 60-day sentence rather than do his time on a Caltrans freeway cleanup crew because he had had trouble making the 7 a.m. deadline for reporting to work.

Part of King’s trouble with lawyers may be that he has had so many of them--24 by the time he got a civil court jury to compensate him financially for having been beaten so severely. He has had at least five more attorneys since.

His first lawyer was personal injury specialist Lerman, of Beverly Hills. Lerman said he was contacted by King’s family and signed him as a client while King was still in a jail hospital, recovering from the smashed cheek and broken leg inflicted by Los Angeles police after he led them on a chase. King has testified that, as a parolee who had been drinking, he was afraid to stop.

Lerman filed a civil rights lawsuit on King’s behalf and negotiated a settlement of nearly $6 million with the city. But King fired him when the City Council refused to approve the deal.

That was when he hired Grimes, a criminal defense lawyer from Newport Beach who has said that he, like Lerman, was contacted by King’s family right after the beating but was not fast enough in getting to King’s bedside.

Lots of lawyers apparently wanted to represent King, seeing in his tragedy and celebrity the possibility of fame and fortune for them.

“Representing Rodney King was like being married to a beautiful woman,” Lerman mused when he was dumped. “As soon as you left the room, every guy was coming around trying to talk to her.”

Like Lerman and King before them, Grimes and King signed a contingency fee agreement. It called for King to pay Grimes 25% of the money King won. If King lost, Grimes would get nothing. Lawyers say it is common practice for a discharged attorney such as Lerman to have to look to his replacement for a share.

Grimes employed 14 other lawyers to help him with the case and brought in Sayre as a medical specialist and Burris, a civil rights specialist, as his main co-counsel.

The seeds of the financial disputes were sown when neither Lerman nor Grimes specified in their contracts with King who would get the attorneys’ fees that are often awarded to successful plaintiffs in civil rights cases.

Neither Lerman nor Grimes had much experience with civil rights litigation, and their contracts didn’t mention the possibility that the special, statutorily authorized fees might be awarded.

Law Unclear on Fees, Experts Say

The law, experts say, does not make it clear whether these fees belong to the attorneys, or to the winning plaintiff, who can, if he chooses, use them to pay his attorneys. In the King civil rights suit, the city, as the losing party, reflected this confusion, making out its checks for the fees jointly to King and to his various attorneys.

Grimes wanted King to sign over to him the statutory attorneys’ fees in addition to Grimes’ 25% of the jury award. He also wanted to see King pay the statutory fees awarded in the names of the other attorneys that Grimes had brought in to help him try the case, principally civil rights specialist Burris of Oakland and medical specialist Sayre of Orange County.

Grimes has said, in an attempt to forestall controversy, that he tried to get King to sign a supplemental contract assigning any victor’s attorneys’ fees to these lawyers. But King refused.

Grimes countered by cutting off King’s monthly allowance, which trial lawyers often pay clients who have retained them on a contingency basis. (Partial accountings in court files show that Grimes says he advanced King $115,000 before the civil rights award was paid. Lerman says he advanced King another $168,000, but King has disputed that, saying he did not receive that much.)

When Grimes cut off King’s allowance, his client dumped him and went back to Lerman, later testifying: “I thought that Steve would take care of me.”

Lerman had also been found deserving of statutory attorneys’ fees by U.S. District Judge John Davies, who presided at the civil rights trial.

Lerman advised King to sign over the attorneys’ fee checks from the city to Sayre, who had sued King for the money; to Burris, who was threatening to sue; and to himself.

King says he agreed to do that only because Lerman and other lawyers told him he would ultimately get the money back from Grimes.

When Grimes did not give the money back, King sued him and lost.

Then he sued Lerman, Sayre and Burris, seeking a return of attorneys’ fees he had signed over to them.

Sayre and Burris, meanwhile, each sued Grimes, saying their contracts with him made him responsible for paying them the difference between the amount Judge Davies found they deserved in special fees and the actual value of their time.

Each had the same contract with Grimes. But nothing has been simple about who gets the money in the King case. In one of the lawsuits, a judge looked at the contract and ruled in favor of Grimes. In the other, a judge looked at the same contract and ruled against him.