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Molina urges making suit settlements public

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina on Tuesday challenged a decision by county lawyers to block public access to memos justifying legal settlements and proposed giving the public at least some information about lawsuit resolutions, which cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

Molina’s motion came as the board approved yet another settlement Tuesday.

Lawyers for the county said last week they had stopped making public memos advising their bosses to settle lawsuits, saying plaintiffs’ attorneys had tried to use the documents to extract more money for separate but similar cases.

The memos are written for a range of lawsuits -- including medical malpractice at county hospitals and wrongful deaths of jail inmates -- and have been publicly available for roughly 20 years. Molina said supervisors have a duty to protect the county from exorbitant settlements, but she said they also owed the public an explanation for how its money is spent.

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“I think there is a responsibility to be effective lawyers and to protect ourselves, but the public should know what these settlements are,” she said. “It’s their money. ... We’ve got to strike a balance.”

County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner Jr. said lawyers in his office have long held concerns about publicly releasing the memos. The documents, he said, are considered attorney-client communications. But he noted that the board, as the client, has the ultimate decision about how much is made public.

He said he would propose making some information public without “seriously impeding or damaging our ability to settle cases on the best basis for the Board of Supervisors.”

Molina’s criticism came as the board voted to pay $390,000 to a 12-year-old girl who alleged she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her foster father. Her lawsuit accused a county social worker of failing to follow up on suspicions that the girl was being mistreated.

The memo in her case has not been made public. Attorneys in the lawsuit said strict confidentiality laws governing child welfare cases prevented them from discussing details about the girl’s treatment.

Given such laws, the county’s legal memos had been, until the recent policy change, one of the few sources of public information about alleged negligence or abuse of foster children.

Last year, for example, the county paid $230,000 to resolve legal claims that three children were sexually, physically and emotionally abused by the biological children of their foster parents. The publicly released legal memo in that case said a jury probably would find the county negligent because its social workers missed visits to the children.

Two of the foster children were allegedly sexually abused and forced to perform sex acts on each other. The state confirmed the abuse, the memo said, and criminal charges were filed against two of the children and their mother.

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One of the children, an adult, was convicted of continuous sexual abuse and sentenced to prison. The mother pleaded no contest to child endangerment and was placed on probation, according to the memo, written by Assistant County Counsel Andrew W. Owens.

Molina faulted county lawyers for not conferring first with the board before deciding in May to stop making the memos public. She asked the attorneys to prepare a report that explains the new policy.

She also asked county managers and lawyers to draft a proposal for disclosure of some of the information contained in the memos for settlements of more than $20,000. She suggested including who was at fault, the proposed payout, the justification for settling the claim and the amount spent on defense attorneys.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich said he supported Molina’s initiative. “We’re working on public business, and the public is responsible for litigation costs,” he said.

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The board is scheduled to consider the issue on July 31.

jack.leonard@latimes.com


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