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Lawyers call DWP billing settlement 'half-baked,' urge court to reject

Lawyers call DWP billing settlement 'half-baked,' urge court to reject
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Powerheadquarters. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Attorneys representing several Los Angeles residents who sued the Department of Water and Power over the disastrous rollout of its new billing system are balking at a proposed settlement that the utility reached in a separate lawsuit over inflated and erroneous bills, calling it "half-baked."

The utility had faced several Superior Court lawsuits over excessive charges that were dealt to customers during the billing fiasco. When the proposed settlement reached with Antwon Jones was unveiled this month, DWP officials said the tentative deal could resolve the other claims as well.

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However, lawyers representing Sharon Bransford, Steven Shrager, Rachel Tash and Hayley Fontaine -- plaintiffs in two of the other cases -- argued in a court document filed Friday that the proposed settlement, which the utility says would credit or refund all customers who were overcharged, has "fatal flaws" and should be turned down by the court.

"Despite the documented incompetence and lack of transparency at the DWP, every aspect of the proposed settlement is controlled by the DWP without any meaningful transparency," their filing states.

The lawyers argued that the deal is "not thought out" because the utility alone will decide who is entitled to refunds or credits and how much they are going to get, without revealing their criteria or formula for calculating how much ratepayers are owed. They also stated that key information for eligible residents would only be provided in English.

The attorneys added that the lawyer whose client reached the proposed settlement — Cleveland-based attorney Jack Landskroner — wasn't experienced enough to get a good deal. They asked the court to choose one of the objecting attorneys, Timothy Blood, as "class counsel" for the entire group of aggrieved customers.

Landskroner fired back late Friday in a written statement, saying that Blood played "absolutely no role in achieving this extraordinary recovery for LADWP customers" and that typically when a big settlement is reached, "lawyers who have had nothing to do with the outcome will come out of the woodwork angling for a big pay day."

Blood "clearly has very little understanding of the nature of the cause of the billing problems or how to fix them," Landskroner wrote.

"It is tough to argue with a settlement where every customer gets 100% of their money back and the DWP agrees to fundamental reforms," Landskroner said, adding, "We will continue to forge ahead to get DWP customers made whole."

The court is expected to decide whether to grant preliminary approval to the settlement in September.

The department says it billed $44 million in excessive charges after the system went into effect, some of which has already been returned. Under the proposed deal, customers who were overbilled will get credit for the excessive charges. If they have closed their accounts, they will be mailed refund checks.

The proposed settlement would also require some changes to billing practices, such as restricting when the DWP can demand payment for bills that are not promptly sent to customers, and taps an independent monitor to track its progress.

Follow @latimesemily for what's happening at Los Angeles City Hall

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