Attorneys defending Los Angeles County from a lawsuit over a jail inmate's death were fined more than $52,000 for "egregious" misconduct, the largest fine ever imposed on a county legal team, court records show.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Haig Kehiayan ruled that Philip S. Miller, principal deputy county counselor, and Donna Bruce, a private attorney hired to help him, acted to delay the trial through "bad faith and frivolous actions."
The delays forced the plaintiff's lawyer to do large amounts of unnecessary work, Kehiayan ruled.
Miller and Bruce were each ordered to pay $22,887 to compensate attorney Allan F. Grossman for his extra efforts. Two other private attorneys who handled an appeal for Miller and Bruce were ordered to pay $3,187 for their roles in what the judge called "unnecessary delays."
The county is appealing the May ruling, which imposes the largest such fine ever given a county legal team, Bob Pellman, senior assistant county counselor, said Friday.
The wrongful-death lawsuit was brought by the widow of Stanley Malinovitz, a North Hollywood man who died after he was strapped to a cot in County Jail for 40 hours, although a Municipal Court commissioner had ordered that he be taken to a hospital for immediate medical care.
After two days strapped to the cot, Malinovitz died of a pulmonary embolism, which is often caused by lack of motion. In December, five years after Malinovitz's death, a San Fernando Superior Court jury awarded his widow and children $2.5 million. The county is appealing that verdict.
Grossman, who represented the widow, contended in a complaint to the judge that, before the trial, the county legal team filed many motions and appeals that were "totally and completely without merit . . . for the sole purpose of harassing" him by forcing him to prepare responses.
For example, Bruce and Miller sought to have the lawsuit dismissed before the trial by arguing that Municipal Court Commissioner Charles Peven considered his court order "advisory." The lawyers argued that Peven would not have issued the order to move Malinovitz to a hospital if he had known that the inmate was being held in the jail mental ward.
But the state evidence code prohibits testimony by judges in civil court proceedings about the intent behind a previous court order.
Grossman also said Miller and Bruce tricked him into wasting days preparing for the testimony of medical experts who were subsequently never called as witnesses in the trial.
Although attorneys are regularly fined during civil proceedings for failing to appear in court or failing to provide information to their opponents, the nature of the alleged misconduct and the size of the sanctions in the Malinovitz case are very unusual, some Superior Court judges said.
Assistant County Counselor Robert Ambrose, however, called the sanctions "nonsensical."
"No one on our team did anything that was illegal or unnecessary," he said.
In court papers filed in response to Grossman's allegations, county lawyers called Grossman's motion for sanctions an "unwarranted, vituperative and transparent attempt to intimidate, and to penalize the county, and its counsel personally, for vigorously and diligently defending the action."
Miller and Bruce said they believed it was legal for Peven to testify about his court order, and that neither Grossman nor Peven objected to the testimony at the time. They also said they had valid legal grounds for every motion they filed, although their arguments were often rejected by the courts.
The two trial attorneys said they chose not to call the many experts designated as potential defense witnesses because they did not feel Grossman had succeeded in making points they needed to contradict. In court papers, they contended they should not be punished for this "legal tactical decision" made during the trial and should rather be "praised for not lengthening the case."