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Lawyer Bills City in Police Suit: $987,684 : Civil rights: He won a $44,000 jury award for his clients against Chief Daryl F. Gates and several officers. The fee brought immediate criticism.

April 09, 1992|MICHAEL CONNELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An attorney who won a $44,000 jury award for his clients in a civil rights case against Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and several of his officers has submitted a bill that could cost the city nearly $1 million in legal fees.

Submitted by Stephen Yagman on behalf of himself and three other attorneys, the bill brought immediate criticism from the city attorney's office Wednesday.

Deputy City Atty. Don Vincent said the bill would total $987,684 if approved as submitted by Yagman to U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts. Vincent, who heads the unit that defends the city in police-related litigation, said he would challenge the proposed fees as grossly excessive.

"Just under $1 million--it's quite shocking," Vincent said. "We are going to challenge it because we think it's outrageous."

Yagman defended the bill, which he submitted in the form of a motion to Letts, and called the criticism sour grapes.

"That's the way the world works," Yagman said. "Winning attorneys get paid reasonable fees by judges. . . ."

Under federal regulations, attorneys for plaintiffs who win civil rights lawsuits against government agencies are allowed to charge legal fees to their opponents.

After a trial that spanned three months, including interruptions, a jury last week found in favor of five plaintiffs in a suit against Gates and nine officers over a police shooting that left three robbers dead and a fourth wounded outside a McDonald's restaurant in Sunland.

The plaintiffs--the surviving robber and relatives of the slain men--contended that members of the department's Special Investigations Section used excessive force when they fired on the robbers 35 times Feb. 12, 1990.

A judge sets legal fees in a civil rights case based on the time an attorney spends on the case times an hourly wage. That wage is set by using hourly rates from the attorney's prior cases as well as declarations from other attorneys on his or her legal skill and on complexity of the case.

In a 99-page motion to collect the legal fees, Yagman said he spent 800 hours working on the McDonald's case while three other attorneys involved put in a total of 683 hours. The hourly rates Yagman suggested range from $175 per hour for the attorney who spent the least time on the case to up to $350 per hour for himself.

Vincent, who headed the unsuccessful defense of the case, said Yagman has suggested that the fees in the McDonald's case be doubled because of the complexity of the case and because there was a high risk of losing, bringing the total to $987,684. About $560,000 of that would go to Yagman, Vincent said.

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