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County Moves to Trim Legal Costs

November 13, 2002|Daren Briscoe | Times Staff Writer

The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to hire a "litigation cost manager" in an effort to trim Los Angeles County's tab for lawyers' fees, legal fees, judgments and settlements -- a bill that reached $167 million last year.

The vote comes after months of wrangling between the county counsel's office, which handles claims and lawsuits against the county and its departments, and the board, which approves some settlements.

With more than 500 employees and a $64-million budget, the county counsel's office would be one of the largest law firms in the state if it were a private operation.

Unlike other county departments, it has a high degree of independence, needing board approval only in cases involving settlements of more than $100,000. It has sole authority to enter into contracts with outside law firms.

County supervisors, anticipating a total budget deficit of at least $332 million over the next three years, have become increasingly critical of the county counsel's handling of cases.

Supervisor Gloria Molina said the counsel has done an inadequate job of determining which cases to fight and which to settle.

"They've gotten in a rut of doing things the same way all the time," she said.

In a lawsuit brought by the county police force involving race-based pay discrimination, the county's exposure initially was estimated at $500,000, according to Molina spokesman Miguel Santana. The county counsel took the case to trial and spent nearly $500,000 in legal fees, only to be ordered in June to pay $60 million. Officials are appealing that verdict.

They also plan to appeal a judge's order that the county pay $12 million in damages after a private lawyer hired by the county in a medical malpractice suit failed to show up for trial.

When the board asked in August for an accounting of how the department was spending money, it took more than six weeks for the county counsel to produce a report.

Supervisors voted to hire someone with "extensive private sector experience" to help manage legal costs.

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