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County to release settlement memos

Supervisors reinstate a policy that provides to the public documents that detail legal counsels' advice in the settling of legal claims.

August 01, 2007|Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County supervisors restored a policy Tuesday that makes public many of the memos that county attorneys send supervisors when advising them to settle legal claims that cost the county millions of dollars each year.

The supervisors did not rule out the possibility of making parts of the documents confidential in the future but said they needed a clearer explanation from their top attorney to justify such a move, which would reverse more than a decade of openness.

At the same time, the board approved a $385,000 payout to the parents of infant Brandon Woo, who had alleged that medical staff at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center disfigured their son's upper lip by improperly using a plastic tube to help him breathe.

County lawyers released their memo in that case, the first released since they stopped making the documents public in May. In the memo, Assistant County Counsel Richard K. Mason said county lawyers had found no "breach or departure of the standard care in this case" but recommended a settlement "because medical experts will be unable to offer a non-negligent explanation for the injury."

Mason wrote that the Woos would probably seek damages of nearly $1.2 million if the case went to trial.

The memos are first sent to the county claims board, which has the authority to approve settlements of less than $100,000. In more expensive cases, the claims board makes settlement recommendations to the supervisors.

Some settlements bypass the claims board without the county issuing a public memo. On Tuesday, supervisors unanimously approved a settlement with their former litigation cost manager, Robert E. Nagle, who filed a legal claim against the county after he was fired last year.

County attorneys said they would not release details of the settlement until both sides had signed the final documents.

County lawyers have argued that claims board memos should not be made public because they are attorney-client communications that disclose legal strategies. They noted that other government agencies do not release memos and said that plaintiffs' attorneys have tried to use the documents to extract more money in similar cases.

Supervisor Gloria Molina demanded details about such instances. She also criticized a proposal by the county counsel to give board members detailed memos about settlements while providing the public with summaries.

"The issue is that this is not our money," Molina said. "This is taxpayer money."

County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner Jr. said he understood the concerns but added that he was trying to protect the county's legal strategy in lawsuits. As a potential compromise, Fortner proposed issuing memos to the public that would disclose some but not all of the information that would be sent to the supervisors.

To show what the public documents would look like, Fortner, at Molina's request, revised four previously released memos. The new memos provided a fraction of the information in the older memos.

In a case settled in January for $700,000, the new memo noted that Gustavo Ortega's family alleged that the Sheriff's Department had failed to provide him with diabetic medication when he was released from jail in 2004 and then delayed calling for medical assistance when deputies noticed that he needed help.

The old memo provided far more detail, including that Ortega had sat in the lobby of the jail's Inmate Reception Center for three days after his release without insulin until deputies noticed that he was disoriented, lethargic and had blood in his mouth. He died later that day.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

Times staff writer Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.

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