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Contempt ruling the latest blow against veteran lawyer

Sanctioned for filing meritless suits, attorney pits himself against the courts.

January 24, 2009|Victoria Kim

He's studied international law in at least three countries, prosecuted antitrust cases for the U.S. Department of Justice and acted as special counsel hired to investigate a Los Angeles mayor in the 1970s.

Now, at the twilight of his career, attorney Richard Fine finds himself without a law license, at odds with county and appellate judges, and facing a third contempt-of-court case that may land him behind bars -- for a second time.

In a contempt hearing this week, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge found the 69-year-old attorney guilty of contempt for refusing to answer a jurist's questions and practicing law without a license. Fine was ordered back to court in March for sentencing. If he insists on defying the court's orders, Judge David Yaffe told him, he should be prepared to go straight to jail.

Fine was unfazed.

"This thing will be overturned so fast that his head will spin," he said after the hearing.

The way Fine sees it, he's waging a one-man battle against all that's corrupt and wrong in this city. Judges, according to court records, consider Fine a vindictive attorney out to retaliate against those who dare to rule against him.

Since 1999, Fine has sued at least three Superior Court judges, three appellate justices, the Superior Court clerk, and the state appellate court clerk. He once filed 12 motions -- all in one case -- to get a judge disqualified. And he has appealed a number of those cases all the way to the state Supreme Court.

A State Bar Court judge, recommending Fine's disbarment in 2007 on charges of "moral turpitude," compared him to a bully in a dodge ball game -- hurling the ball at whoever knocks him out.

Fine contends that all county judges are tainted by the $46,000 in benefits they have been receiving from the county in addition to their state salary and benefits. Each contempt of court charge and each ruling against him is payback for allegations he made challenging those benefits, Fine says.

"The L.A. Superior Court is still retaliating against Fine," he said, referring to himself in the third person, in his contempt of court hearing Thursday. "This case was a sham from Day 1."

In the three-hour hearing, Fine jabbed his pen in the judge's direction, accusing Yaffe of changing his story, being biased and violating the Constitution. Voices were raised and faces reddened as Fine and Yaffe cut each other off in a tense exchange.

In the end, finding Fine guilty on two contempt charges and not guilty on three others, Yaffe sharply rebuked the attorney for what he called an "absolute disrespect for the orders of this court and refusal to obey."

Fine's career did not start out this way.

Court records associated with Fine's legal squabbles document an impressive background: With a law degree from the University of Chicago and doctorate from the London School of Economics, Fine worked for the antitrust division of the Department of Justice in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where he had a hand in indicting General Motors and Ford on charges of price-fixing. (The companies were eventually acquitted.)

After he moved to Los Angeles, he investigated then-Mayor Sam Yorty in a land-swap scandal as special counsel to a City Council committee. He sued OPEC for price-fixing, the district attorney's office for failing to distribute child support funds and the state for failing to pass a budget -- bringing the state government to a temporary but unprecedented standstill.

Fine's run-ins with the courts started in 1999 in a dispute over the distribution of about $2 million in attorneys fees in a class-action lawsuit he brought on behalf of patients who were treated by an impostor doctor, according to court records. When Superior Court Commissioner Bruce E. Mitchell ruled against his requests for an advance on the fees, Fine started firing away motions to remove Mitchell from the case, alleging that the judge was engaged in a "personal vendetta" against him.

After the ninth such request, Mitchell held Fine in contempt of court. Fine unsuccessfully appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court, then filed a suit in federal court, at which point Mitchell withdrew the order. Fine was charged with contempt by a different Superior Court judge after he made three additional motions to disqualify Mitchell, and served three days in jail.

The State Bar brought charges of moral turpitude against Fine in 2006, alleging that the attorney filed numerous meritless cases out of spite.

A State Bar Court judge recommended disbarment in 2007, when his law license was suspended. Fine appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to review his case. He has filed another petition for review in the Supreme Court.

Fine's latest contempt of court charge in Yaffe's courtroom stems from a case he filed in 2007 on behalf of Marina del Rey residents against Los Angeles County and developers in the area.

When his license was suspended, Fine was removed from the case and ordered to pay attorneys fees and sanctions. Fine argued that Yaffe denied him due process and filed a motion to disqualify the judge, again making the allegations that the judge was biased because of the county's benefits payment to jurists.

Attorneys for the developers asked Yaffe to hold Fine in contempt of court, arguing among other things that Fine attacked the integrity of the court.

"It's difficult for my father, because he's had a very strong and respected career, and to have this criticism against him at this point in his career, it's hurtful," said his daughter, Victoria, who said his family has struggled financially and emotionally.

"Obviously, my father is a traditionalist. He believes in the word of the law above all else," she said. "I'd like to support his idealism in that."

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

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