Wednesday, June 12, 2002
Supervisors Scold County Lawyers for Spending Practices
Board Approves Settlement for Whistleblowing Children’s Services Worker
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Members of the Board of Supervisors charged yesterday that county lawyers are allowing outside law firms to run up huge legal bills in cases that should be settled early before costs can mount.
Holding up an inch-thick stack of legal invoices for the case of a demoted county children’s services supervisor, Supervisor Gloria Molina said she would closely watch the law firms’ billings in the future.
“This is unbelievable, that lawyers can suck us dry like this,” Molina said.
She and other supervisors voiced their concern over legal bills while approving a $450,000 settlement in the case of Rebecca Lizarraga, who lost her position in the Department of Children and Family Services after she prompted a 1998 probe of department director Peter Digre.
The settlement figure covers Lizarraga’s legal fees. But it does not cover the county’s cost of defending the case.
Molina supported the payment to Lizarraga, but she was furious that the County Counsel’s Office allowed the firm of Manning & Marder, Kass, Ellrod Ramirez—one of a handful of firms that do contract work in defense of lawsuits against the county—to amass billable hours amounting to more than $170,000 in fees.
The supervisor said it was obvious from the date the suit was filed that Lizarraga would be seen by a jury to be a whistleblower who suffered retaliation for reporting Digre’s allegedly improper protection of an unfit foster mother.
“Any jury, any person would say, ‘it looks like retaliation,’” Molina said. “And I don’t know what legal theory you would need to bust through that.”
At times sounding as if she were reciting the punchline of a lawyer joke, Molina said the invoices for 20 lawyers on the one case accounted for a firm that worked for months all day, “nonstop, not even lunch.”
The supervisor took pains to note that she was no novice when it came to legal billing, having once been a legal secretary who tracked her boss’ billable time—in 10-minute increments. Even a two-minute phone call would be billed as 10 minutes, she said.
Supervisor Yvonne Burke, a lawyer, took the opportunity to note that her firm billed in increments of 15 minutes.
Principal Deputy County Counsel Roger Granbo defended the decision to hire lawyers to prepare the case for court. He noted that Lizarraga’s first suit—filed in federal court—was thrown out. A state lawsuit followed, and the federal summary judgment decision was on appeal to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals when the settlement was reached.
But even three months before the settlement, he said, Lizarraga was still demanding $1.5 million.
“We had no choice but to put up a case,” he said.
Granbo noted that at the time the first suit was filed, the county was hoping that a jury would accept its position—that Lizarraga was demoted because an audit found that she failed to meet the minimum qualifications for her post of acting section head of the Out of Home Care Evaluation Unit. It was a coincidence, he said, that her demotion followed her allegations against Digre.
Grilled by Molina, Granbo said the Manning & Marder firm’s fee was not typical. Fees vary, he said, depending on the number of witnesses to be interviewed, the number of depositions to be taken, the amount of research to be conducted, and the quality and feistiness of opposing counsel.
Molina appeared unimpressed.
“There is no deposition, no interrogatories, that is ever going to prove to you ever that somebody may not be sympathetic to the retaliation charge,” the supervisor said.
Molina, who said she has tried to get a handle on county spending on legal fees since she first became a supervisor, vowed to “hover” over the County Counsel’s Office to assure better controls.
None of her board colleagues echoed the threat of closer hands-on supervision, but Zev Yaroslavsky agreed that the county counsel did not do enough to encourage early settlement.
“I can’t remember the last time you came to us, either in public or in closed session, and you said to us, ‘You know, this case is a turkey and we ought to settle it,’” Yaroslavsky told County Counsel Lloyd “Bill” Pellman.
Pellman responded that he had done just that last year in the case of jail inmates who were strip-searched and detained long after they should have been released.
“Fair enough,” Yaroslavsky said. “That’s one.”
“It appears sometimes that these [lawyers] make a really good living on our nickel.”
Pellman agreed to come back with a plan for allowing the supervisors to keep better track of mounting legal bills.
After the discussion, Lizarraga addressed the board, to counter assertions that she was not qualified for the post she held, to urge corrections in the personnel system that classifies employees, and to call for a better job of protecting whistleblowers.
After she took her report about Digre to the auditor-controller, she said, “I was told I would be protected again and again. And I wasn’t.”
Digre later resigned as department chief, under fire over a host of management issues. A county probe found no improper acts on his part to protect foster parent Sandra Rodriguez, but Rodriguez was terminated by the county as a foster parent.
Lizarraga officially is on leave from the county, and still has a workers’ compensation action pending. She is now in her third year as a law student at Southwestern University School of Law.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company