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County legal costs neared a record high


first_imgBy Troy Anderson STAFF WRITER Los Angeles County’s legal costs jumped 17percent from $86 million in 2005-06 to $101million last fiscal year, just shy of the record high, officials said Friday. The $51 million in settlements and judgments was 20 percent higher than the average paid in the past five years and 32 percent higher than the previous year. Agoura Hills attorney Robert Nagle, who helped cut the county’s litigation costs from a high of $109 million in 2002-03 to $75 million in 2004-05, alleged in a letter to the supervisors last year that County Counsel Ray Fortner’s office hid information about rising costs. “(We) are very concerned that there is a backsliding into a lack of oversight in the monitoring of legal costs,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “There needs to be an independent investigation as to why this guy was terminated. The decreased costs during his tenure suggest he was doing precisely what he was hired to do.” Litigation cost manager Steven H. Estabrook, who replaced Nagle, said the County Counsel’s Office is working to bring the costs down. “They are making sure the fees we are paying are appropriate to outside counsel,” Estabrook said. “Efforts are also being undertaken to make sure the cases are being properly managed, the proper amounts are spent on settlements and the right cases are going to trial.” In the report, Estabrook said supervisors approved 238 lawsuit settlements last fiscal year totaling $36million. Ten of the cases involved amounts of more than $1 million and contributed to more than half the total value of all settlements. Settlements included $2.8 million for former jail inmate Jose Beas, who was severely beaten by other inmates, and $1 million for the family of Chadwick Shane Cochran, a mentally ill inmate who was beaten to death after he was left unsupervised. The supervisors also approved $1.8 million in a case involving a sexual assault by a sheriff’s deputy and a $1.8 million medical malpractice suit in which a baby died. The total amount paid in settlements for the year includes $11.7 million for settlements made in prior years, including $2.5 million paid to attorneys overseeing a consent decree. The number of cases the county took to trial dropped from 38 to 24 last fiscal year. The county prevailed in 15 of those cases. The amount of money spent on legal fees and outside law firms totaled $50 million last fiscal year, 6 percent more than the prior year. Estabrook said the County Counsel’s Office fees and costs have increased as in-house services have replaced some of those previously provided by outside law firms. “The increase in in-house fees is also attributable to upward adjustments of in-house billing rates brought about by annual increases in salaries and employee benefits,” Estabrook wrote. troy.anderson@dailynews.com 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! The disclosure is expected to be presented to the Board of Supervisors this month, but some have already expressed concern. “Supervisor Gloria Molina is very concerned that these costs went up for another year in a row,” said Roxane Marquez, Molina’s spokeswoman. “It’s a troubling trend in large part because the supervisors have taken strong steps to decrease legal costs. The fundamental reason we insisted that the county counsel hire a litigation cost manager was to get a handle on our legal fees. “County counsel said they heard our message loud and clear, but these numbers indicate the opposite,” Marquez said. The findings come shortly after the supervisors approved a $450,000 wrongful-termination settlement for the county’s former litigation cost manager. last_img read more