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Letters

NO JOKE

I am writing to express my outrage toward your paper for its racist statement made regarding the program “Sacred Soul” [Calendar, February 20–26], where in the announcement it was written “No Armenians allowed.” I could not believe my eyes as I felt for a moment that I was in Mississippi Burning.

Even more disturbing was the poor apology on the part of your paper [Letters to the Editor, February 27–March 4]. First of all, there is absolutely no comedy in this statement, and I don’t see how it was intended to be a joke. Secondly, this in no way is sufficient for the pain you have caused the Armenian community. I strongly urge your paper to reconsider the situation and print a thorough and appropriate apology to the Armenian community as well as dismiss the author of the above statement. If this is not done, I believe the Armenian community should take legal action due to violation of civil rights.

—Arbi Ohanian, M.D.
Los Angeles

 

To Our Readers: Several people in the Armenian community have contacted us to express their concern over a carelessly written sentence in the Concerts section of our Calendar listings. While we encourage provocative language here at L.A. Weekly, and vigorously defend the right of some of our writers to offend in the context of useful political debate, we cannot defend this particular statement. It had no political context and, as Dr. Ohanian correctly points out, there is “absolutely no comedy” in what was written. Those who have been hurt by the statement should know that the writer, who has a long history of good service at the paper, did not set out to offend Armenians or any other group of people. She is horrified that anyone would take the phrase “No Armenians allowed” seriously. Fortunately, we live in a place where it is unthinkable that anyone would try to ban any ethnic group from a public event. But given the still-fresh memories of the Armenian genocide and acts of discrimination, we understand the pain our words have caused and would like to apologize again to all who were hurt by what was written. We recognize the importance of the culturally vibrant and successful Armenian community, and look forward to more positive relations in the future.

HOW MANY LAWYERS DOES IT
TAKE TO . . .?

The signers of this letter are among the most active plaintiffs’ police-misconduct, employment-discrimination, disability-rights and fair-housing lawyers in Southern California. Collectively, over the last quarter-century, we have represented thousands of ordinary people in lawsuits for civil rights violations.

The purpose of this letter is to make clear our objections to your unjustified attacks on two of our most dedicated and hard-working colleagues, Robert Mann and Cynthia Anderson-Barker, for their representation of Patricia Surjue and her two children in police-misconduct claims against the city of Inglewood. Jeffrey Anderson — who should know better, having worked for our local legal newspaper before joining L.A. Weekly — has written four misleading stories wrongly accusing these lawyers of selling out their clients in secret for an excessive and undeserved fee [“Under the Rug in Inglewood,” January 16–22; “Light of Justice,” February 13–19; “Day in the Sun,” February 20–26; “Patricia Surjue v. the World,” March 19–25].

Ms. Surjue was quite fortunate in her choice of lawyers. Mr. Mann has been among Los Angeles’ leading police-misconduct lawyers for at least 20 years. He and his partner Donald Cook are in the forefront of combating the barbaric use of police dogs to maul human beings, and have played crucial roles in many of Los Angeles’ most important police-misconduct cases over the last two decades, including the 1988 LAPD Dalton Avenue raids; the 1990 exposure of the racist Vikings gang among Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies assigned to the Lynwood substation; the class action which ended overdetentions and much unnecessary strip-searching in the Los Angeles County Jail; and a recently resolved class action for people injured by LAPD riot officers during the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

While less active than Mr. Mann in litigation, Ms. Anderson-Barker is highly regarded for her advocacy on behalf of police-misconduct victims as the president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. She has a distinguished record for defending human rights. Her résumé includes service with the Working People’s Law Center, Western Law Center for Disability Rights, Latino Community Justice Center, Proyecto Pastoral, Southern California Ecumenical Council Interfaith Task Force on Central America, Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles, Steelworkers Food Bank, Central American Refugee Center, Ecumenical Project for Immigration Law, Las Familias del Pueblo and Lutheran Social Services of Southern California.

Working together, Mr. Mann and Ms. Anderson-Barker are presently among the class-action counsel for juveniles in San Bernardino County custody who claim their disabilities are not being accommodated and their education needs not met.

The $220,000 ultimately offered by the city of Inglewood to settle the claims of Ms. Surjue and her children was the result of excellent legal representation, including a successful motion for summary judgment — a difficult legal device which these lawyers used to “win” the case pretrial, leaving only the amount of damages in dispute for the jury.

The fact that the case involves Jeremy Morse and Bijan Darvish, officers with long histories of misconduct complaints including the Donovan Jackson beating, does not make this settlement any less appropriate. Such “other acts” evidence is frequently inadmissible, and police-misconduct cases are extremely difficult to win under any circumstances. One need look no further than the Donovan Jackson criminal case itself, in which the district attorney — with all the resources of Los Angeles County behind him — could not get a conviction despite having a videotape of Officer Morse slugging a passive and handcuffed child in the face while Officer Darvish looked on.

There is nothing to suggest that Ms. Surjue’s lawyers pressured her into a settlement or that the amount she agreed to was less than adequate. It is impossible for anyone without intimate knowledge of the facts in a case to assess the adequacy of a settlement, which often turns on the credibility of witnesses and other subtle factors. Clearly Ms. Surjue’s attorneys were in a much better position than L.A. Weekly and Mr. Anderson to assess the reasonableness of the $220,000 offer and to advise her whether to accept it or to reject it and try for more money at an uncertain and unpleasant trial.

Since there were two minor plaintiffs in this case, the claims could not be compromised without United States District Judge S. James Otero’s explicit approval of its fairness to all parties. In addition, the court transcript shows clearly that Judge Otero explained the settlement to Ms. Surjue in open court, and that she agreed to it. “Seller’s remorse” following a settlement is not uncommon for clients in our business; they rarely feel adequately compensated by any amount of money following a violation of their civil rights by miscreant government officials.

L.A. Weekly accuses Mr. Mann and Ms. Anderson-Barker of trying to sweep the settlement under the rug. Ms. Surjue’s lawyers had nothing to do with the city of Inglewood’s ill-advised attempt to make the settlement confidential. That provision was not part of the agreement made in Judge Otero’s court, as demonstrated by the fact that the settlement itself was placed on the open court record, and Ms. Surjue’s lawyers objected strongly when the city’s attorneys insisted on a confidentiality clause in the later settlement agreement. By the time Rickey Ivie, the lawyer for Inglewood, removed the offending provision, however, Ms. Surjue’s objection to the settlement had become so strident that Judge Otero was left with little choice other than to allow her out of her agreement.

Finally, there is nothing inappropriate about the $250,000 lawyer’s fee, which slightly exceeds the amount of the settlement earmarked for Ms. Surjue and her children. Claims such as Ms. Surjue’s could not be litigated without federal and state “fee-shifting” laws permitting successful civil rights plaintiffs to recover attorneys’ fees in addition to damages. The Federal Civil Rights Act was amended in 1976 to allow fee shifting, so that highly competent attorneys would be encouraged to take on civil rights cases, by insuring that when their clients prevail they get paid amounts similar to other attorneys. Civil rights lawyers track the number of hours they spend working on cases and request hourly fees commensurate with those paid to comparably experienced lawyers retained by governments and corporations. Civil rights cases are not simple matters of clear liability and easily documented injuries like, for example, many automobile accidents. It is common for the fees in any given case to exceed the amount of damages at stake. Indeed, this principle was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1986 when it approved attorneys’ fees which were seven times the amount of compensatory and punitive damages awarded against the city of Riverside in a police-misconduct case.

To make the system work for ordinary people who cannot afford to pay hourly legal fees, it is the amount of time and effort lawyers spend on a given case, rather than the amount of money damages, that must be used to establish the fees paid to civil rights lawyers. This is especially true in police-misconduct cases involving relatively small injuries and which are vigorously defended. Here, Inglewood drove up the ultimate amount of attorneys’ fees by hiring four law firms — Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt; Goldwasser & Glave; Harold Becks & Associates; and DeBlanc, Deblanc & Associates — to fight plaintiffs’ claims aggressively. Despite Inglewood’s hardball tactics, Ms. Surjue’s lawyers successfully got the case into a posture where she almost could not lose and the city had to settle. A $250,000 fee under such circumstances is clearly reasonable, especially in light of the excellent result for the clients.

The insurance companies and large corporations are sponsoring one attack after another on the rights of ordinary people to bring lawsuits. President George W. Bush has made bashing trial lawyers a campaign theme. L.A. Weekly should stay off this right-wing bandwagon. Instead, it should report accurately on the achievements of civil rights lawyers like Robert Mann and Cynthia Anderson-Barker who benefit not only their clients, but all the people of Southern California.

—E. Thomas Barham, Robert L. Bastian Jr., Thomas Beck, Kathryn S. Bloomfield, John Burton, Gary Casselman, V. James DeSimone, Marina R. Dini, Ellen Ellison, Barbara Hadsell, Jorge Gonzales, Wilmer Harris, Virginia Keeny, Barry Litt, Hugh Manes, James Muller, Sam Paz, Paula Pearlman, Hon. Joseph Reichmann, Anne Richardson, Antonio Rodriguez, Benjamin Schonbrun, Michael Seplow, Carol Sobel, Dan Stormer, Theresa Traber, Bert Vorhees, Carol Watson, Marion R. Yagman, Stephen Yagman

 

The letter writers are mistaken when they say “there is nothing to suggest that Ms. Surjue’s lawyers pressured her into a settlement.” Consider Surjue’s February 17 declaration, filed with the court, and correspondence from her attorneys. In the declaration, Surjue said her lawyers “refused to listen to me” and “pressured and coerced me into agreeing to a settlement which I expressly said I did not want to agree to.” She recounts a scene as she left the judge’s chambers on October 23. “When I expressed my disapproval with the settlement offer . . . Mr. Mann yelled at me and grabbed my arm in the presence of Samantha Koerner [his colleague]. Mr. Mann said, ‘Listen to me, you have just pissed off the judge.’” On November 24, Koerner faxed her the proposed settlement agreement — which now included a confidentiality provision barring Surjue from publicly discussing her case — and asked her to sign it and fax it back to them. Ten days later, after Surjue had failed to return the signed agreement, Koerner wrote Surjue: “I hate to be a pest about it, and I do realize that it might seem unfair that it took a long time to get the document to you, and now I am bugging you to review it . . . the sooner you get the signed document back to me, the sooner you can receive your money . . .”


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