The Los Angeles civil rights community can be small, and for Patricia Surjue, who this winter backed out of a federal-court settlement in a police-brutality case against the city of Inglewood and former police Officer Jeremy Morse, that community was becoming smaller. But this week it just got a little bigger.
Surjue walked into U.S. District Judge James Otero’s court on Monday accompanied by veteran trial attorney Angela Oh. Two weeks ago, Surjue was alone and in despair. Now, Oh, an internationally recognized advocate known for her defense of the Korean community following the riots of 1992, is taking over.
Last October, Surjue verbally agreed to a $470,000 settlement of her brutality claims. She later refused to sign a written agreement. Citing “a complete breakdown of the attorney-client relationship,” her lawyers, Robert Mann and Cynthia Anderson-Barker, asked to be removed from the case, after Otero tossed the settlement.
The feelings had been mutual. Surjue filed court declarations on February 20 claiming her lawyers “forced me into agreeing to settlement despite my written intention otherwise.” Otero granted the removal of Mann and Anderson-Barker on April 5. He gave Surjue until Monday to find a lawyer for her sons, 8 and 15, who saw Morse and Officer Bijan Darvish enter their home illegally on October 21, 2001, when Morse allegedly threw their mother down the stairs.
If not for Oh, Surjue’s sons’ claims would have been dismissed until they found a lawyer or turned 18. Surjue was set to represent herself. No one would take her case. “A lot of people would take what I was being offered,” she said of the offer she rejected. “But if I walk away from this case with anything, it will be my dignity. I know how to put bread and butter on my table.”
Oh has some catching up to do. Removal of prior counsel can be dicey. Mann and Anderson-Barker have placed a $692,000 attorney’s lien on the case. Otero gave Oh 30 days to review the file. “I want you on this case,” Otero said from the bench. “There is one reason for me to be involved at this point,” Oh said afterward. “Someone was hurt, and the matter needs to be handled properly. I believe in the justice system, but it can be hard work. I’m here for this woman and her family.”