Rodney King's Legal Wars Continue

ByBryan Robinson

Aug. 16, 2000 -- Despite his famous plea after his 1991 beating by Los Angeles police officers, Rodney King has not been able to “just get along” with his attorneys since a jury awarded him millions in his 1994 civil suit.

In a videotape that sparked outrage nationwide, King was beaten by four baton-wielding police officers. Images of the videotape sparked riots when the officers were acquitted at a criminal trial in 1993. During the riots, King implored the crowds to end the violence, asking, “Please … can’t we all just get along?”

King filed that federal suit against the city of Los Angeles. The jury awarded $3.8 million in damages and a federal judge ordered the city to pay him an additional $1.6 million to handle attorneys’ fees.

Whose Share is Fair?Since then, King and his trial attorneys have not gotten along and have squabbled in court over the money. King has claimed his lawyers tricked him and took more than their fair share of his jury award. According to King, he had an agreement that specified his attorneys would get 25 percent of any award. However, in King’s contracts with his attorneys, Steven Lerman and Milton Grimes, it was never clarified who would was entitled to additional attorneys’ fees awarded.

In a deposition last year, King said he felt like his attorneys had betrayed him and took advantage of him.

“I feel like I took an awful beating from the police, and now my own lawyers are beating up on me,” King testified. “I feel like they took advantage of my lack of understanding and … they muscled their educational background to deceive, mislead and rob me out of monies that belong to me.”

Failed LitigationThe lawyers claimed the $1.6 million awarded by the judge for themselves. According to court documents, King’s lawyers have received approximately $2.3 million in total while King has received only $1.9 million. The remainder of the award went toward paying medical bills, expert witness fees and other expenses incurred while King’s suit was prepared.

King has sued twice to get what he believes is a proper share of the award — and has failed. In a suit against Grimes, a judge sided with the attorney, awarding him $1.2 million. King then sued another set of lawyers — Lerman, John Burris and Federico Sayre — and claimed they tricked him into signing over attorneys’ fee checks from the city to them. King also argued that Grimes was responsible for paying them, especially since he had brought in Burris and Sayre to help him with the case.

However, last January, a judge disagreed and dismissed King’s case before it could go to trial. In her ruling, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ann Kough said King had not presented evidence that the lawyers had conspired to trick him out of his monetary award. Judge Kough also pointed out to King that independent legal advisers had told him that he did not have to sign over the checks to the lawyers.

Unclear LawsKing is appealing his case against Lerman, Burris and Sayre, but it remains unclear whether his suit stands a chance. According to one expert, the law does not clearly address who is entitled to additional attorney fees if they are awarded in a civil case.

“Is the law on this matter obscure? Yes,” attorney Stephen Mahle said today. “It does not make clear who is entitled to the fees; there are a wide variety of options and circumstances that have to be taken into consideration with every case.”

Mahle noted that when juries or a judge give partial awards for attorneys’ fees, normally the client is responsible for paying the balance of the fees.

Besides the legal skirmishes with his former lawyers, King has had difficulty staying out of trouble since his videotaped beating. He has been arrested seven times, most recently last year when he was accused of striking his teenage daughter and her mother. He served a 60-day jail sentence for that dispute. In 1997, he also served a 90-day misdemeanor violence conviction for an incident involving his ex-wife. King also has been arrested for drunk driving and soliciting a prostitute.

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