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LOS ANGELES-The recent backlash over a $2.7 million settlement between the city of Los Angeles and a local firefighter has cast an unwelcome spotlight on a city attorney who for years has touted significant reductions in overall payouts. City Council members and the mayor, who vetoed the settlement last month, have criticized the payout as disproportionately high given the facts of the case. Now, a trial is set for March. The debacle is the latest to attack the legal strategy and fiscal responsibility of Rocky Delgadillo, the city attorney of Los Angeles since 2001, who came under fire earlier this year for spending too much on outside counsel. Delgadillo prides his department on having reduced annual verdicts and settlements, most recently to $38 million in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, from $92 million when he first took office. He has attributed much of those cost savings to the use of outside counsel, which have the resources to intimidate plaintiffs by gearing up for trial-a premise unsupported by attorneys at law departments in other major cities. “It’s much more cost-efficient for the city to manage cases in-house,” said Karen Seimetz, managing deputy corporation counsel of litigation for the city of Chicago, where settlements and verdicts totaled $37 million as of Oct. 31 this year. In New York, the law department rarely uses outside counsel, but spent about $470 million in verdicts and settlements for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, said G. Foster Mills, managing attorney for the city of New York’s law department. He said the city has worked to reduce its payouts from a peak of $500 million, but was surprised at the reductions obtained in Los Angeles. “That’s quite an accomplishment,” he said. But in January, a state audit criticized Delgadillo for spending almost $32 million last year on hiring outside law firms, nearly twice as much as his predecessor. Now, a settlement obtained by his own office has come under fire. In the case, a black firefighter, Tennie Pierce, sued the city, two fire captains and another firefighter for racial harassment and emotional distress after discovering dog food in his spaghetti dinner. Tennie Pierce v. City of Los Angeles, No. BC342845 (Los Angeles Co., Calif., Super. Ct.). Last month, photos were made public that depicted that same firefighter as the perpetrator of hazing incidents, which prompted the mayor to veto the settlement. This month, the city’s longtime fire chief resigned. Two of the defendants, who were fire captains involved in the dog food incident, were represented by DLA Piper in the suit, and a third defendant, a firefighter, was represented by Burke Williams & Sorensen. Claims against all three were dismissed, but the city handled the settlement on its own. Jon Meer, a partner in the Los Angeles office of DLA Piper who represented the two fire captains, said he thought the entire case was “frivolous.” He said, “I don’t think the most expensive lawyers in the city could end up with legal bills anything close to this settlement.” Calls to Delgadillo were referred to Gary Geuss, chief assistant city attorney for Los Angeles. He said the city opted to handle the case in-house because it was an individual claim, rather than one involving multiple plaintiffs. The defendants had their own counsel for conflict-of-interest reasons, he said. He said the decision to settle was reasonable given that similar cases in previous years ended in jury verdicts of more than $3 million. “In this case, I thought it was an appropriate number given the risks that are out there, and given what juries have done in the past,” Geuss said. For instance, the plaintiff’s lawyer was planning to add a claim of retaliation after her client, who expected a 30-year career as a firefighter, alleged that he could no longer work without being subjected to harassment. A retaliation claim would have added lost wages and pension benefits estimated at up to $1.6 million, Geuss said. Attorney fees were expected to be about $1 million, with a “wild card” jury verdict on pain and suffering, he said. Recent audits also have accused the fire department of racism, he said.

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