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ACLU Seeks Legal Fee Disclosure by LA County

Los Angeles, California resident Eric Preven and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU) have sued the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors over the county’s refusal to “disclose legal bills for lawsuits over alleged mistreatment of prisoners in jails run by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.”

Last week the ACLU said that lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Department cost Los Angeles County $37 million last year, “not including the costs the County paid to private lawyers to defend LASD, which would likely add millions to the total.”

The ACLU believes that several of the private firms used by the LASD “may have engaged in ‘scorched earth’ litigation tactics and dragged out cases even when a settlement was in the best interests of the County or when a settlement was likely.” Further, the ACLU believes that taxpayers have a right to transparency.

Los Angeles County spokesman David Sommers agreed that transparency was beneficial but argues that disclosing the requested information could compromise the county’s legal position in on-going disputes. Sommers said plaintiffs’ lawyers use public records requests to gain vital insight into the County’s legal process.

However, last November a California appeals court ruled that the “pending litigation” exemption in the California Public Records Act does not apply to litigants’ requests to see the billing records for law firms hired by public entities.”

The current dispute started in March, when Mr. Preven “submitted a public records request for invoices specifying amounts the county had been billed by law firms relating to a number of alleged prisoner abuse cases.” The county denied the request, prompting the ACLU to get involved.

The county ultimately backed down from its position and disclosed information about legal fees for three cases that were either settled or closed. But, according to the ACLU, “much of the detail [helpful to] determine what the county got for its money was redacted.”

The county did not release any information regarding pending cases, stating that the information requested was “exempt from disclosure [because it] detailed attorney strategy, tactics, thought process and analysis.”

The ACLU and Mr. Preven have asked the court to force the county to turn over the information, or in the alternative to show why the public records should not be disclosed. They are also seeking attorneys’ fees in the matter.

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