LOS ANGELES – Famously known for representing a mentally ill woman who was beaten by a California Highway Patrol officer last year, attorney Caree Harper is now fighting to clear her name.
In early March, U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II questioned Harper’s fees for a $1.5 million settlement awarded to Marlene Pinnock, whose video-taped assault by that CHP officer along the Santa Monica (10) Freeway last July went viral. After failing to answer the judge’s questions, Harper made headlines when Wright declared her in contempt of court and ordered her jailed.
Now, she is requesting a review of Judge Wright’s action by the U.S. Ninth District Court of Appeals.
“For the record, I did not net $600,000,” Harper wrote in an email. “The fee I charged Ms. Pinnock is not the public’s business, but it is less than what other attorneys [charge] in the community for excessive force cases and I waived tens of thousands of dollars in expenses and costs.”
Harper filed her complaint against Wright on March 31with several allegations including Wright’s denial for counsel and medical attention while also failing to “provide notice of investigation or an opportunity to be heard.”
In a partial court transcript from a March 3 court appearance, she told the judge she needed fresh air and asked if she could leave due to chest pains. However, Wright ordered that she answer a question concerning how she first met Pinnock, but Harper insisted she could not due to confidential attorney-client communication.
During the testy exchange, Harper also said she had a torn rotator cuff, which caused her to scream in pain once U.S. marshals arrested her.
For two days, Harper claims she was in custody without a hearing, access to a lawyer or bail.
Her request for a review of Wright’s actions claimed that her actions in court neither warranted contempt charges nor being locked up “without the slightest semblance of due process” since Harper supplied the requested documents.
Wright did not respond to a request for comment.
During what she called an informal telephone hearing, Harper claims Wright did not inform her that the hearing would solely focus on the attorney and require prompt detailed explanations during the court appearance. In her words, it was a “trial by ambush.”
Wright said he concluded that “no work was done” by Harper to deserve a contingency fee of 42 percent of the settlement award. He also said he believed Pinnock was being exploited by her attorney.
The settlement between Pinnock and the state, which also included an agreement to fire Officer Daniel Andrew, the man seen in the video beating Pinnock, was concluded in “record time” — within 85 days — with no civil litigation, discovery or depositions taken, according to Wright.
Pinnock was walking on the side of the freeway when Andrew ordered her to get off the freeway. When Pinnock was slow to respond, Andrew tried to physically restrain her, which resulted in an altercation in which Andrew was seen on top of Pinnock, hitting her repeatedly with closed fists.
The July 1 beating of Pinnock by the officer was captured on cell phone video by a witness.
After the announcement of the settlement in November, CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow said much of the $1.5 million award would be placed into a special-needs trust for Pinnock “to provide a mechanism for her long-term care.”
In interviews with news outlets, Harper accused Wright of misrepresenting Pinnock as “mentally incompetent” since Pinnock was competent to retain counsel and settle her case. Harper’s report said the special needs trust was set up to protect Pinnock’s wealth and federal benefits, not because she was legally incompetent.
Harper also was angry that civil rights activists joined Wright in questioning the contingency fee. Some even urged the state bar to review the retainer terms.
More times than not, attorneys come in after someone has been victimized, get some publicity and capitalize on the victimization, said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.
“To be clear, I’m not making any personal charges because I don’t know the exact details of the settlement,” he said. “However, I don’t think an investigation is inappropriate.”
Legal experts claim the standard rate for a contingency fee is 40 percent, but some attorneys may take as much as 50 percent or as little as a third. Other times, lawyers will take an hourly rate instead of a contingency agreement.
For her part, Harper said the $600,000 she supposedly received as her fee was actually the amount of a check she received from the state as part of the settlement.
“The settlement checks always are sent to the attorney,” she said in a phone call to The Wave earlier this month.
Harper said Wright’s accusations were “baseless, slanderous and uninformed.”
Harper further alleges the judge had a personal vendetta against her for comments she made about a friend, L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
Harper has previously criticized Lacey for failing to charge officers accused of using excessive force against her clients such as Pinnock and the family of Kendrec McDade, who was fatally shot by Pasadena police in 2012.
Harper is currently representing another alleged victim of police brutality, Clinton Alford Jr., who was allegedly assaulted by a Los Angeles police officer last October.
The officer in that case, Richard Garcia, has been charged with felony assault in the case.