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r.i.p. michael libman
the funniest character subplot in the LADWP scandal is ordered to pay up almost $2 million for his conduct in the utility billing case.
I met Michael Libman a while ago in the halls of downtown LA’s Stanley Mosk Courthouse. I don’t remember why I started talking to him or what we talked about. I just remember he had no distinguishable features, like an Amazon box where you don’t remember what you paid for, so I forgot about him.
Fast forward a few years later and I see Libman walk into court for his involvement in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power billing debacle. And man, what a guy! He’s funny to me, doing his Michael Libman things. As a personal injury lawyer, Libman “represented” a class of LADWP ratepayers who sued the city of Los Angeles over getting mis-billed. But what was emerging in the reporting I was doing was that he never really represented the ratepayer, Antwon Jones. Libman’s opponents in the matter—attorneys repping the city—drafted his client Jones’ complaint and handed it off for Libman to file. Yea, as a lawyer, Libman allowed his enemy to write his client’s lawsuit, lol. And Libman collected $1.65 million in attorney fees for running the errand. That settlement has been under federal investigation since 2019.
Now the civil court judge in the matter has ruled Libman must give back that $1.65 million in attorney fees, on top of paying $116,000 in sanctions and another $44,000 on account of being held in contempt of court. The judge, Elihu Berle, ruled Thursday that Libman deceived his client as well as the court in never disclosing his adverse relationship with the city attorney’s office, which defended Libman’s lawsuit.
“Libman failed to disclose crucial information to the court,” said Berle during the remote hearing. “Libman’s only apparent role was to receive (the lawsuit) and file it with the court.”
And despite admitting to never speaking or meeting Jones, or let alone even signing any documents indicating Jones was his client, Libman maintained he was, in fact, Jones’ attorney.
“Libman never communicated with Mr. Jones; had no attorney client agreement with Mr. Jones,” said Berle.
Libman maintains there was no conflict of interest or that he breached any ethical duty in his role. “There never was any conflict. I have nothing to disclose,” Libman declared Thursday over video.
Further, the judge said the some 1,300 hours the valley attorney billed were bullshit, and comprised of the time period well before Libman even entered the case. Libman hasn’t disclosed an accounting of his work. After three years, he said it was lost in a “cyber security attack.”
And what about his past experience as a plaintiff’s lawyer? Libman claimed to have worked on 32 cases for an employment law firm named Kingsley & Kingsley, but a managing partner there said Libman didn’t do any legal work for the firm. This was unearthed by consumer lawyer Brian Kabateck, Libman’s replacement as class counsel who filed the motion to claw back his fees.
The judge noted another thing Kabateck found. Libman previously worked with Paul Kiesel, the attorney for the city who who passed along the drafted Jones lawsuit for Libman to file. Libman paid Kiesel $500,000 for three weeks worth of work in a case, which took place during the time period that Kiesel and Libman were hashing out the settlement as opponents in the Jones lawsuit.
While other attorneys involved with the LADWP saga disappeared, quietly litigating through the veil of court, Libman was ready to die on this hill. He has not stood down. Libman said he has been scapegoated, the subject of intimidation by Kabateck and the judge. He said he has been threatened with “criminal action, federal indictments, State Bar actions.” At one point Libman asserted that the judge was bribed because he bought a house once. Another time, Libman interpreted a fax sent to him as evidence of Covid-19 bioterrorism by his legal adversaries.
Libman says he is the victim of a coordinated attempt by Kabateck and the city’s attorney, Eric George of Browne George Ross, to take his money, citing a case the two lawyers previously worked on together. Libman said it was also a conflict that Kabateck previously donated money to City Attorney Michael Feuer.
“I am being railroaded by three friends who decided to take my money, with the help of the court. There is a clear cut conflict of interest between all of them that has been concealed from the public,” said Libman.
Libman said drafting the Jones lawsuit was a “collaborative process” with the city, but during a deposition he couldn’t say what, if anything, he worked on. And with regard to never meeting his client Jones, Libman once told the judge that “I did not see it necessary to communicate with Mr. Jones.” Pretty cool.
Part of the investigation into this case is whether fees between attorneys were kicked back. Libman said “no illicit payments or transactions occurred from me, or by me.” He declined to tell me if he’d spoken with the federal government regarding all this.
“Everyone who is part of this injustice and persecution will be held accountable to the full extend of the law,” said Libman.
Kabateck said most of what Libman said was not true. “I’ve never seen anything like his complete disregard for the court…His defense to this entire motion is that class counsel has no authority. However, our duty is to protect the class and the ratepayers,” said Kabateck in response.
He said said if all these things had been disclosed, such as Libman’s relationship with the city lawyers, then the city would never find itself in the mess it currently is in now. No multi-million no-bid contracts, no fees paid to expensive lawyers, no investigations, no wasted tax money.
Like Sergei Dovlatov once said: “What kind of people are we?”