Attorney ordered to pay back $1.65 million in DWP case

Dakota Smith
·3 min read
This Wednesday, March 18, 2015 photo shows the front of the headquarters of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in downtown Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power lost up to $88 million in commercial billings because of the botched rollout of a computer billing system. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
An attorney who worked on a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power over billing errors has been ordered to pay back $1.65 million in fees that he earned in the case. Above, DWP headquarters. (Associated Press)

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has ordered an attorney who worked on a lawsuit against the Department of Water and Power over faulty bills to pay back $1.65 million in fees that he earned in the case.

The attorney, Michael Libman, was also ordered to pay more than $116,000 in sanctions, cited for contempt of court and fined $44,000 by Judge Elihu M. Berle.

Berle's ruling marks another significant disciplinary action in litigation stemming from the DWP overbilling debacle. Berle last year fined the city of Los Angeles $2.5 million in sanctions after finding that the city and its attorneys abused the discovery process during a related case over the billing errors.

At a court hearing Thursday, Libman denied wrongdoing and told Berle he was the target of a “medieval persecution.”

Libman said Friday he is weighing an appeal of the judge's orders. "All the orders are void of jurisdiction, unlawful and improper on many levels and in violation of my due process and other constitutional rights,” Libman said.

The disgorgement of Libman's fees and the other penalties were sought by Brian Kabateck, counsel for the DWP customers who filed a class-action lawsuit in 2015 against the utility.

Libman formerly served as one of the attorneys for the class before Berle removed him in 2019.

The lead plaintiff, Antwon Jones, had received an inflated DWP bill and sued the city, resulting in a $67-million settlement to DWP customers. Libman served as local counsel in the case, since Jones' other attorney worked out of state.

The FBI raided the DWP and the city's attorney's office in July 2019, seeking information related to the billing litigation. Separately, Berle appointed an investigator to look into the settlement and fees paid to attorneys in the case.

Some $19 million in attorneys fees was paid out, including Libman's portion. All that money came from the DWP, said Rob Wilcox, spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer.

"We believe the court rightly concluded that Mr. Libman should return the attorneys fees he received," Wilcox said Friday.

Kabateck, in his motion, argued that Libman failed to disclose his relationships with other attorneys in the case and lied about his credentials and the amount of work he did in the case. Libman also failed to obtain Jones' consent to divide fees with another attorney in the case, according to the motion.

Questions about attorneys' roles and payments to attorneys were first raised after PricewaterhouseCoopers — which the city sued in a related case over the DWP billing debacle — uncovered evidence that they said showed a scheme by the city to control the outcome of the class-action lawsuit.

Representatives for Feuer’s office have denied the city was involved in or aware of the alleged scheme and have blamed outside attorneys it hired. Those attorneys have denied wrongdoing, with one saying his work was done at the direction of the city attorney’s office.

The city had previously filed its own motion to get some of the attorneys fees back in the case, but that action is on hold pending the U.S. Attorney's Office's investigation, Wilcox said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.