Argument Erupts Between Lawyer And Activist On Same Side Of DWP Lawsuit

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Inside the courtroom, a judge's review on Monday of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's still-evolving settlement of a class-action lawsuit over a malfunctioning billing system was a mostly somnolent affair.

The real drama was outdoors, where a press conference on the courthouse steps devolved into a shouting match between two men ostensibly on the same side of the case. One of the attorneys representing utility customers and a consumer advocate traded a colorful slew of insults as television news cameras rolled.

The estimated $45-million settlement remained a work in progress. Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said that he accepts the main points of the draft agreement, including full refunds for DWP customers who were overcharged. But some technical details — such as the timeline and methods for notifying ratepayers — still need to be worked out before he grants the deal preliminary approval.

Meanwhile, the argument outside the civil courthouse in Westlake laid bare tensions that have been mounting for months among some of the attorneys and activists vying to speak on behalf of Angelenos affected by the DWP billing fiasco.

The dispute erupted when Tom Merriman — one of several lawyers representing DWP ratepayers — tried to rebut some of the claims made to a small crowd of reporters by Jamie Court, president and chairman of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog.

Court and some other plaintiffs' attorneys have alleged that Merriman and his colleagues at a Cleveland law firm did not hold out for a tough enough settlement over the widespread billing mistakes. Those errors began in the fall of 2013 after the botched rollout of new DWP software.

After Court made similar statements to reporters during a break in the hearing, Merriman stepped to the bank of television microphones and responded.

"Jamie, you're obnoxious and offensive," Merriman told Court, adding, "This is a circus. You're a ringmaster, and you're misleading the people of this city. And they deserve better."

Court countered that the settlement agreements Merriman's firm has endorsed — and which Berle has repeatedly sent back for modification — have not done enough for DWP customers.

"Why weren't you fighting them?" Court said. "Why didn't you come in here with something that [Berle] wouldn't reject three times?"

Back in court, the judge said he approved of the agreement's central tenets, including full refunds for customers who were overbilled.

However, he said the process outlined in the draft settlement for notifying ratepayers who might want to submit claims was "hopelessly confused" and needed to be clarified. 

"It's better to be right than to be fast," Berle said.

He scheduled the next hearing in the case for February.

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