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Retired L.A. County judge disciplined after ordering gift card payment to lawyer

February 2, 2010 |  1:38 pm

A retired Los Angeles County judge who ordered that a lawyer be paid in $10 gift cards from a women’s fashion store as part of a legal settlement was censured Tuesday and barred from presiding over future court cases.

The Commission on Judicial Performance accused Brett C. Klein of showing bias, abusing his authority and “grandstanding to the press” in a class-action lawsuit that he briefly presided over last year.

The lawsuit was brought by a woman who accused a clothing store chain of violating privacy laws by asking for personal identification information when customers used credit cards to make purchases. As part of a settlement, which had been given preliminary approval by a different judge, the two sides agreed that Windsor Fashions would pay the customer who brought the suit $2,500 and her attorney $125,000.

Other customers who came forward as part of the suit would each be given a $10 gift voucher, according to state disciplinary records. But Klein, who was asked to preside over a final hearing in the case when a colleague fell ill, made sarcastic remarks to the attorneys and changed the terms of the settlement after the hearing, disciplinary records show.

The new settlement required the store to pay both the customer who brought the suit and her attorney in gift certificates. Klein sent a copy of his order approving the altered settlement to the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, a local daily legal newspaper, which published a story about the case, the commission said.

Reached at home, Klein said he was disappointed by the commission’s decision. He said his role at the January 2009 hearing was to decide whether the settlement was fair. He noted that customers who claimed $10 gift certificates were required to buy something at the store in order to take advantage of the settlement.

“I thought that the settlement would only be fair if the lawyer was paid the same way,” Klein said.

He defended his decision to alert the legal newspaper about his decision.

“I’m a bit startled to be criticized for furnishing a public document to a journalist,” he said.

The commission said its discipline was the maximum possible for a former judge. Klein, who retired in November, was publicly admonished in 2004 for allegedly displaying bias and abusing his authority in an unrelated case.

-- Jack Leonard

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