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THE WATCHDOGS: Ex-judge wants more from CHA settlement in 3-year-old’s death

Three-year-old Curtis Cooper was crushed death when an irgate fell off it's hinges Cabrini-Green rowhouses 900 N. Cambridge.  Workers

Three-year-old Curtis Cooper was crushed to death when an iron gate fell off it's hinges at the Cabrini-Green rowhouses, 900 N. Cambridge. Workers are seen removing one of the nearby gates. Sun-Times Media file photo by Al Podgorski

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Updated: September 14, 2012 6:03AM

I t’s been four years since an iron gate fell at a Chicago Housing Authority project, crushing 3-year-old Curtis Cooper as he pedaled his tricycle.

But the legal battles that arose following the little boy’s death continue, now extending longer than his entire life.

After Curtis’ death, his mother, Pamela Cooper, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit that she has settled for $2 million with the CHA and its former property-management company, Urban Property Advisors — a deal she struck after dropping former CHA chairman Martin Nesbitt and the family of Allison S. Davis, the owners of Urban Property, from the suit. Nesbitt and Davis are close friends of President Barack Obama.

The fighting over legal fees, though, goes on. That fight, now before the Illinois Appellate Court, is being waged by the lawyers Cooper originally hired — retired Cook County Circuit Judge Llewellyn Thapedi and her son, state Rep. Andre Thapedi (D-Chicago) — and ended up firing two years before the case was settled.

Cooper’s new lawyers — the law firm of Donald A. Shapiro Ltd. — got $693,621 in legal fees and expenses from the settlement. The Thapedis got $78,694 — a fraction of the $611,310 bill they submitted to Cook County Circuit Judge Susan Zwick.

Zwick rejected that request. She questioned the amount of time the Thapedis said they put into the case — 1,545 hours over a span of 14 months, including some extraordinarily long workdays — and the hourly rates they charge. Former Judge Thapedi billed at a rate of $425 an hour. Her son, the legislator, billed at $350 an hour.

“The amount of hours expended . . . does not sustain scrutiny,” Zwick wrote in a 14-page opinion on March 26. “The bill . . . shows many entries where the time spent for daily work exceeded even a 10-hour workday.

“Entries for Saturday, June 28, 2008, indicate that Llewellyn Thapedi documents 19.5 hours, and Andre Thapedi documents 19 hours. On Sunday, June 29, each of the principals documents 22 hours and 19.5 hours, respectively.

“It is also noted that an entry for Saturday, June 28, 2008, denotes research undertaken at the Daley Center for 4.25 hours. It is undisputed that the building was not open on the date specified.”

The Thapedis are appealing Zwick’s ruling. They want a bigger share of the money that went to Shapiro.

Llewellyn Thapedi acknowledges that the bill she and her son submitted to Zwick might have contained errors, saying it was created as an internal document.

She says Zwick “doesn’t say we’re overbilling. She’s saying some of the work we did for the client couldn’t be charged to the wrongful-death case” because it related to other issues.

Shapiro is fighting the Thapedis’ bid for more money, accusing them of leaking unflattering information about Cooper to the CHA via their court filings — including disclosures about high-interest loans that Cooper took out before she settled her lawsuit.

Llewellyn Thapedi denies that, saying, “We haven’t leaked anything to anybody.”

Shapiro says he’s filed a complaint against the Thapedis with the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, an arm of the Illinois Supreme Court that licenses and disciplines lawyers. Thapedi says she’s filed a complaint, too. The ARDC won’t comment.

Pamela Cooper hired the Thapedis on June 27, 2008 — the day her son died when the iron gate fell on him as he rode his tricycle on the sidewalk at the Cabrini-Green rowhouses on Chicago’s Near North Side.

Four days later, acting on Cooper’s behalf, they filed suit against Urban Property Advisors, the company founded by Davis and his son Cullen Davis that was paid nearly $2 million to manage the Cabrini-Green rowhouses and other CHA buildings between 2005 and 2008. It no longer manages property for the CHA.

The Thapedis later amended Cooper’s wrongful-death lawsuit to add the CHA, Nesbitt and Davis, his wife and three children.

Nesbitt, who was CHA board chairman from 2006 until 2010, is among Obama’s closest friends. He hosted a campaign fund-raiser for the president this weekend and often spends weekends at the White House. Davis headed the small Chicago law firm where Obama went to work after graduating from Harvard Law School.

On Sept. 29, 2009, with the case in mediation, Cooper rejected a settlement offer of $800,000. Four days later, she fired the Thapedis and turned the case over to Shapiro. The Thapedis, though, wouldn’t turn over their case files for several months, according to court records.

Nesbitt and the Davises had been dropped from the case by May 2011, when Cooper agreed to the $2 million settlement from the CHA and Urban Property Advisors, which Zwick approved in November. The CHA paid $750,000 of that amount, while the rest was paid by an insurance company for the CHA and Urban Property Advisors, records show.

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