|By Melissa Pamer, Daily Breeze, Torrance,
Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
January 9, 2010 - In a ruling that prompted lawyers for both Rancho Palos Verdes and Donald Trump to claim victory, a court commissioner on Friday significantly narrowed the scope of the real estate mogul's $100 million lawsuit against the city and several of its geologists.
Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Bruce E. Mitchell ruled that before any of Trump's wide-ranging claims can move forward, another judge must determine whether the city inappropriately prevented him from further developing his coastal Trump National Golf Club.
Though several of his claims against the city and almost all allegations against the city's geologists were dismissed Friday, Trump attorney Stuart Miller said the ruling was "for the most part a victory."
"We're very pleased," Miller said. "It's a very reasonable way of handling things in the sense that it gets to the heart of things first."
Miller's interpretation that the ruling was a win for Trump was off, said Mitchell Abbott, the attorney representing Rancho Palos Verdes.
"They are claiming victory because they're not dead yet," Abbott said.
The lawsuit turns on whether a lengthy, unresolved geologic review of improvements at Trump National was an effort by the city to intentionally slow or limit development at the luxury golf course, where a landslide pushed the 18th hole into the ocean in 1999, before the land was acquired by Trump's VH Property Corp.<>Abbott acknowledged that Trump has experienced delays. But he said the developer had never submitted an application to the city for one of the elements he is suing over -- 16 homes that would replace the course's driving range. Another item, a terrace around the clubhouse, has already been approved, Abbott said. >
Calling Friday "a terrific day for the city and the other defendants," Abbott said the ruling's focus on the legality of the city's planning and geologic review process would likely result in a positive outcome for the municipality.
"The question that the writ judge will answer is: Were they entitled to receive their permits?" Abbott said. "I'm prepared to mortgage my house that the answer will be no."
It could take up to six months for a new judge to examine that portion of the case, which was filed in December 2008, removed to federal court and then sent back to a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.
Meanwhile, Trump's assorted remaining claims will be on hold.
Several parts of the lawsuit were dismissed Friday, including claims of fraud, breach of contract and unfair business practices against two city-contracted geologists.
One geologist, Glenn Tofani, is still subject to a breach of written contract claim, but Mitchell said he thought Trump had a "40 percent" chance of success on that item.
The commissioner gave Trump's attorneys permission to further refine several of their claims against the city, warning that clarity and more specifics were needed.
Those claims include breach of contract, taking of property without just compensation and violation of due process rights.
"You're a creative lawyer," Mitchell told Miller. "I understand you want to cover all the bases, but some of this sounds very attenuated."
Miller attracted the attention of Trump in 2008, when he won a major legal battle against Rancho Palos Verdes over development rights in a Portuguese Bend landslide zone.
When Miller began comparing notes with Trump executives and lawyers, they learned that geologist Tofani had testified on behalf of the city in the earlier lawsuit, known as the Monks case.
Miller said Tofani's work for the city, among other things, made him biased in favor of Rancho Palos Verdes when he acted as a member of a three-member, "peer-review" geology panel that reviewed Trump's plans.
That panel's actions figure prominently in the current lawsuit against the city, as does the Monks case.
In Monks, Miller successfully argued that the city's development restrictions in Portuguese Bend constituted a "regulatory taking," also known as inverse condemnation. That same claim is central to the Trump case.
"We'll prove those things," Miller said.
Meanwhile, the jury trial in the monetary damages phase of the Monks suit is expected to begin next month.
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