Appealing from an attorney fee award is usually a tough slog. Unless you are arguing a pure issue of law, such as whether any attorney fee-shifting statute applies to the case at all, the Court of Appeal usually reviews only for abuse of discretion. However, an important exception is noted in the recent case of Samantha C. v. State Department of Developmental Services, case no. B232649 (2d Dist., Div. 1, June 21, 2012).
In Samantha C., attorney fees were sought under the “private attorney general statute,” Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, in which plaintiffs who enforce an “an important right affecting the public interest” can recover attorney fees under certain conditions, namely:
(a) a significant benefit, whether pecuniary or nonpecuniary, has been conferred on the general public or a large class of persons, (b) the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement, or of enforcement by one public entity against another public entity, are such as to make the award appropriate, and (c) such fees should not in the interest of justice be paid out of the recovery, if any.
Plaintiff had originally lost her lawsuit seeking state services, but appealed the judgment. The Court of Appeal reversed in a published decision that construed certain statutory and regulatory language governing eligibility for services. Nonetheless, on remand, the trial court declined to award private attorney general attorney fees, finding that the benefits of the lawsuit were limited to the plaintiff.
Are you wondering, How can that be, when the published decision involved the interpretation of statutory language that applies to all such cases? If so, give yourself a gold star. The Court of Appeal finds that the precedent set by the statutory and regulatory construction in its first decision necessarily extend beyond plaintiff to all applicants, and that the actual size of that class of persons need not be proven:
Although our underlying decision was phrased in terms of substantial evidence, it rested on determinations of statutory and regulatory construction that were not specific only to Samantha.
Although the record does not reflect the number of individuals that might be directly benefited by our decision in Samantha C., nevertheless, by defining the class of benefited persons to include those in Samantha‘s position, the Legislature has demonstrated its determination that such a need exists, in a quantity that is of sufficient size to require its legislative protection. In light of the Legislature‘s statement of purpose, we cannot justifiably conclude that such a group of potential claimants is nonexistent, or even minimal.
The point of this post, however, is not just the court’s decision, but how the Court of Appeal got there. Instead of deferring to the court’s discretion on the applicability of section 1021.5 in this case, the Court of Appeal found itself well situated to review applicability of section 1021.5 de novo, i.e., without any deference afforded to the trial court’s decision:
“A trial court‘s decision whether to award attorney fees under section 1021.5 is generally reviewed for abuse of discretion.” [Citation.] But where, as here, our published opinion provides the basis upon which attorney fees are sought, de novo or independent review is appropriate because we are in at least as good a position as the trial court to determine whether section 1021.5 fees should be awarded. [Citations.]
Not many appellants will be able to take advantage of this reasoning to obtain de novo review of their entitlement to fees.
There is one curious point to the decision. Although the Court of Appeal did not strongly emphasize it, implicit in its conclusion that the first appeal resulted in a benefit for a large class of persons is that its prior decision was a published one. Odd that its original opinion on the fee issue was not published.