Expert Witness Fees May Not Be Awarded Under Private Attorney General Statute

In a decision being closely watched by many, the California Supreme Court holds today in Olson v. Automobile Club of Southern California, case no. S143999 (Feb. 28, 2008), that Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, the state’s “private attorney general” statute, does not authorize a court to award expert witness fees in addition to the attorney fees explicitly authorized by the statute.

As the court notes, the statute explicitly authorizes an award of “attorney fees” and is silent about expert witness fees. Which should have made for an easy decision.

Yet the court is compelled to delve behind the plain language of the statute. The decision is a good primer on how to read behind the lines of a statute by examining its enactment and amendments relative to existing case law.  That doesn’t work to change the plain meaning in this case, though.

There is sure to be more posted by other bloggers. I’ll provide links as I find them.

More on California’s Private Attorney General Statute

This post at The UCL Practitioner notes an article about a case being argued today in the California Supreme Court (Olson v. Automobile Club of Southern California, no. S143999) addressing whether expert witness fees are recoverable under the state’s private attorney general statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5.

If the private AG statute interests you generally, make sure you didn’t miss this post from yesterday, which appears immediately below this one on the home page.

Appeal after Remand to State Court: Was Removal Reasonable?

The Ninth Circuit reminds us in Gardner v. MEGA Life & Health Ins. Co., case no. 06-55045 (9th Cir. Nov. 19, 2007), that even though no appeal lies from an order remanding a removed action to state court, the removing defendant may appeal an order to pay costs and fees imposed in connection with the remand under 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). Here, it pays off.

MEGA was ordered to pay costs and fees when the action was remanded. It claimed the only non-diverse defendant, an individual, had been fraudulently joined for the purpose of defeating diversity jurisdiction because the statute of limitations had run as to that defendant.

Applying the rule that fees and costs should ordinarily not be awarded where the removing defendant had an objectively reasonable basis for removing, the Ninth Circuit reverses the award of fees and costs. Interestingly, it finds that MEGA had a reasonable basis for removal purely on its own analysis of whether the claim against the non-diverse defendant was barred under California law and without considering one of the reasons MEGA cited for the reasonableness of removal — that on remand, the California court sustained MEGA’s demurrer.

That makes sense, in a way, since reasonableness should be measured as of the time of removal. On the other hand, it seems like the state court dismissal is pretty solid evidence of the objective reasonableness of MEGA’s fraudulent joinder contention.

Ninth Circuit: Anticipated Attorney Fees on Appeal Can be Considered in Calculation of Appeal Cost Bond — Sometimes

In Azizian v. Wilkinson, case no. 05-15847 (August 23, 2007), the Ninth Circuit faced, for the first time,  an issue on which other circuits have split: “whether, or under what circumstances, appellate attorney’s fees are ‘costs on appeal’ that a district court may require an appellant to secure in a bond ordered under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 7.”  It provides its conclusion at the outset of the opinion:

We conclude that a district court may require an appellant to secure appellate attorney’s fees in a Rule 7 bond, but only if an applicable fee-shifting statute includes them in its definition of recoverable costs, and only if the appellee is eligible to recover such fees.

Appellant Wilkinson is a class member who objected to the class action settlement approved by the district court between the certified class of consumers and a number of retail stores accused of antitrust violations with respect to cosmetics.  She appealed from the order approving the settlement.

Plaintiffs sought a bond under FRAP 7 of nearly $13 million, which included a $600,000 component for twice the plaintiffs’ anticipated attorney fees on appeal.  FRAP 7 provides that the district court “may require an appellant to file a bond or provide other security in any form and amount necessary to ensure payment of costs on appeal.”

The district court ordered a bond of only $42,000, but it included a $40,000 appellate attorney fee component.  It reasoned that appellate attorney fees could be considered “costs” on appeal because: “(1) the fee-shifting provision in Section 4 of the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. § 15, defines attorney’s fees as among the costs recoverable, and (2) ‘the Court of Appeals [was] likely to find that the instant ppeal[ ] [was] frivolous.’”

Regarding the district court’s first justification, the court goes through a very detailed analysis of the cases from other circuits, then states that “[w]e agree with the Second, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits and hold that the term ‘costs on appeal’ in Rule 7 includes all expenses defined as ‘costs’ by an applicable fee-shifting statute, including attorney’s fees.” The court gave four reasons for its holding:

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Anti-SLAPP Attorney Fee and Costs Application is Timely any Time Prior to Final Judgment

In Carpenter v. Jack in the Box Corp., case no. B188707 (May 25, 2007) the Second District Court of Appeal holds that an application for anti-SLAPP attorney fees and costs under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16(c) by a plaintiff who prevails against an anti-SLAPP motion is timely so long as it is made before entry of final judgment in the action, even if it s not made until after resolution of the appeal of the order denying the anti-SLAPP motion.

Carpenter brought an action for wrongful termination, defamation, and other tort and contract claims related to the termination of employment by Jack in the Box.  Jack in the Box brought an anti-SLAPP motion (special motion to strike) under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, claiming that plaintiff’s claims targeted Jack in the Box’s actions in the course of an investigation into allegations that plaintiff had sexually harassed another employee and that such actions were protected under the First Amendment.  The trial court denied the special motion to strike, and the Court of Appeal affirmed.

After remittitur to the trial court, plaintiff filed his application for fees and costs under section 425.16(c).  The court held that the trial court did not lose jurisdiction over the application simply because the remittitur of the case after the denial of the anti-SLAPP motion did not include instructions to determine attorney fees and costs.  The trial court retains jurisdiction to decide a motion for fees and costs even while the appeal is pending, and a statute authorizing an award of attorney fees in the trial court includes appellate fees unless the statute explicitly states otherwise.

Finding jurisdiction, the court next turned to the issue of whether the application was timely under rules 3.1702 and 8.104 of the California Rules of Court.  After a rigorous and complicated analysis of the rules to resolve a facial ambiguity, the court concludes that an application for fees under section 425.16(c) is timely so long as it is brought any time before final judgment in the action.

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Court Upholds $143,809 in Costs Awarded for Preparation of a Single Exhibit

It sounds crazy in the abstract, not so much in the context of the case decided in the Fifth District of the California Court of Appeal, El Dorado Meat Co. v. Yosemite Meat and Locker Service, Inc., ___ Cal.Rptr.3d ___, case no. F049334 (May 4, 2007).  The court characterized the action as a “complex suit” in which plaintiff alleged a variety of business torts including antitrust, RICO and unfair competition claims. The single exhibit was actually “a 37-page document containing charts and graphs that were projected on a screen during trial” and was prepared from 160,000 pages of business and financial records produced by the parties in discovery.  The costs included more than $111,000 for personnel to compile and enter data from the records, more than $30,000 for copying, and a little over $2,000 for the electronic equipment to project the exhibit on screen at trial.  Though it found some of the evidentiary support to be “light,” the court held that the trial court was within its discretion to award the costs: “Given the nature of the case, Yosemite could not mount its defense without presenting years’ worth of its own and El Dorado’s business data.  Given the volume of the data, Yosemite could not present it without summaries.

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