In Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions v. City of Healdsburg, 2012 DJDAR 7386 (2012), the California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District decided a novel fee recovery case brought under the California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1021.5 (the private attorney general doctrine) and the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).
In the litigation, the Petitioners (“Healdsburg Citizens”) successfully challenged the City of Healdsburg’s (“City”) certification of an environmental impact report (“EIR”) and project approvals for a resort development in the City under CEQA.
One of the members of Healdsburg Citizens was an attorney who had experience in CEQA litigation. The member agreed to work on the case on a contingent fee basis, along with other lawyers. The litigation was fact intensive and legally complex. The trial court granted the Healdsburg Citizens’ petition for a writ of mandate in several respects. The trial court also granted the Petitioners’ motion for attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure Section 1021.5.
On appeal, the City contended that the member/attorney was a named party to the case. For this reason, using the reasoning of cases decided under Civil Code Section 1717, the City argued that an attorney who litigates in propria persona is not eligible for the recovery of fees. The City argued that the trial court erred in awarding fees on this basis.
The court of appeal affirmed the fee award. The court acknowledged the doctrine established under Civil Code Section 1717, that an attorney who chooses to litigate in propria persona cannot recover attorney fees. The appellate court noted, however, that a member of an organization may recover attorney fees under Section 1021.5 so long as the attorney meets the requirements of the private attorney general doctrine.
In this regard, the court specifically found that the member/attorney vindicated an important public interest affecting the general public.