Public Entity Litigants Are Entitled to Attorney Fee Award Under Private Attorney General Doctrine Even Where Non Financial Interests Are In Play

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In City of Maywood v. Los Angeles Unified School District, 2012 DJDAR 9925 (2012), the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District decided a novel attorney fee case. The case arose out of a petition for a writ of mandate filed by the City of Maywood (“Maywood”) seeking to overturn the certification of an environmental impact report (“EIR”) by a public entity.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (“LAUSD”) certified an EIR pertaining to the construction of a high school. Maywood sought to overturn the certification decision because the report allegedly failed to assess numerous significant environmental impacts.

The trial court granted the writ and ordered LAUSD to investigate and remediate deficiencies in the EIR. When Maywood moved for attorney fees, the court granted the request and awarded Maywood $670,000. LAUSD argued that fees were improperly awarded under Code of Civil Procedure Section 1021.5 as the City had a “non‑pecuniary” motive in pursuing the case. Despite this argument, the trial court granted the fee petition.

The court of appeal reversed significant aspects of the trial court’s decision relating to the EIR. For that reason, the court of appeal also reversed the trial court’s grant of fees to Maywood despite the fact that it found that LAUSD relied on outdated legal authorities for its position on fees, particularly on the “non‑pecuniary” motive issue.

The panel noted that to obtain attorney fees under Section 1021.5, the party seeking fees must show that the litigation vindicated an important public right or conferred a significant benefit on the general public. The panel noted that a party’s non‑pecuniary motives do not automatically preclude a party from receiving fees.

The court of appeal also noted that the statutory language and the Legislative history failed to show any intent to treat private litigants differently from public entities. To disqualify parties from a fee award for pursuing non‑financial considerations would create difficult management issues for the courts and would require subjective decisions. The court rejected the use of such an analysis.