In Roybal v. Governing Board of the Salinas City Elementary School District, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2008 WL 110688, 08 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 1726, Cal.App. 6 Dist., Jan. 11, 2008), a California Court of Appeal considered whether three school district employees who were improperly laid off could recover attorney fees from the school district under the private attorney general doctrine. The Court of Appeal concluded that the employees could not recover attorney fees under the doctrine.
In 2005, Salinas City Elementary School District (“District”) sent a notice of layoff to 134 full-time certificated employees pursuant to Education Code section 44949. Among those laid off were three psychologists, who are all bilingual. These three psychologists requested a hearing asserting that the layoff was not only procedurally defective but that the District improperly deviated from the seniority list to retain psychologists with advanced proficiency skills in Spanish. An administrative law judge rejected their assertions. The psychologists then brought a lawsuit against the District. The trial court found that the District had improperly deviated from the seniority order when it implemented the layoff. The court directed District to reinstate the psychologists and pay them for lost wages and other lost benefits.
The psychologists asserted they were entitled to attorney fees under either Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 or Education Code section 44944. The trial court concluded that the psychologists were not entitled to attorney fees under the Education Code, but they were entitled to such fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. The District appealed the award of attorney fees.
The Court of Appeal held that the trial court erred in awarding the psychologists attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. Section 1021.5 provides that a successful party in an action may recover attorney fees if the action has resulted in the enforcement of an important right that affects the public interest and the following requirements are also met: (1) a significant benefit has been conferred on either a large class of persons or the general public; (2) “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 (3) the “fees should not in the interest of justice be paid out of the recovery, if any.”
Section 1021.5 is a codification of the “private attorney general” doctrine which recognizes that lawsuits initiated by private citizens “are often essential to the effectuation of the fundamental public policies embodied in constitutional or statutory provisions, and that, without some mechanism authorizing the award of attorney fees, private actions to enforce such important public policies will as a practical matter frequently be infeasible.” Under this doctrine, a plaintiff may be awarded private attorney general fees if the action (1) vindicated “an important public right,” (2) bestowed a significant benefit on a large class of persons or the general public, and (3) “imposed a financial burden on plaintiffs which was out of proportion to their individual stake in the matter.”
The psychologists’ lawsuit did not vindicate an important public right. The remediation of the defect in the District’s layoff procedure in this particular instance did not amount to enforcement of an important public right. Furthermore, no substantial benefit inured to the public or a large class of the District’s employees as a result of the psychologists’ lawsuit. The litigation primarily advanced the psychologists’ personal economic interests and not those of the public or large class of persons within the State.
Finally, the financial burden imposed on the psychologists was not out of proportion to their stake in the matter. “Section 1021.5 was not designed as a method for rewarding litigants motivated by their own pecuniary interests who only coincidentally protect the public interest.” If the enforcement of the public interest is only coincidental to the litigant’s attainment of a personal goal, the requirements of Section 1021.5 have not been met. Here, an attorney fee award was not warranted under Section 1021.5 because the financial burden of this litigation did not surpass the psychologists’ personal interest in obtaining their reinstatement and damages
Attorney fees were also not available to the psychologists under Education Code section 44944 because this was not a dismissal or suspension that had been initiated under Section 44934 heard by a Commission on Professional Competence.