In Bernardi v. County of Monterey, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, Cal.App. 6 Dist., September 30, 2008), a California Court of Appeal considered a dispute over the award of attorney fees after a person seeking public records from Monterey County (“County”), through the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”), was successful in forcing the disclosure of some, but not all, of the records she sought. The court ruled that CPRA provides for the award of attorney fees to a plaintiff successful in winning disclosure and nothing in CPRA provides that attorney fees should be proportional to the party’s degree of success. Therefore the award of the full amount of the attorney fees was proper.
Through much of 2005 and 2006, Patricia Bernardi waged a legal battle with the County for disclosure of public records pertaining to the county’s approval of environmental impact documents for a proposed housing development project. The dispute went to a special master, who recommended the disclosure of about one-third of the requested documents, but not of the rest, citing attorney-client privileges and personal privacy concerns. Both Bernardi and the County agreed to accept the special master’s findings, and a trial court issued an order adopting the findings and ordering the release of the nonexempt public records to Bernardi.
Bernardi, claiming that she was the prevailing party in CPRA litigation, then sued for attorney fees and despite the County’s opposition, the trial court awarded her fees of $244,287.50. The County appealed that ruling on the ground that the amount awarded was unreasonable since Bernardi’s quest was only partially successful.
The attorney fee language in CPRA, citing a strong public interest in the disclosure of public records, states: “The court shall award costs and reasonable attorney fees to the plaintiff should the plaintiff prevail in litigation filed pursuant to this section.” Further, citing Belth v. Garamendi (1991) 232 Cal App.3d 901, the court added: “a plaintiff is considered the prevailing party if his [or her] lawsuit motivated defendants to provide the primary relief sought or activated them to modify their behavior, or if the litigation substantially contributed to or was demonstrably influential in setting in motion the process which eventually achieved the desired result.” Bernardi had in fact caused the County to disclose public records it otherwise would not have, and was therefore the prevailing party, the court reasoned.
The court then rejected the County’s claims that because Bernardi was only one-third successful in her CPRA action, her award of attorney fees should be reduced by two-thirds. The County’s reliance on case law citing reduced awards in litigation brought under other statutes was misplaced, the court said, because none of those cases were brought under CPRA. “Moreover, the County has not cited any authority for the proposition that an attorney fees award in a CPRA action must always be proportionate to the prevailing parties degree of success in obtaining the disclosure of public records,” the court said. Further, the court cited Los Angeles Times v. Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority (2001) 88 Cal.App.4th 1391, where the full fees were awarded when disclosure was ordered for fewer than all of the documents sought.
The order awarding attorney fees was affirmed.
If you have any questions concerning the content of this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.
Mona Ebrahimi | 916.321.4500