A Petitioner Is Entitled To Attorneys' Fees Under The Public Records Act If The Petitioner Succeeds On Any Significant Issue And Achieves Some Of The Benefit Sought In The Litigation

By Glen Hansen

In Garcia v. Governing Board of Bellflower Unified School District (October 24, 2013, B247320) ___ Cal.App.4th ___ a former employee of the Bellflower Unified School District (“District”) filed an extraordinary writ petition against the District relating to her alleged exposure to mold. Her counsel later served on the District’s counsel in that proceeding a request for records from the District pursuant to the California Public Records Act (Gov. Code, § 6250 et seq.) (“PRA”). The letter listed eight (8) categories of records that were requested pursuant to the PRA. During the next month, the former employee’s counsel sent several additional letters and an email to the District’s counsel because the District did not respond to the original letter request. The District's general counsel finally responded with a letter stating that there were no documents responsive to four of the requests, that two of the requests were overly broad and vague, and that documents responsive to two of the requests were exempt from disclosure. The former employee’s counsel then sent a ‘meet and confer’ letter to the District’s general counsel disputing the District's objections and responses. But when the District did not respond to that letter, the former employee commenced mandamus proceeding seeking to compel the District to comply with the PRA. 

 After briefing, the trial court ordered the District to produce records responsive to three of the requests. Specifically, the trial court ruled that the District must “provide documents responsive to requests numbers 2, 5 and 6 within 15 days of this order.” The order further stated that requests Nos. 1 and 8 had been resolved and were no longer at issue. The trial court also held that the District had an obligation to produce records responsive to No. 2 regardless of whether those records were “searchable” on the Internet. The trial court denied the petition as to requests Nos. 3, 4 and 7. And the trial court overruled the District’s objections to No. 2, found that the District had failed to meet and confer with Garcia despite her request to do so, and ordered the District to provide a complete response. The trial court then found that the former employee was the prevailing party, in part because the litigation was necessary to prompt the district to comply with the PRA, and that the results obtained were neither minimal nor insignificant. The trial court therefore awarded the former employee the full amount of the requested attorney fees in the amount of $9,787.82. The District appealed to Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District.

Government Code section 6259, subdivision (d), provides: “The court shall award costs and reasonable attorney fees to the plaintiff should the plaintiff prevail in litigation filed pursuant to this section.” On appeal, the District argued that the former employee was not the prevailing party because her success was insignificant, she did not obtain her “primary relief sought,” and the litigation created no public benefit. The Court of Appeal rejected those arguments. The court noted that the PRA does not define the term “prevail” or explain the circumstances in which a petitioner is deemed the prevailing party. Therefore, the court looked to the recovery of attorneys’ fees in the private attorney general statute in Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. Other courts have held that the terms “successful party,” as used in section 1021.5, and “prevailing party” are synonymous. Other courts have also held that a party may be considered “successful” under section 1021.5 if it succeeds on any significant issue in the litigation and achieves some of the benefit sought in the lawsuit. The court here held that this same rule applies in determining whether the petitioner has prevailed under section 6259, subdivision (d), of the PRA.

The District responded that, under the “catalyst theory” in the section 1021.5 context, a plaintiff is successful for purposes of an attorney fee award, despite the lack of a favorable judgment or other court action, if the lawsuit was a catalyst in motivating the defendant to provide the primary relief sought. However, the court explained that the catalyst theory was inapplicable here because the trial court ordered the District to disclose some of the requested records and provide further written responses.

Here the former employee successfully obtained an order compelling the District to provide further written responses clearly stating whether there were any other responsive documents. Thus, the District did not show that the trial court abused its discretion in finding that the former employee succeeded on a significant issue in this litigation and achieved some of the benefit sought in this lawsuit. Nor did the District show any abuse of discretion in the trial court’s finding that the results obtained through this litigation were neither minimal nor insignificant. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment and remanded the case to the trial court to consider the amount of additional attorneys’ fees that the former employee was entitled to for also prevailing on appeal.

Glen Hansen is senior counsel at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, or the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

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