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Monday, November 1, 2010

Burke v. Ipsen: Court Affirms Judgment In Union Election Dispute

Burke v. Ipsen (October 29, 2010) --- Cal.App.4th ----, 2010 WL 4261474, covers ground that we normally don't cover here, but the discussion of private attorney general fees under Code of Civil Procedure 1021.5 caught my eye. This is an area that we deal with frequently in class and representative actions. Here's the background for the case, as described by the Court of Appeal:

A member of a union filed a petition for a writ of mandate in the trial court, seeking to compel the union to conduct an election of officers and directors and to set aside the union's recently amended bylaws. The petition alleged violations of the Corporations Code and the union‘s original bylaws.

The union opposed the petition on the ground that plaintiff had failed to exhaust administrative remedies by not presenting his claims to the local employee relations commission.

The trial court concluded plaintiff did not have to exhaust administrative remedies because his claims involved internal union affairs, which the employee relations commission did not have the authority to resolve. The court granted the petition and issued a writ of mandate directing that an election be conducted and declaring the amended bylaws invalid. In subsequent proceedings, the court awarded attorney fees to plaintiff under the private attorney general statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. The union appealed.

We agree with the trial court that plaintiff did not have to exhaust administrative remedies because the court was the proper tribunal to enforce the Corporations Code and the union's original bylaws in a dispute involving internal union affairs. We also conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney fees under a private attorney general theory.

Slip op. at 1. On the attorney fee issue, the Court held that:
In determining whether to award attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, a trial court ―must consider whether: (1) plaintiffs' action has resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest, (2) a significant benefit, whether pecuniary or nonpecuniary has been conferred on the general public or a large class of persons and (3) the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement are such as to make the award appropriate. We conclude the trial court did not err in finding that all three factors were satisfied.
Slip op. at 23. The Court held that (1) the right of union members to insure that their unions maintain fair and reasonable election procedures is an important right that affects the public interest, (2) the judgment in favor of the union member would confer a significant benefit on more than 1,000 union members, and (3) it was appropriate to award attorney fees to the plaintiff, who had no greater stake in the litigation than any other union member. Slip op. at 23-24. The Court thus affirmed the order granting the plaintiff his fees.

The opinion is available here.

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