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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Conservatorship of Whitley: Cal. Supreme Court Clarifies CCP 1021.5 Private Attorney General Attorney Fees

In Conservatorship of Whitley (November 8, 2010) --- Cal.4th ---, the California Supreme Court has held that litigants who have personal, non-pecuniary motives to pursue litigation may recover private attorney general attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. The Court explained its holding as follows:

Under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, a litigant who acts as a private attorney general and is a successful party in the litigation may under certain circumstances recover attorney fees from the opposing parties. One of the requirements that courts are directed to consider when determining eligibility for attorney fees is "the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement." As explained below, courts have long construed this language to mean, among other things, that a litigant who has a financial interest in the litigation may be disqualified from obtaining such fees when expected or realized financial gains offset litigation costs. What is less clear is whether nonfinancial, nonpecuniary personal interests in the litigation, such as vindicating the best interests of a child or sibling, can also serve to render a litigant ineligible for attorney fees, as some Courts of Appeal have held. That issue is squarely presented by this case.

We conclude that a litigant's personal nonpecuniary motives may not be used to disqualify that litigant from obtaining fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. The contrary interpretation, which was adopted by the Court of Appeal in this case, has no basis in the language, legislative history, or evident purpose of section 1021.5. As discussed below, the purpose of section 1021.5 is not to compensate with attorney fees only those litigants who have altruistic or lofty motives, but rather all litigants and attorneys who step forward to engage in public interest litigation when there are insufficient financial incentives to justify the litigation in economic terms. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeal's judgment and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Slip op. at 1-2. Had the Supreme Court ruled otherwise, defendants in most cases undoubtedly would have argued that the plaintiffs had - at the very least - nonfinancial, nonpecuniary personal interests that should prevent them from recovering section 1021.5 fees.

The opinion is available here.

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