Awarding Attorney’s Fees in CPRA Cases
Q: We just received a tentative ruling on a CPRA case against Caltrans where we prevailed completely and yet we were slapped with the majority of our attorney’s fees and costs without justification or rationale by the Superior Court. Even though Caltrans did not raise a single legal objection to the reasonableness of the attorney’s fees during the litigation, the Court drastically reduced the fees without citing any acceptable method or case. This seems to fly in the face of the intent of the CPRA, where the attoney’s fees are mandatory and intended to make sure the public is not burdened with enormous costs for documents they should be able to get for the price of a copy. Our attorney was able to make the case that the Court used arguments in the ruling not raised by the adverse party, and we have one more shot at this decision before we would have to appeal it. We have already spent far more than we could afford on this issue.
A:You are correct that an award of attorneys fees is mandatory to a plaintiff who prevails in Public Records Act (“PRA”) litigation. Since you say you have one more shot with the trial court before going to the Court of Appeal on the fee issue, you may want to advise the court of the following legal authorities:
- Braun v. City of Taft, 154 Cal. App. 3d 332, 349 (1984) — Section 6254(d) of the PRA (the fee provision) was “enacted to carry out the purposes of the Public Records Act. Through the device of awarding fees, citizens can enforce its salutary objectives.”
- Serrano v. Unruh, 32 Cal. 3d 621, 639 (1982) — Under fee-shifting statutes, a prevailing plaintiff is entitled to compensation for “all hours reasonably spent.”
- Los Angeles Times v. Alameda Corridor Transport. Authority, 88 Cal. App. 4th 1381, 1392 (2001) – concluding that a prevailing plaintiff is entitled to his/her fees even where the court orders the disclosure of only some of the records sought by the plaintiff, since not awarding fees would have a chilling effect on future efforts by members of the public to obtain access under the PRA to small yet critical portions of documents illegally held by public entities.