A&A: How are attorney’s fees calculated in CPRA cases?

Q: First off thank you so much for providing such a boon to transparency in government.

I’ve found an attorney willing to take a CA Public Records Act (“CPRA”) case where the would-be defendant won’t disclose records that clearly should be or provide an exemption or other concrete reason for not providing the requested documents.

The attorney wants $5,000 to write the complaint and start the lawsuit (although he admits he does not know the typical amount for a CPRA complaint). My question is: what kind of fees do successful CPRA actions typically receive? Do you have a copy of a motion for fees that I could look at? Thank you so much again for your great work and advancement of good government.

A: First, thank you for your kind words of support for the First Amendment Coalition. As to your question, you may know that in California attorney fees can be recovered when agreed upon in contract or authorized by statute. The PRA provides that “[t]he court shall award court costs and reasonable attorney fees to the plaintiff should the plaintiff prevail in litigation filed” under the PRA. Govt. Code 6259(d).

Calculating the amount of attorneys fees, however, is not any different in PRA cases than it is in other cases where fees are authorized.

Attorney fees are generally calculated by the lodestar method, which entails “multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by counsel by a reasonable hourly rate. Once the court has fixed the lodestar, it may increase or decrease that amount by applying a positive or negative ‘multiplier’ to take into account a variety of other factors, including the quality of the representation, the novelty and complexity of the issues, the results obtained, and the contingent risk presented.” Lealao v. Beneficial California, Inc., 82 Cal. App. 4th 19, 26 (2000).

Note that in the PRA context, a court said fairly recently that “[a]lthough the lodestar adjustment method is the prevailing rule for statutory attorneys fee awards and is applicable in the absence of a clear legislative intent to the contrary, the application of a fee multiplier is never mandatory but remains a matter reserved to the trial court’s sound discretion.” Galbiso v. Orosi Public Utility Dist., 167 Cal. App. 4th 1063, 1089 (2008) (citations omitted).

It is probably not possible to point to a typical amount of attorney fees recoverable in a PRA case, as there are so many factors that go into how much is spent in PRA litigation, including the complexity and contentiousness of the particular case.