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Woodland Hills Residents Ass'n, Inc. v. City Council - 23 Cal. 3d 917, 154 Cal. Rptr. 503, 593 P.2d 200 (1979)

Rule:

There are three basic factors to be considered in awarding fees under the private attorney general theory: (1) the strength or societal importance of the public policy vindicated by the litigation, (2) the necessity for private enforcement and the magnitude of the resultant burden on the plaintiff, and (3) the number of people standing to benefit from the decision.

Facts:

Plaintiffs were a residents' association and individual members. Their complaint alleged that the various agencies' approvals of the subdivision map were deficient in three principal respects. First, the complaint asserted that the approvals were invalid both because the agencies had failed to make specific findings that the subdivision in question was consistent with the applicable general plan and also because the subdivision was in fact inconsistent with the general plan. Second, plaintiffs asserted that the approval was invalid because the city agencies had failed to prepare an environmental impact report prior to the approval of the subdivision map. Third,  plaintiffs contended that the city had failed to fulfill a number of additional duties imposed by a variety of municipal ordinances. Having prevailed in their mandate action, plaintiffs moved in the trial court for an award of attorney fees against the City defendants. The trial court rejected plaintiffs' attorney fee motion, finding with respect to the substantial benefit theory that plaintiffs "did not establish that a substantial public benefit has been conferred on [defendants] in this action," and concluding, without elaboration, that attorney fees should not be awarded to plaintiffs under the private attorney general rationale. Plaintiffs appealed from the judgment insofar as it failed to provide for an award of attorney fees to their counsel, contending that they are entitled to an attorney fee award under both the private attorney general theory and the substantial benefit theory.

Issue:

Did the trial court err in denying an award of attorney fees to the plaintiffs who were successful in their mandate action against defendant governmental entities for improper approval of a new subdivision?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

While the appeal was pending, the award of attorney fees under the private attorney general theory was codified in Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 1021.5, and the Supreme Court of California held that it was applicable to all cases pending on the enactment date. The Court reversed the denial of attorney fees to plaintiffs-appellants. The Court remanded the case to the lower court. The trial court should determine the propriety of attorney fees under section 1021.5 after a hearing which properly focuses on the criteria established by that statute. The Court explained that the Legislature adopted § 1021.5 as a codification of the "private attorney general" attorney fee doctrine that had been developed in numerous prior judicial decisions. The fundamental objective of the private attorney general doctrine of attorney fees is to encourage suits effectuating a strong public policy by awarding substantial attorney's fees to those who successfully bring such suits and thereby bring about benefits to a broad class of citizens. Under § 1021.5, the 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. 

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