Mandel v. Myers

Citation29 Cal.3d 531,174 Cal.Rptr. 841
Decision Date18 June 1981
Docket NumberS.F. 24217
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 629 P.2d 935 Shelley MANDEL, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Beverlee MYERS, as Director, etc., et al., Defendants and Appellants.

George Deukmejian, Atty. Gen., Charlton Holland and Edward P. Hill, Deputy Attys. Gen., for defendants and appellants.

John Howard Sullivan, Sacramento, as amicus curiae on behalf of defendants and appellants.

Richard M. Kaplan, Ephraim Margolin, Nicholas C. Arguimbau, James J. Brosnahan and Morrison & Foerster, San Francisco, for plaintiff and respondent.

Fred H. Altshuler, Stephen P. Berzon, Evelyn R. Frank, Altshuler & Berzon, San Francisco, John E. McDermott, Los Angeles, Richard A. Rothschild, William S. Boyd, Patricia S. Brody, Thomas W. Kellerman, Rebecca D. Strause, Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, Jerome B. Falk, Jr., Howard, Prim, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady & Pollak, Robert M. Cassel, Mortimer H. Herzstein, Herbert M. Rosenthal, San Francisco, Magdalene Y. O'Rourke, Los Angeles, Frederick E. Watson and Richard J. Sciaroni, San Francisco, as amici curiae on behalf of plaintiff and respondent.

TOBRINER, Justice.

The present appeal the third in this protracted proceeding stems from plaintiff's repeated efforts to enforce a portion of a court judgment awarding her $25,000 in attorney's fees, entered against the various defendant state agencies and officers in April 1973, eight years ago. Shortly after the entry of the 1973 judgment, defendants filed their initial appeal, challenging, inter alia, both the propriety of any attorney fee award and the amount of the award granted in this case. In a decision rendered in January 1976, the Court of Appeal fully considered defendants' contentions and affirmed the attorney fee award in its entirety. (Mandel v. Hodges (1976) 54 Cal.App.3d 596, 127 Cal.Rptr. 244 (Mandel I ).) Our court subsequently denied defendants' petition for hearing and, as a consequence, the trial court judgment, including the attorney fee award, became final.

Despite the finality of the judicial ruling, however, the state defendants have not as yet paid the amount due under the judgment. After plaintiff's counsel had unsuccessfully attempted to obtain voluntary compliance on a number of occasions, the trial court in January 1979 issued an order directing, inter alia, the State Controller to pay the attorney fee award out of funds appropriated in the 1978-1979 Budget Act for the operating expenses of the Department of Health Services, the principal defendant agency in the underlying case. The defendants now appeal from this order, contending that the ruling exceeds the authority of the trial court and violates the constitutional separation of powers doctrine. We conclude that the trial court order sustains, rather than transgresses, constitutional principles and accordingly we affirm the order.

As we shall explain, the court order at issue in this case does not purport to compel the Legislature either to appropriate funds or to perform any other legislative act which might violate established separation of powers principles. Instead, the order simply directs an appropriate state official, the State Controller, to pay a specified sum out of funds that the Legislature has already appropriated. The governing precedents firmly establish that such an order violates no separation of powers principle.

Although recognizing that the order does not compel a legislative act, defendants argue that the general operating expense budget item at which the order is directed was not in fact intended for the payment of the type of expenses--court-awarded attorney fees--at issue here. The budget act, however, defines the permissible use of the funds in question in broad language which naturally and reasonably encompasses the payment of attorney fees, and, as we shall see, comparable budget appropriations have frequently been utilized in the past by a variety of agencies to pay similar attorney fee awards.

Defendants further claim that even if the agency's operating expense budget was generally available for payment of attorney fees, the appropriation in the 1978-1979 budget must be interpreted as excluding funds for the specific attorney fee award at issue here because a legislative committee deleted a separate line-item appropriation proposed for this fee award. As we explain, however, the Legislature has provided no formal explanation for the distinct adverse treatment accorded this particular fee award and on the record before us the legislative action is explicable only as an impermissible legislative "readjudication" of the merits of the underlying final court judgment in this case. Because the very separation of powers doctrine upon which defendants rely precludes the Legislature from establishing itself as a "court of last resort" to review final court judgments on a case-by-case basis, the exclusion of this particular fee award from an otherwise available general appropriation on such a basis cannot stand. Accordingly, the trial court properly determined that the appropriation in question was available for payment of the attorney fee award in this case.

Finally, we shall explain that, contrary to defendants' fears, the trial court order in this case in no way deprives the Legislature of its broad and ultimate control over state expenditures. As we shall point out, the Legislature may restrain and limit state expenditures in this area by adopting any one or more of a host of alternative, generally applicable statutory measures. Our present decision simply recognizes that while legislative authority in fiscal matters is very broad, the separation of powers doctrine precludes the Legislature from according differential treatment in the payment of specific attorney fee awards on the basis of its own case-by-case readjudication of the very issues that the state has already litigated and lost in the underlying judicial proceeding.

1. Factual and procedural background.

Plaintiff, an employee in the Department of Health Services, instituted the underlying action in 1972, challenging--as an unconstitutional establishment of religion--the department's practice of affording state employees three hours of paid time off on Good Friday. The trial court agreed with plaintiff's constitutional challenge to the existing state practice, and entered a judgment which, inter alia, enjoined the Controller from paying state employees for time taken off from work on Good Friday. In addition, the trial court, finding that "(t)he efforts of Petitioner's attorneys have resulted in a substantial benefit derived by Petitioner's class and the public at large and the saving to the State of approximately $2,000,000 in 1973 alone, and further saving which can reasonably be anticipated in years to come ...," included in the judgment an attorney fee award of $25,000.

The state defendants appealed from the judgment, contesting both the trial court's substantive establishment clause ruling and the award of attorney fees. The Court of Appeal, in an extensive opinion, affirmed the judgment in its entirety. (Mandel I, supra, 54 Cal.App.3d 596, 127 Cal.Rptr. 244.) With respect to the attorney fee award, the Court of Appeal specifically addressed defendants' objections to both the validity of any award whatsoever and to the specific amount awarded by the trial court in this case, and upheld the award in all respects. (Id., at pp. 619-624, 127 Cal.Rptr. 244.) Thereafter, our court denied the defendants' petition for hearing.

Having obtained a final judgment against the Department of Health Services and other state defendants, plaintiff commenced efforts to obtain payment of the $25,000 attorney fee award. Upon the advice of the Attorney General, who had represented, and continues to represent, the defendants in this action, plaintiff filed a claim for the payment of the $25,000 with the State Board of Control. The Board of Control approved the claim in August 1976, and included the amount in an omnibus claim bill that was introduced in the Legislature in 1977. The Legislative Analyst opposed the appropriation, however, and the item was deleted from the bill in legislative committee proceedings that year.

Acting again upon the advice of the Attorney General, plaintiff refiled a claim for the $25,000 the following year. Once again the claim was approved by the Board of Control, and this time a specific appropriation for payment of the award was requested in the budget submitted by the Governor to the Legislature for fiscal year 1978-1979. The Legislative Analyst, however, in his report to the joint legislative budget committee, once again recommended against the appropriation. The report indicates that the Legislative Analyst took no note of the binding effect of a final court judgment and that his recommendation rested quite unambiguously upon a reevaluation of the merits of the attorney fee award that had been fully litigated and resolved in the prior judicial proceedings. 1 Thereafter, the specific appropriation for the attorney fee award was deleted in committee proceedings on the 1978-1979 budget bill. 2

Plaintiff then returned to the trial court and filed a motion seeking an order to facilitate the enforcement of the $25,000 attorney fee award. After briefing and oral argument, the trial court granted the motion and entered the order at issue in this appeal. The order, inter alia, directs the State Controller to pay $25,000 plus interest "from the funds of the Department of Health Services pursuant to Item 244(b) of the Budget of the State of California;" 3 item 244(b) appropriates funds to the department for "(o) perating expenses and equipment." As noted above, defendants challenge the order as a violation of the separation of powers doctrine.

2. Although the separation of powers doctrine generally bars a court from compelling the Legislature to enact an appropriation bill, once ...

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