Maria P. v. Riles

Citation240 Cal.Rptr. 872,43 Cal.3d 1281
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Decision Date29 October 1987
Parties, 743 P.2d 932, 42 Ed. Law Rep. 651 MARIA P., a Minor, etc., et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. Wilson RILES, as Superintendent, etc., et al., Defendants and Appellants. L.A. 32086.

Page 872

240 Cal.Rptr. 872
43 Cal.3d 1281, 743 P.2d 932, 42 Ed. Law Rep. 651
MARIA P., a Minor, etc., et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents,
v.
Wilson RILES, as Superintendent, etc., et al., Defendants and Appellants.
L.A. 32086.
Supreme Court of California,
In Bank.
Oct. 29, 1987.

[43 Cal.3d 1285]

Page 873

[743 P.2d 933] Richard M. Pearl, San Francisco, for plaintiffs and respondents.

John H. Sanders, Deputy Atty. Gen., Los Angeles, for defendants and appellants.

BROUSSARD, Justice.

In this case, we are asked to determine the propriety of the trial court's award of attorney fees to plaintiffs under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. 1 In particular, we must determine: (1) whether the trial court is divested of jurisdiction to award attorney fees by its dismissal of an action not brought to trial within five years; (2) whether the trial court properly found that plaintiffs were successful litigants who vindicated an important right by obtaining a preliminary injunction protecting public school children from having their immigration status reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service; and (3) whether the trial court's failure to make findings supporting its calculation of attorney fees requires reversal of the award.

Page 874

Plaintiffs sought attorney fees as successful litigants under the "private attorney general" doctrine codified in section 1021.5 and the federal Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976 (42 U.S.C. § 1988). 2 The trial court found that plaintiffs were entitled to reasonable attorney fees for [43 Cal.3d 1286] obtaining a preliminary injunction in the underlying action and awarded such fees.

The Court of Appeal reversed, determining that the trial court had no jurisdiction to make the fee award after it had dismissed the underlying action pursuant to former section 583, subdivision (b). 3 In addition, the Court of Appeal held that the plaintiffs were not successful litigants within the meaning of section 1021.5.

We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal, and conclude that the trial court had jurisdiction to award attorney fees and properly determined that the plaintiffs were entitled to such fees under section 1021.5. While the trial court should have specified the basis of its award, its failure to do so does not constitute reversible error.

743 P.2d 934

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURE

In April 1975, plaintiffs Maria P., a seven-year-old child, through her mother as guardian ad litem, and Assemblymen Arthur Torres and Richard Alatorre, as state taxpayers, filed suit against defendants Wilson Riles, then State Superintendent of Public Instruction, El Centro Elementary School District, and its board of trustees. They sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the school district from denying Maria P. admission to school because of her noncitizen immigration status; to prevent the district from reporting the child's immigration status to the board of supervisors, and ultimately to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (I.N.S.), as required at that time by Education Code section 6957; and to prevent the State Superintendent of Public Instruction (hereafter superintendent) from implementing Education Code section 6957 in the state. 4

El Centro School District moved to dismiss the complaint. It claimed that Maria P. had been admitted to district schools and that it had never [43 Cal.3d 1287] reported the identities of noncitizen children without immigrant status to federal or state authorities. However, the district admitted that it would comply with state requirements if the state mandated such reporting under Education Code section 6957. Concurrently, the superintendent demurred, claiming that plaintiffs failed to allege the existence of any state policy excluding noncitizen children without immigrant status from public schools or reporting them to immigration officials. The trial court denied the defendants' motions.

The defendants then filed answers, and the superintendent filed a memorandum opposing the issuance of a preliminary injunction. The superintendent argued that he

Page 875

was not an appropriate defendant since plaintiffs had not alleged that he had personally or in concert with any school district denied admittance of any noncitizen child to public schools, nor that he had approved of refusing such admittance. He further argued that Education Code section 6957 did not violate federal law.

On September 16, 1975, the trial court issued the preliminary injunction sought by plaintiffs. The court ruled that Education Code section 6957 conflicted with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (20 U.S.C. § 1232g), and was therefore void under the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution. The court found that Maria P. was subject to having her identity and immigration status disclosed by defendants to the I.N.S., and that she was likely to suffer irreparable injury as a result. Accordingly, the court ordered the superintendent (1) not to issue any regulations under Education Code section 6957, and (2) to instruct every state school district not to disclose the identities of noncitizen resident children without immigration status to federal authorities. The trial court also enjoined El Centro School District from disclosing the information required by Education Code section 6957. 5

The superintendent subsequently issued a memorandum to inform all state school districts about the preliminary injunction. However, he advised the districts to determine for themselves if the court's decision affected their "obligation to follow section 6957 as currently written." Following several media reports indicating that local school districts continued to disclose information to the I.N.S., a further hearing was held in September 1976 to assess whether [743 P.2d 935] the superintendent had complied with the injunction's terms. After the hearing, the court directed the superintendent to issue a new memorandum requiring the local districts to comply with the court's order. [43 Cal.3d 1288] When the superintendent did so, plaintiffs took no further action at the trial court level.

Education Code section 6957 was relabeled section 42911 under the reorganization of the Education Code, effective April 30, 1977. The Legislature then amended Education Code section 42911 in 1977 to delete all reporting requirements. (Stats. 1977, ch. 1173, § 12, operative July 1, 1978.) As a result, plaintiffs took no further action until September 1980 when defendants moved to dismiss the action for failure to bring it to trial within five years of its filing. (§ 583, subd. (b).) The trial court granted the motion to dismiss.

After the order dismissing the action, plaintiffs moved for attorney fees pursuant to section 1021.5. The court found that the case became moot by the legislative amendment of Education Code section 6957, and that plaintiffs failed to establish that their action had caused the amendment. Therefore, the court declined to award fees for work done after the issuance of the preliminary injunction. However, it found that plaintiffs should recover reasonable attorney fees for obtaining the preliminary injunction against the state defendant because the injunction substantially benefited the public, and the financial burden of enforcement could not be borne by the benefited class. Thus, the trial court awarded $40,000 in fees against the state defendant only.

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's fee award. It found that the dismissal pursuant to section 583 divested the trial court of jurisdiction to award fees. Furthermore, it held that plaintiffs were not successful litigants under section 1021.5 because they had failed to establish that their suit "served as a catalyst for change or served to vindicate any important right." Plaintiffs sought review in this court.

II. AWARD OF FEES AFTER DISMISSAL

The Legislature adopted section 1021.5 as a codification of the private attorney

Page 876

general doctrine of attorney fees developed in prior judicial decisions. (Woodland Hills Residents Assn., Inc. v. City Council (1979) 23 Cal.3d 917, 933, 154 Cal.Rptr. 503, 593 P.2d 200.) Under this section, the court may award attorney fees to a "successful party" in any action that "has resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest if: (a) a significant benefit, whether pecuniary or nonpecuniary, has been conferred on the general public or a large class of persons, (b) the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement are such as to make the award appropriate, and (c) such fees should not in the interest of justice be paid out of the recovery, if any." As we explained in Woodland [43 Cal.3d 1289] Hills Residents Assn., Inc. v. City Council, supra, 23 Cal.3d at page 933, 154 Cal.Rptr. 503, 593 P.2d 200, the private attorney general doctrine "rests upon the recognition that privately initiated lawsuits are often essential to the effectuation of the fundamental public policies embodied in constitutional or statutory provisions, and that, without some mechanism authorizing the award of attorney fees, private actions to enforce such important public policies will as a practical matter frequently be infeasible." Thus, the fundamental objective of the doctrine is to encourage suits enforcing important public policies by providing substantial attorney fees to successful litigants in such cases. (Ibid.)

A statutory fee motion under section 1021.5 does not create a new cause of action. Instead, the motion is "a collateral matter, ancillary to the main cause." (Serrano IV, supra, 32 Cal.3d at p. 637, 186 Cal.Rptr. 754, 652 P.2d 985.) Before a trial court may award fees, section 1021.5 requires that an action result in the enforcement of an important right and confer a substantial benefit on the public. Given these statutory requirements, we have stated that section 1021.5 motions may not be heard "until...

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