Press v. Lucky Stores, Inc.

Decision Date18 August 1983
Citation193 Cal.Rptr. 900,667 P.2d 704,34 Cal.3d 311
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 667 P.2d 704 Bill PRESS, et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. LUCKY STORES, INC., Defendant and Respondent. L.A. 31718.

Lucas Guttentag, Fredric D. Woocher, Carlyle W. Hall, Jr., John R. Phillips and Bruce Williamson, Los Angeles, for plaintiffs and appellants.

Marjorie L. Fine, Andrew W. Lafrenz, Richard S. Reisman and Donahue, Gallagher, Thomas & Woods, Oakland, for defendant and respondent.

BIRD, Chief Justice.

The sole issue presented by this case is whether the trial court abused its discretion in awarding, and calculating the amount of, attorney fees under section 1021.5 of the Code of Civil Procedure. 1


Plaintiffs, Bill Press and the California Oil Profits Coalition, sought to qualify an initiative measure for the June 1980 statewide election. 2 The Elections Code required plaintiffs to submit 346,119 valid signatures of registered California voters before December 1, 1979. In order to ensure that a sufficient number of the signatures collected would be valid, plaintiffs' goal was to collect at least 500,000 signatures.

Plaintiffs sought to circulate petitions on the premises of several privately owned shopping centers. Among the locations at which they attempted to gather signatures was the area directly in front of a Santa Monica supermarket owned by defendant Lucky Stores. The store was located in a shopping center which contained 16 other businesses.

After five days of uninterrupted solicitation, plaintiffs were ordered by store officials to stop gathering signatures in front of the store. The petition circulators were also threatened with arrest if they refused to comply immediately with the demand to leave. Plaintiffs thereupon filed an action for injunctive relief in the superior court. The court issued a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction restraining defendant from denying plaintiffs access to the premises.

Plaintiffs obtained approximately 3,000 signatures at defendant's store and 556,000 signatures statewide. Their initiative measure qualified as Proposition 11 on the June 1980 ballot, but was defeated by the voters.

Plaintiffs were represented in the superior court by the Center for Law in the Public Interest (CLIPI), a nonprofit corporation which provides legal services without charge in cases which raise issues of broad public interest. After the election, plaintiffs sought an award of attorney fees pursuant to section 1021.5. The amount requested was $20,940. 3 Defendant opposed the motion, arguing (1) that plaintiffs were not entitled to any fees at all because they had not conferred a "significant benefit" on the public or a large number of persons, and (2) that if plaintiffs were entitled to fees, the amount requested was unreasonable.

Finding that plaintiffs had satisfied the statutory requisites for an award of fees, the superior court granted plaintiffs' motion. However, the court concluded that the only benefit conferred by the litigation was its impact on the signature drive at the Santa Monica Lucky store. The court further reasoned that a reasonable fee could be computed by multiplying the requested amount by 3,000/556,000--a fraction representing the ratio of petition signatures obtained at the Santa Monica store to the number of signatures obtained statewide. Accordingly, the court awarded plaintiffs $112.98 in attorney fees.

Plaintiffs appeal, contending that the trial court abused its discretion in calculating the amount of the fee award. They argue that the trial court failed to follow the "lodestar adjustment" method approved by this court in Serrano v. Priest (1977) 20 Cal.3d 25, 141 Cal.Rptr. 315, 569 P.2d 1303 ("Serrano III"). Instead, plaintiffs contend that the court used an arbitrary method of calculation which resulted in an award bearing no reasonable relationship to the lodestar figure.

Defendant responds that the litigation did not confer a "significant benefit" on the public or a large class of people. Thus, it argues, the trial court should not have even granted the motion for attorney fees. Since plaintiffs were not entitled to fees in any amount, the argument continues, they were not prejudiced by any error the trial court may have made in calculating the award.


The first issue this court must decide is whether the trial court abused its discretion in concluding that plaintiffs were entitled to attorney fees under section 1021.5. 4

Section 1021.5 is a codification of the private attorney general doctrine adopted by this court in Serrano III, supra, 20 Cal.3d 25, 141 Cal.Rptr. 315, 569 P.2d 1303. (Woodland Hills Residents Assn., Inc. v. City Council (1979) 23 Cal.3d 917, 933, 154 Cal.Rptr. 503, 593 P.2d 200.) The award of attorney fees is proper under section 1021.5 if "(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.' " (Id., at p. 935, 154 Cal.Rptr. 503, 593 P.2d 200.) 5

Defendant does not dispute that plaintiffs' action "resulted in the enforcement of an important right." Indeed, the litigation enforced the people's fundamental rights of free expression and petition guaranteed by Article I, sections 2 and 3 of the California Constitution. (Robins v. Pruneyard Shopping Center (1979) 23 Cal.3d 899, 153 Cal.Rptr. 854, 592 P.2d 341, affd. (1980) 447 U.S. 74, 100 S.Ct. 2035, 64 L.Ed.2d 741.) In Serrano III, this court said it well. "The determination that the public policy vindicated is one of constitutional stature ... establishes the first of the ... elements requisite to the award (i.e., the relative societal importance of the public policy vindicated)." (20 Cal.3d at p. 46, fn. 18, 141 Cal.Rptr. 315, 569 P.2d 1303.)

Rather, defendant contends that no "significant benefit" was conferred on the public by the litigation since the superior court simply applied principles already established in Pruneyard, supra, 23 Cal.3d 899, 153 Cal.Rptr. 854, 592 P.2d 341, to plaintiffs' activities. This argument suggests (1) that only those plaintiffs who prevail in "landmark" cases may be entitled to an award of fees, and (2) that the benefit conferred in this case was insubstantial because it extended only to those patrons of the Santa Monica store who signed the petitions. Both of these suggestions lack merit.

The fact that litigation enforces existing rights does not mean that a substantial benefit to the public cannot result. Attorney fees have consistently been awarded for the enforcement of well-defined, existing obligations. (See, e.g., Friends of "B" Street v. City of Hayward (1980) 106 Cal.App.3d 988, 165 Cal.Rptr. 514 [suit to compel the preparation of an environmental impact report as required by state and local environmental quality guidelines]; Rich v. City of Benicia (1979) 98 Cal.App.3d 428, 159 Cal.Rptr. 473 [same].)

Indeed, the declaration of rights in "landmark" cases would have little meaning if those rights could not be "enforced" in subsequent litigation. As this court noted in Woodland Hills, supra, 23 Cal.3d at page 933, 154 Cal.Rptr. 503, 593 P.2d 200, "without some mechanism authorizing the award of attorneys fees, private actions to enforce ... important public policies will as a practical matter frequently be infeasible." Such a cramped interpretation of section 1021.5 would allow vital constitutional principles to become mere theoretical pronouncements of little practical value to ordinary citizens who cannot afford the price of vindicating those rights. 6

In addition, this court does not agree with defendant that the benefits resulting from this litigation were not conferred on "the general public or a large class of persons." (See § 1021.5.) There can be no doubt that vindication of the rights at stake in this litigation effectuated fundamental constitutional principles. Freedom of speech is "a right which is at the fountainhead of all our liberties ...." (Diamond v. Bland (1974) 11 Cal.3d 331, 342, 113 Cal.Rptr. 468, 521 P.2d 460 (dis. opn. of Mosk, J.), cert. den., 419 U.S. 885, 95 S.Ct. 152, 42 L.Ed.2d 125.) And, as this court stated in Pruneyard, supra, 23 Cal.3d at pages 907-908, 153 Cal.Rptr. 854, 592 P.2d 341, "[t]he right [to petition] in California is ... vital to a basic process in the state's constitutional scheme--direct initiation of change by the citizenry through initiative, referendum, and recall." While these rights are by nature individual rights, their enforcement benefits society as a whole. Indeed, only by protecting each individual's free speech and petition rights will society's general interests in these rights be secured.

In Serrano III, this court recognized that attorney fees were proper under the private attorney general doctrine "simply because of the magnitude and significance of the fundamental constitutional principles involved in that litigation and the benefit that flowed to the general public in having such principles enforced." (Woodland Hills, supra, 23 Cal.3d at p. 939, 154 Cal.Rptr. 503, 593 P.2d 200.) The fundamental constitutional principles there involved were embodied in the equal protection clause of the state Constitution. (Serrano III, supra, 20 Cal.3d at p. 31, 141 Cal.Rptr. 315, 569 P.2d 1303.) Here, similarly, the general public benefitted from the enforcement of fundamental constitutional rights--those embodied in the free speech and petition provisions of the California Constitution. 7

In any event, this litigation did directly affect a "large class of persons." Declarations filed in support of plaintiffs' motion for attorney fees established that plaintiffs were able to use the injunction obtained in this action to gain access to...

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