Wood v. L. A. Cnty. Waterworks Dist. No 40 , F083138

CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Writing for the CourtPEÑA, ACTING P.J.
Docket NumberF083138
PartiesCoordination Proceeding Special Title (Rule 3.3550(c)) ANTELOPE VALLEY GROUNDWATER CASES [*] RICHARD A. WOOD et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. LOS ANGELES COUNTY WATERWORKS DISTRICT NO. 40, Defendant and Appellant.
Decision Date24 August 2021

Coordination Proceeding Special Title (Rule 3.3550(c)) ANTELOPE VALLEY GROUNDWATER CASES [*] RICHARD A. WOOD et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.

LOS ANGELES COUNTY WATERWORKS DISTRICT NO. 40, Defendant and Appellant.

F083138

California Court of Appeals, Fifth District

August 24, 2021


NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

APPEALS from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County JCCP No. 4408. Jack Komar, Judge. [†]

McLachlan Law, Michael McLachlan; Law Office of Daniel M. O'Leary, and Daniel M. O'Leary; for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Mary Wickham, County Counsel, Warren R. Wellen, Deputy County Counsel; Best Best & Krieger, Eric L. Garner, Jeffrey V. Dunn, and Wendy Y. Wang for Defendant and Appellant.

OPINION

PEÑA, ACTING P.J.

In this appeal, two parties challenge a series of postjudgment orders in the coordination proceeding known as the Antelope Valley Groundwater Cases (AVGC). Counsel for Richard A. Wood, an individual, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated (Wood or the Wood Class), were awarded over $2.5 million in attorney fees, paralegal fees, and litigation costs. Liability for most of the award was allocated to Los Angeles County Waterworks District No. 40 (District 40).

The award was significantly lower than the amount requested. The Wood Class sought compensation for approximately 4, 800 hours of attorney time at a rate of $720 per hour, and they requested an enhancement multiplier of 2.5. The trial court approved the time spent, but at an hourly rate of $500 and no enhancement. It also taxed over $24, 000 in costs.

Wood claims the trial court erred by taxing costs and awarding inadequate fees. District 40 argues Wood was not entitled to any fees or costs. The parties also dispute conflicting rulings regarding District 40's claimed right under the Government Code to satisfy the award in partial payments over a 10-year period.

We conclude the Wood Class was entitled to recover fees and costs. However, Wood has demonstrated errors in the trial court's fee analysis. The trial court relied on inapplicable criteria, and it is unclear how the hourly rate was determined. Therefore, the matter will be remanded for further consideration of the amount of attorney fees to be awarded.

Wood's arguments regarding the taxing of costs are unpersuasive, but the ruling is contradictory in terms of the amounts taxed and awarded. Those discrepancies may be addressed on remand. Lastly, the record shows District 40 did not establish a statutory right to pay the award in annual installments. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Overview

The AVGC concern the existence and priority of water rights in the Antelope Valley Groundwater Basin (the basin or aquifer). The basin spans more than 1, 000 square miles across arid regions of southeastern Kern County and northeastern Los Angeles County. A large portion of the overlying land is owned by the federal government, but there are thousands of citizens and entities who also own real property in the area.

District 40 is a public agency governed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. It operates and maintains a public waterworks system, supplying water to over 200, 000 people through approximately 56, 500 metered connections. District 40 obtains the water it supplies by pumping it from the aquifer and purchasing imported State Water Project water.

The Wood Class comprises over 4, 000 landowners who obtain groundwater directly from the aquifer. Historically, the class members' individualized pumping did not exceed 25 acre-feet per year (afy). Due to the relatively small amounts of production, this group is also known as the “Small Pumper Class.”

Early Litigation (1999-2006)

The earliest lawsuits concerning rights to the subject groundwater were filed in 1999 and 2000. In late 2002, a trial commenced to determine the jurisdictional boundaries of the area involved in the litigation. Those proceedings were ultimately abandoned, and the parties attempted mediation. The mediator concluded it was necessary to determine the groundwater rights of all interested parties, including parties not yet involved in the lawsuits.

In 2004, District 40 filed an action seeking (1) a comprehensive determination of the rights of thousands of individuals, companies, public water suppliers, and public agencies to extract water from the basin and (2) a physical solution [1] to alleviate alleged overdraft conditions and protect the basin's groundwater supply. District 40 alleged it possessed appropriative and prescriptively acquired groundwater rights superior to those of other water suppliers and landowners in the region.

In 2005, the Judicial Council coordinated the various actions, which collectively became known as the AVGC. The Los Angeles Superior Court was chosen as the venue. However, the matter was assigned to a judge from the Santa Clara Superior Court.

In 2006, District 40 and eight other water suppliers (collectively, the Public Water Suppliers or PWS) filed a cross-complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief. [2]Later that year, the trial court issued an order declaring the jurisdictional boundaries of the aquifer, i.e., the Antelope Valley Adjudication Area (AVAA). This completed the first of six phases of trial proceedings (Phases 1-6) and made it possible to determine the necessary parties for a comprehensive adjudication.

Class Action Proceedings (2007-2008)

The PWS's cross-complaint alleged the United States was an essential party to the action. To obtain jurisdiction over the United States, it was necessary to litigate “the undetermined claims of all parties with an interest in the relevant water source.” (U.S. v. State of Or. (9th Cir. 1994) 44 F.3d 758, 769; see generally id. at pp. 763-770 [discussing the “McCarran Amendment, ” i.e., 43 U.S.C. § 666].) To achieve this result, the trial court proposed the use of class action procedures.

In early 2007, Rebecca Lee Willis filed a putative class action complaint on behalf of herself and other private landowners in the AVAA (Willis or the Willis Class). The action was filed against the Public Water Suppliers and other defendants. Shortly thereafter, the PWS amended their cross-complaint to plead class action claims against all “owners of, and/or … beneficial interest holders in real property within the [AVAA].”

Disagreements arose over whether the private landowners identified in the Willis complaint could be represented as a single class. There were concerns about conflicts of interest between landowners who had never extracted groundwater from the basin (the so-called “dormant” or “nonpumping landowners”) and those who operated “groundwater wells on relatively small-sized properties.” The PWS tried unsuccessfully to find individuals willing to serve as class representative or legal counsel for the “small pumper group.”

In mid-2007, Willis's complaint was amended. The proposed class was redefined as “private landowners in the Antelope Valley who are not presently pumping water on their properties.” In September 2007, the trial court certified the Willis Class based on a further modified definition: “All private [owners of land in the AVAA] that are not presently pumping water on their property and did not do so at any time during the five years preceding January 18, 2006.”

Meanwhile, the search continued for representation of the small pumper group. A sole practitioner from Los Angeles, Michael McLachlan, was approached about taking on the case and declined. McLachlan later assisted the Willis attorneys in their effort to find class counsel for the small pumper group, but to no avail.

In 2008, at the continued urging of people involved in the AVGC (primarily David Zlotnick, then cocounsel for Willis), McLachlan agreed to represent the group eventually certified as the Wood Class. McLachlan recruited another sole practitioner, Daniel O'Leary, to serve as cocounsel. The Wood Class filed a class action complaint against the PWS, two other entities that were apparently later dismissed, and numerous Doe defendants. Three of the fictitiously named parties were later identified as Desert Lake Community Services District, North Edwards Water District, and Phelan Piñon Hills Community Services District.

Phase 2 and Consolidation (2008-2010)

In late 2008, Phase 2 commenced to establish the hydrologic nature of the aquifer within the boundaries of the AVAA. The issue was whether there were any distinct groundwater subbasins that did not have hydrologic connection to other parts of the aquifer. The trial court found all areas of the AVAA were sufficiently hydrologically connected to constitute a single aquifer for purposes of the coordinated proceedings.

In 2009, the PWS moved to transfer and consolidate all pending AVGC actions and cross actions. The motion was granted in early 2010. The consolidation order authorized the parties to settle “any or all claims between or among them[selves] as long as any such settlement expressly provide[d] for the Court to retain jurisdiction over the settling parties for purposes of entering a judgment resolving all claims to the rights to withdraw groundwater from the [basin] as well as the creation of a physical solution if [necessary].”

Subsequent Phases and Proceedings (2011-2015)

Phases 3 & 4

In 2011, Phase 3 was conducted to determine the condition of the aquifer and its safe yield.[3] The trial court found the basin was in a state of overdraft due to decades of unregulated pumping. The total safe yield was determined to be 110, 000 afy.

Phase 4, conducted in 2013, focused on the levels of groundwater production during 2011 and 2012. The trial court found the collective pumping by dozens of parties had exceeded 120, 000 afy in both years of the sample period, and those figures did not include pumping...

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