Woodland Hills Residents Assn., Inc. v. City Council

Decision Date03 April 1979
Citation593 P.2d 200,154 Cal.Rptr. 503,23 Cal.3d 917
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 593 P.2d 200 WOODLAND HILLS RESIDENTS ASSOCIATION, INC., et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. CITY COUNCIL OF LOS ANGELES et al., Defendants and Respondents; CONSOLIDATED RESOURCES, INC., Real Party in Interest and Respondent. L.A. 30897.

Antonio Rossmann, Woodland Hills, A. James Roberts, III and Tuttle & Taylor, Los Angeles, for plaintiffs and appellants.

Burt Pines, City Atty., Robert Thomson and Claude E. Hilker, Asst. City Attys., and Jerome Montgomery, Asst. City Atty., for defendants and respondents.

Axelrad, Seville & Ross and Richard H. Levin, Los Angeles, for real party in interest and respondent.

Evelle J. Younger, Atty. Gen., John J. Klee, Jr., and Edward P. Hill, Deputy Attys. Gen., as amici curiae.

TOBRINER, Justice.

In Serrano v. Priest (1977), 20 Cal.3d 25, 141 Cal.Rptr. 315, 569 P.2d 1303 (Serrano III ), we concluded that California courts, exercising their inherent equitable authority, may award attorney fees under a "private attorney general" rationale to litigants who successfully pursue "public interest" litigation vindicating important Constitutional rights. In that decision, we expressly left open the related question "whether courts may award attorneys fees under the 'private attorney general' theory, where the litigation at hand has vindicated a public policy having a statutory as opposed to, a constitutional basis." (20 Cal.3d at p. 47, 141 Cal.Rptr. at p. 327, 569 P.2d at p. 1315.)

At almost the same time as the rendition of our Serrano III decision, the Legislature enacted section 1021.5 of the Code of Civil Procedure, providing explicit statutory authority for court-awarded attorney fees under a private attorney general theory. 1 Unlike the Serrano III decision, however, section 1021.5 establishes the propriety of a private attorney general attorney fee award in cases beyond those vindicating constitutionally based rights. When other statutory criteria are satisfied, the section explicitly authorizes such award "in any action which has resulted in the enforcement of An important right affecting the public interest " (emphasis added) regardless of its source constitutional, statutory or other.

The principal issue presented by the instant case involves the application of the new statute upon attorney fee rulings that were pending on appeal on January 1, 1978, the date that section 1021.5 became effective. As we shall explain, past authorities, both in California and in other jurisdictions, establish that a statute such as section 1021.5 is fully applicable to all cases pending on appeal when the statute becomes effective. The present case falls squarely within this category.

Accordingly, we have concluded that the trial court judgment, denying attorney fees, inter alia, on the premise that the private attorney general doctrine does not provide a basis for an attorney fee award in California, must be reversed and the matter remanded to the trial court for reconsideration of the attorney fee issue in light of the intervening statute. Although defendants seek to escape a remand in this case by suggesting that the present record conclusively demonstrates that plaintiffs' action does not qualify for an attorney fee award under the new statute, we have concluded that in light of the parties' conflicting characterization of the effect of the underlying litigation the trial court should appropriately evaluate the attorney fee question pursuant to section 1021.5 in the first instance.

1. The facts.

Plaintiffs, Woodland Hills Residents Association, Inc. and a number of individual members of the association, instituted the underlying mandamus action against three governmental entities of the City of Los Angeles (the city council, the planning commission, and the advisory agency), challenging the entities' approval of a subdivision map for a proposed subdivision to be located in the Woodland Hills site in Los Angeles. The proposed development covered a hillside area of 38 acres and contemplated the removal of approximately 90 feet from the top of a ridge and the filling of adjacent valleys with 750,000 cubic yards of earth to create a mesa which would hold 123 single family homes.

Plaintiffs' 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; and third, plaintiffs contended that the city had failed to fulfill a number of additional duties imposed by a variety of municipal ordinances.

Initially, the trial court rejected all of plaintiffs' contentions and entered judgment in favor of defendant city agencies, but on appeal the Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that the city agencies had erred in approving the subdivision map without making specific findings that the proposed subdivision was in fact consistent with the city's general plan. (Woodland Hills Residents Assn., Inc. v. City Council (1975) 44 Cal.App.3d 825, 118 Cal.Rptr. 856 (Woodland Hills I ).) In reaching this conclusion, the Woodland Hills I court relied both on specific statutory provisions of the state Subdivision Map Act (Gov.Code, §§ 66473.5, 66474.60, subd. (c), formerly Bus. & Prof.Code, §§ 11526, subd. (c), 11526.2, subd. (c)) 2 and on a then recent decision of this court, Topanga Assn. For a Scenic Community v. County of Los Angeles (1974) 11 Cal.3d 506, 113 Cal.Rptr. 836, 522 P.2d 12, in which we held that under section 1094.5 of the Code of Civil Procedure local planning agencies were obligated to "set forth findings to bridge the analytic gap between the raw evidence and ultimate decision or order" (11 Cal.3d at p. 515, 113 Cal.Rptr. at p. 841, 522 P.2d at p. 17) in order both "to facilitate orderly analysis" by the local agency and to promote effective and efficient judicial review. (11 Cal.3d at p. 516, 113 Cal.Rptr. 836, 522 P.2d 12.)

Finding that the earlier proceedings before the local agencies failed to provide an adequate indication that the proposed subdivision had in fact been found consistent with the applicable general plan, the Woodland Hills I court directed the trial court to set aside the city's approval of the subdivision map and to remand the matter to the city council so that it could proceed "in the manner required by law." (44 Cal.App.3d at p. 838, 118 Cal.Rptr. at p. 864.) On remand, the trial court complied with the Court of Appeal's instructions, returning the matter to the city council with the admonition that before the city could approve the proposed subdivision map it was required to "find in writing" that the proposed map was consistent with the currently applicable general plan.

Having prevailed in their mandate action, plaintiffs moved in the trial court for an award of attorney fees against the City of Los Angeles. Although at that time no statutory provision authorized an attorney fee award in such a case, plaintiffs' counsel maintained that the court, exercising its inherent equitable authority, should grant attorney fees under either a "substantial benefit" theory or a "private attorney general" theory. In support of this motion, plaintiffs' counsel alleged that the residents' association had neither the resources nor a sufficient financial stake in the litigation to enable it to pay for the substantial attorney fees necessitated by the assertedly complex litigation; as a consequence, counsel explained that his law firm had undertaken the association's cause on a pro bono publico basis, with the expectation that, should the association prevail, the court would award attorney fees to compensate counsel for the public service rendered to all citizens of Los Angeles in insuring that governmental agencies complied with the applicable legal strictures. Moreover, counsel claimed that as a result of the Woodland Hills I decision, all residents of the city in the future would be benefited because city authorities would thereafter adhere to their statutory duties and refuse to approve any subdivisions that were not specifically found consistent with the governing general plan.

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. 3

Plaintiffs appeal from the judgment insofar as it fails 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. As we have already suggested, in light of the recent enactment of section 1021.5, specifically authorizing attorney fee awards under a private attorney general theory, we conclude that the trial court's denial of attorney fees on this theory must be reversed and the matter returned to the trial court for reconsideration pursuant to the new statute. As we shall explain, however, under the circumstances of this case we believe that the trial court properly declined to award attorney fees under the substantial benefit theory.

2. The recently enacted provisions of section 1021.5 of the Code of Civil Procedure, authorizing awards of attorney fees under a private attorney general theory, apply to this case and to all other cases pending on appeal on the...

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