Monday, February 10, 2014

Fee Award in Irrigation Fight Fails to Carry Water

Morgan v. Imperial Valley Irrigation District, No. D060146 (D4d1 Feb. 4, 2014) 

Plaintiffs sued the Imperial Irrigation District over a water rate increase. The District won at trial on all of plaintiffs’ counts, save a few that the parties stipulated were moot before the trial commenced.  Nonetheless, some plaintiffs sought an award of their attorney fees, arguing that they were entitled to these fees under the Private Attorney General Act, Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5. According to plaintiffs, the moot counts merely challenging the constitutionality of fees related to the District voluntary water exchange program had caused the District to delete these fees from the program two years before the trial. Plaintiffs further claimed that the stipulation of mootness prevented the District from ever imposing these fees in the future. The trial court agreed and awarded plaintiffs $77,375.  The court of appeal reverses because the award was unsupported by the record and was based on the faulty assumption the deleted fees had actually been determined to be unconstitutional. The trial court never actually ruled that the fees were unconstitutional. And neither their pre-trial removal by District, nor its stipulation that the claims addressing them were moot was any concession by the District that the fees were, in fact, unconstitutional. Further, contrary to the plaintiff’s claim, nothing in the stipulation actually prevented the District from introducing the fees at some point in the future. Because the litigation had not actually conferred a significant benefit on the general public or a large class of persons, plaintiffs did not meet a threshold requirement of getting a fee under PAGA.  Thus, whether the fee award was subject to a de novo or abuse of discretion standard of review—a point the court declines to decide—the award was erroneous. 

Reversed.

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