Monday, September 19, 2016

Putting the System on Trial!

Weiss v. City of LA, No. B259858 (D2d4 Aug. 8, 2016)

The Vehicle Code provides for three separate levels of review of parking tickets: First an initial paper review, conducted by “the issuing agency,” then a hearing before an ALJ, then an appeal de novo in Superior Court. But the City of LA delegates the “initial review” to the private vendor it pays to process tickets. Plaintiff here got a $55 ticket, for which his initial review was denied by the vendor. Instead of seeking administrative review, he just paid the fine and sought mandamus directing the city to conduct its own initial reviews.

He won. The trial court found that the city had a non-delegable duty to conduct its own review. The trial court then awarded him $721,994.81 in attorneys’ fees under the private attorney general statute, Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5. The city appeals both the merits and the fee award.

There’s a standing issue lurking here—plaintiff voluntarily paid the fine, so seems that he’s not harmed enough to take a writ. The Court of Appeal thus finds that he “lacks general standing to pursue mandamus relief.”

But this is an area—like taxpayer standing under Code of Civil Procedure § 529awhere California’s standing doctrines are far more liberal than what would be required to show standing under Article III in federal court.
So the court goes on to find that plaintiff has something called “public interest standing,” which relaxes the requirement of actual harm when “the question is one of public right and the object of the mandamus is to procure the enforcement of a public duty.” Given the enormous burden of challenging the whole review system that would be put on someone contesting an ordinary parking tick, the court finds that standard met. To do otherwise would effectively insulate the city’s practice from judicial review.

After affirming on the merits, the court also affirms the fee award. Generally, the private attorney general doctrine permits an award of fees when: (1) the case enforces an important right affecting the public interest; (2) the case confers a significant benefit on a large class of persons; and (3) the burden of private enforcement makes the award appropriate. Plaintiff was successful in enjoining an unlawful practice that had persisted for more than a decade, and which affected millions of parking citations, so the court finds the standard satisfied.


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