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Garcia v. Santana

May 28, 2009

RITO GARCIA ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
PAULINA SANTANA ET AL., DEFENDANTS;
SHARON GREEN, INTERVENER AND RESPONDENT;
CUAUHTEMOC LOPEZ ET AL., INTERVENERS AND APPELLANTS.



APPEAL of an order of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Mary Ann Murphy, Judge. Remanded. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BS095187).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Zelon, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Appellants seek review of the trial court‟s determination to award no attorney‟s fees against the respondent, who is indigent and became self-represented during this litigation. Acknowledging that they might be unable to collect any amount of such fees awarded, they nonetheless concede that they do not wish tenants who have disputes "to think that they‟re free to file or defend litigation without risk of exposure to a fee award." Using fee awards as an instrument to deny access to the courts is neither the policy of the State of California, nor the purpose of the statute in question. Indeed, California Rules of Court, rule 10.960, adopted effective July 1, 2008 states: "Providing access to justice for self-represented litigants is a priority for California courts." We remand to the trial court for reconsideration of the amount of fees consistent with these principles.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Sharon Green was a member and tenant of Amar Plaza,*fn1 a housing cooperative for low-income tenants. She had lived there, with the assistance of a federal housing subsidy, for approximately 31 years until she was evicted in January 2007.

In February 2005, other tenants of the complex filed suit against the complex and its managers and directors; those pleadings are not at issue here. Green initially sought to intervene in that litigation in October 2006. In April 2007, she filed her First Amended Complaint in Intervention, alleging violations of the Corporations Code and the bylaws of Amar Plaza in the management and operation of the complex. Although she was represented by counsel at that time, her counsel withdrew on July 7, 2007, and she thereafter acted as a self-represented litigant. The Amar Plaza parties have not provided this court with a record sufficient to determine the disposition of the claims raised by the other parties, although they suggest those claims were voluntarily dismissed; we cannot determine the outcome of any portion of the litigation other than Green‟s claims, or determine whether the merits of the matter in which she intervened were ever determined.

Twenty days after her counsel withdrew, Green was served with the Amar Plaza parties‟ Motion for Summary Judgment. She did not respond; the trial court granted the unopposed motion on November 5, and entered judgment on November 7, 2007. We have not been asked to review that judgment.*fn2

Following the entry of judgment, the Amar Plaza parties moved for attorney‟s fees of $48,328 pursuant to Civil Code section 1354, subdivision (c). After several briefs were filed by the parties, and after Green filed various documents to support her claim of indigency, including a copy of the waiver of court fees and costs under Government Code section 68511.3, the court awarded no attorney‟s fees in light of Green‟s financial condition on March 4, 2008. The Amar Plaza parties timely appealed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The issue of a party‟s entitlement to attorney‟s fees is a legal issue which we review de novo. (Connerly v. State Personnel Bd. (2006) 37 Cal.4th 1169, 1175-1176; Leamon v. Krajkiewcz (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 424, 431; Carver v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc. (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 132, 142.) However, the determination of the amount of fees to be awarded is reviewed for abuse of discretion. (See, e.g., MHC Financing Limited Partnership Two v. City of Santee (2005) 125 Cal.App.4th 1372, 1397; Salaway v. Ocean Towers Housing Corp. (2004) 121 Cal.App.4th 664, 669.)

The trial court in this matter acknowledged the right, under the governing statute, for the prevailing parties to recover their attorney‟s fees. We review that determination de novo. Having done so, it was then obligated to determine the amount of fees to be awarded. It is that determination that is, at base, at issue in this appeal. We will disturb the trial court‟s exercise of discretion in the determination of a reasonable attorney‟s fee "only where there has been a manifest abuse of discretion." (Fed-Mart Corp. v. Pell Enterprises, Inc. (1980) 111 Cal.App.3d 215, 228; see also Seever v. Copley Press, Inc. (2006) 141 Cal.App.4th 1550, 1556-1557.)

DISCUSSION

The Governing Statute Supports an Award of Attorney‟s Fees

Green, in her complaint-in-intervention, sued Amar Plaza as a common interest development, subject to the Davis-Stirling Act (Civil Code, § 1350 et seq.), on claims arising from its by-laws. Section 1354 subdivision (c) provides: "In an action to enforce the governing documents, the prevailing party shall be awarded reasonable attorney‟s fees and costs." The Amar Plaza parties assert that the action is properly deemed one to enforce the governing documents, and thus that the trial court was required to award reasonable fees to the prevailing parties.

Green does not dispute that the Amar Plaza parties were entitled to seek an award of fees pursuant to the statute, and, for purposes of this appeal, establishes no basis to disturb that determination by the court below. Nor does any party dispute the court‟s analysis of the amount of fees claimed. We find no legal error in either determination. The issue before this court arises, instead, from the determination that the reasonable amount of fees in this case, considering all of the circumstances, was properly zero, based only on Green‟s financial condition. We turn to that determination now.

The Trial Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion in Considering Green‟s Financial Condition in Setting the Amount of Attorney‟s Fees

The Amar Plaza parties assert that their entitlement to legal fees, as reflected in the statute, prohibits the trial court from considering Green‟s financial condition, as the losing party, in determining the amount of fees to be awarded. Urging that to hold otherwise would impose in this and future cases burdensome discovery obligations on the parties, would result in extra proceedings in the courts, would encourage "poor or insolvent parties to pursue protracted, pointless litigation" and would cause confusion because of a lack of guidance in the case law, they urge this court to rule that the trial court cannot properly consider the impact of a fee award on the litigant against who it is made except as follows: "While Appellants recognize that they may have trouble collecting any fees from Green, Green‟s financial condition could change in the future, whether from hard work or good luck. Moreover, since Amar Plaza has many other tenants who sometimes have legal or corporate disputes with it, Amar Plaza does not want those tenants to think that they‟re free to file or defend litigation without risk of exposure to a fee award."*fn3

The Amar Plaza parties, however, point to nothing in the statute, or its history, indicating that the Legislature intended to create additional barriers to access to the courts for indigent persons in California, whether they reside in federally subsidized housing or not. None of the cases on which they rely either address the policy underlying the fee shifting provision, or consider whether the financial status of the party to be assessed fees is fairly considered in determining a reasonable award.*fn4 Nor do they address the longstanding precedents in this state creating an unbroken line of authority that the legal processes followed in the courtrooms of California are not to be applied in a way that denies access to those courts because of a litigant‟s financial status.

Californians Have the Right to Access the Courts

To trace the origins of California‟s commitment to access to justice for all Californians, without respect to income, we begin with the right to proceed in formapauperis, as Green did in this case. In 1917, the Supreme Court, in Martin v. Superior Court (1917) 176 Cal. 289, held that the courts have the inherent authority to allow indigent parties, on a proper showing, to proceed without payment of court fees and costs, despite the absence of specific legislative authorization to do so. Looking to the common law, the Court found the inherent power to remit fees: "And this one would naturally expect to find since, imperfect as was the ancient common-law system, harsh as it was in many of its methods and measures, it would strike one with surprise to be credibly informed that the common-law courts of England shut their doors upon all poor suitors who could not pay fees, until parliament came to their relief. Even greater would be the reproach to the system of jurisprudence of the State of California if it could truly be declared that in this twentieth century, by its codes and statutes, it had said the same thing. . . ." (Id. at p. 294.)

Our Supreme Court returned to this issue in Isrin v. Superior Court (1965) 63 Cal.2d 153, where the Court faced the issue of whether a plaintiff, who otherwise qualified for in forma pauperis relief, could nonetheless be denied such relief because she was represented by counsel acting under a contingent fee contract. The Court held that the right to proceed may not be denied under those circumstances, in part because the indigent should not be limited to choosing only from among counsel who would agree to subsidize those costs. (Isrin v. Superior Court, supra, at p. 165.) Moreover, a rule denying such relief would improperly restrict the cases that would come to court. While cases in which liability, or the lack of liability, is apparent would not be affected by such a rule, it is precisely those cases where it is not clear that liability lies, or that merit is totally absent, where the law often is developed. Whether those cases should be brought should not depend on the payment of court costs: "The natural consequence of the . . . rule is that the indigent with an uncertain claim may go without counsel and, being a layman, may simply fail to assert what rights he has. To the extent that [the rule] has the practical effect of restricting an indigent‟s access to the ...


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