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Woodland Park Management, LLC v. City of East Palo Alto Rent Stabilization Board

February 1, 2010


Superior Court of San Mateo County, No. 474521, Quentin L. Kopp, Judge.

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


In 1988, the citizens of the City of East Palo Alto, adopted by popular vote, the Rent Stabilization and Eviction for Good Cause Ordinance (E. Palo Alto Ord. No. 076 (RSO)). We are asked here to determine whether the RSO permits recovery of attorney fees by a landlord in successful litigation against the City.*fn1 The trial court held that it does and awarded fees to the landlord. We hold that it does not and reverse the award.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

In 2008, Woodland Park Management, LLC (Woodland Park), which manages residential rental properties subject to the RSO, filed a petition for writ of mandate, pursuant to section 1085 of the Code of Civil Procedure, alleging City had improperly increased a landlord registration fee due under the RSO.*fn2

Woodland Park's petition alleged that as of January 1, 2008, the registration fee imposed by City was $135 per unit, but that on June 18, 2008, the Board raised the fee to $240. City failed to send registration fee bills by June 1, as required by Board rule 878. Nonetheless, on June 30, 2008, City refused to accept Woodland Park's payment of $135 per unit. Therefore, Woodland Park alleged that City "refused to comply with its ministerial statutory obligations by: 1) seeking to impose an unreasonable annual increase; and 2) refusing to accept [Woodland Park's] registrations at the then-current rate on the grounds that a future increase [was] in the works."

After briefing and a hearing on the merits, the superior court entered an order granting Woodland Park's petition for writ of mandate. The order provided: "Rule 878 mandates the [Board] to send a fee billing or invoice by June 1st. That is a duty. . . . [¶] . . . [T]he RSO lacks a date for the annual adjustment of the fee, but a reasonable person would expect and assume that it must be before June 1st. [A]nd since the Board did not adjust the registration fee of $135 per unit by June 1, 2008, the Court . . . finds that that fee was in effect on June 1, 2008 and should have been accepted by the City/Rent Board." Accordingly, the trial court issued a writ of mandate, commanding City "to process [Woodland Park's] registrations at the amount in force on June 1, 2008."

Woodland Park then filed a motion for attorney fees, relying on section 15.A.5 of the RSO.*fn3 City opposed Woodland Park's motion on the ground that section 15.A.5 only authorizes the award of attorney fees in actions between landlords and tenants. The superior court granted Woodland Park's motion and awarded Woodland Park $20,037.25 in attorney fees. City appeals from the order granting attorney fees, arguing that section 15.A.5 does not authorize a landlord to recover its attorney fees from City. We agree with the City.

II. Discussion

City does not challenge the order granting Woodland Park's petition for writ of mandate and appeals only from the attorney fees order. The reasonableness of the amount awarded is also not at issue. Rather, City contends that the trial court erred in construing section 15.A.5 of the RSO to allow a prevailing landlord to recover fees in these circumstances.

A. Standard of Review

"California follows the `American rule,' under which each party to a lawsuit ordinarily must pay his or her own attorney fees. [Citations.]" (Musaelian v. Adams (2009) 45 Cal.4th 512, 516.) However, attorney fees are allowed as costs to the prevailing party when authorized by contract, statute, or law. (Code Civ. Proc., §§ 1021, 1032, subds. (a)(4) & (b), 1033.5, subd. (a)(10); Civ. Code, § 1717.) A city ordinance is a law that may provide authority for an award of attorney fees. (City of Santa Paula v. Narula (2003) 114 Cal.App.4th 485, 492-493; Segundo v. Rancho Mirage City (9th Cir. 1989) 873 F.2d 1277, 1278-1279.)

Interpretation of an ordinance presents a question of law that we review de novo. (Rubalcava v. Martinez (2007) 158 Cal.App.4th 563, 570; Carver v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc. (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 132, 142 ["it is a discretionary trial court decision on the propriety or amount of statutory attorney fees to be awarded, but a determination of the legal basis for an attorney fee award is a question of law to be reviewed de novo"].) In interpreting an ordinance or a voter initiative, we rely on the same rules of statutory construction applicable to statutes. (Professional Engineers in California Government v. Kempton (2007) 40 Cal.4th 1016, 1037; County of Humboldt v. McKee (2008) 165 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1489; Carson Harbor Village, Ltd. v. City of Carson Mobilehome Park Rental Review Bd. (1999) 70 Cal.App.4th 281, 290.)

"The primary duty of a court when interpreting a statute is to give effect to the intent of the Legislature, so as to effectuate the purpose of the law. [Citation.] To determine intent, courts turn first to the words themselves, giving them their ordinary and generally accepted meaning. [Citation.] If the language permits more than one reasonable interpretation, the court then looks to extrinsic aids, such as the object to be achieved and the evil to be remedied by the statute, the legislative history, public policy, and the statutory scheme of which the statute is a part. [Citation.] . . . Ultimately, the court must select the construction that comports most closely with the apparent intent of the Legislature, with a view to promoting rather than defeating the general purpose of the statute, and it must avoid an interpretation leading to absurd consequences. [Citation.]" (In re Luke W. (2001) 88 Cal.App.4th 650, 655.) "If the meaning of the statute remains unclear after examination of both the ...

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