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County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County

July 26, 2010


Ct.App. 6 No. H031540 Santa Clara County Super. Ct. No. CV 788657 Judge: Jack Komar

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

A group of public entities composed of various California counties and cities (collectively referred to as the public entities) are prosecuting a public-nuisance action against numerous businesses that manufactured lead paint (collectively referred to as defendants). The public entities are represented both by their own government attorneys and by several private law firms. The private law firms are retained by the public entities on a contingent-fee basis. After summary judgment was granted in favor of defendants on various tort causes of action initially advanced by the public entities, the complaint eventually was amended to leave the public-nuisance action as the sole claim, and abatement as the sole remedy.

Defendants moved to bar the public entities from compensating their privately retained counsel by means of contingent fees. The superior court, relying upon this court's decision in People ex rel. Clancy v. Superior Court (1985) 39 Cal.3d 740 (Clancy), ordered the public entities barred from compensating their private counsel by means of any contingent-fee agreement, reasoning that under Clancy, all attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance actions must be "absolutely neutral." The superior court concluded that Clancy therefore precluded any arrangement in which private counsel has a financial stake in the outcome of a case brought on behalf of the public. On petition of the public entities seeking a writ of mandate, the Court of Appeal held that Clancy does not bar all contingent-fee agreements with private counsel in public-nuisance abatement actions, but only those in which private attorneys appear in place of, rather than with and under the supervision of, government attorneys.

We must decide whether the Court of Appeal correctly construed our opinion in Clancy, or if that case instead broadly prohibits all contingent-fee agreements between public entities and private counsel in any public-nuisance action prosecuted on behalf of the public. Clancy arguably supports defendants' position favoring a bright-line rule barring any attorney with a financial interest in the outcome of a case from representing the interests of the public in a public-nuisance abatement action. As set forth below, however, a reexamination of our opinion in Clancy suggests that our decision in that case should be narrowed, in recognition of both (1) the wide array of public-nuisance actions (and the corresponding diversity in the types of interests implicated by various prosecutions), and (2) the different means by which prosecutorial duties may be delegated to private attorneys without compromising either the integrity of the prosecution or the public's faith in the judicial process.


The procedural history of this case is not in dispute. The public entities' claims against defendants originally included causes of action for fraud, strict liability, negligence, unfair business practices, and public nuisance.*fn1 (County of Santa Clara v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2006) 137 Cal.App.4th 292, 300 (Santa Clara).) The superior court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment on all causes of action. The Court of Appeal reversed the superior court's judgment of dismissal and ordered the lower court to reinstate the public-nuisance, negligence, strict liability, and fraud causes of action. (Id. at p. 333.) Thereafter, the public entities filed a fourth amended complaint that alleged a single cause of action, for public nuisance, and sought only abatement. Throughout this litigation, the public entities have been represented both by their government counsel and by private counsel.

Upon remand following Santa Clara, supra, 137 Cal.App.4th 292, defendants filed a "motion to bar payment of contingent fees to private attorneys," asserting that "the government cannot retain a private attorney on a contingent fee basis to litigate a public nuisance claim." Defendants sought "an order that precludes plaintiffs from retaining outside counsel under any agreement in which payment of fees and costs is contingent on the outcome of the litigation."

Defendants attached to their motion a number of fee agreements between the public entities and their private counsel, and the public entities filed opposition to which they attached their fee agreements and declarations of their government attorneys and private counsel. The fee agreements and declarations disclose that the public entities and private counsel agreed that, other than $150,000 that would be forwarded by Santa Clara to cover initial costs, private counsel would incur all further costs and would not receive any legal fees unless the action were successful. If the action succeeded, private counsel would be entitled to recover any unreimbursed costs from the "recovery" and a fee of 17 percent of the "net recovery."

Some of the contingent-fee agreements in the present case specify the respective authority of both private counsel and public counsel to control the conduct of the pending litigation. The fee agreements between private counsel and San Francisco, Santa Clara, Alameda, Monterey, and San Diego explicitly provide that the public entities' government counsel "retain final authority over all aspects of the Litigation."*fn2 Private counsel for those five public entities submitted declarations confirming that their clients' government counsel retain "complete control" over the litigation.*fn3 The two remaining fee agreements contained in the record -- those involving Solano and Oakland -- purport to grant private counsel "absolute discretion in the decision of who to sue and who not to sue, if anyone, and what theories to plead and what evidence to present." During proceedings in the trial court, Oakland disclaimed this fee agreement and asserted that its government counsel had retained "complete control" of the litigation and intended to revise the agreement to reflect this circumstance.*fn4 Solano's private counsel asserts that its public counsel have "maintained and continue[s] to maintain complete control over all aspects of the litigation" and "all decision making authority and responsibility." The record before us does not contain the fee agreements between the three other public-entity petitioners and their respective private counsel.*fn5

The various fee agreements provide different definitions of "recovery." Some of the agreements define the term "recovery" as "moneys other than civil penalties," whereas others define this term as the "amount recovered, by way of judgment, settlement, or other resolution." Some of the agreements include the phrase "both monetary and non-monetary" in their definitions of "recovery." The San Diego agreement defines "net recovery" as "the payment of money, stock, and/or . . . the value of the abatement remedy after the deduction of the costs paid or to be paid." The Santa Clara fee agreement provides that, "[i]n the event that the Litigation is resolved by settlement under terms involving the provision of goods, services or any other 'in-kind' payment, the Santa Clara County Counsel agrees to seek, as part of any such settlement, a mutually agreeable monetary settlement of attorneys' fees and expenses."

In April 2007, the superior court heard defendants' motion "to bar payment" as well as the public entities' motion for leave to file a fourth amended complaint. The court granted the public entities' motion and ordered that the pleading be filed within 30 days.

Although some preliminary issues were raised concerning the ripeness of defendants' motion, the superior court resolved the motion on its merits. The court rejected the public entities' claim that Clancy, supra, 39 Cal.3d 740, was distinguishable, concluding instead that under Clancy, "outside counsel must be precluded from operating under a contingent fee agreement, regardless of the government attorneys' and outside attorneys' well-meaning intentions to have all decisions in this litigation made by the government attorneys." The court granted defendants' motion and entered an order "preclud[ing] Plaintiffs from retaining outside counsel under any agreement in which the payment of fees and costs is contingent on the outcome of the litigation . . . ." But the court allowed the public entities "30 days to file with the court new fee agreements" or "declarations detailing the fee arrangements with outside counsel."

The public entities sought a writ of mandate in the Court of Appeal. After issuing an order to show cause, the appellate court ultimately set aside the superior court's ruling and issued a writ commanding the lower court to (1) set aside its order granting defendants' motion, and (2) enter a new order denying defendants' motion. Although acknowledging that Clancy purported to bar the participation of private counsel on a contingent-fee basis in public-nuisance abatement lawsuits brought in the name of a public entity, the Court of Appeal held that the rule set forth in Clancy is not categorical and does not bar the fee agreements made in the present case, because those agreements specified that the government attorneys would maintain full control over the litigation. The appellate court, briefly noting that the suit being prosecuted did not seek to impose criminal liability or infringe upon fundamental constitutional rights, reasoned that the circumstance that the private attorneys are being supervised by public lawyers vitiates any concern regarding the neutrality of outside counsel. We granted defendants' petition for review.



We begin our inquiry with this court's decision in Clancy. In that case, the City of Corona (Corona) hired James Clancy, a private attorney, to bring nuisance abatement actions against a business (the Book Store), which sold adult materials. (Clancy, supra, 39 Cal.3d at p. 743.) The hiring of Clancy followed several attempts by Corona to terminate the operations of this establishment. Specifically, several months after the Book Store opened, Corona adopted two ordinances that purported to regulate adult bookstores, one defining "sex oriented material" and the other restricting the sale of such material to certain zones in Corona. (Ibid.) After the owner of the Book Store, Helen Ebel, filed an action in federal court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ultimately held both ordinances to be unconstitutional. (Ebel v. City of Corona (9th Cir. 1985) 767 F.2d 635.)

Corona subsequently retained the services of Clancy to abate nuisances under the authority of a new ordinance, proposed on the same day Clancy was hired and seemingly targeted specifically at the Book Store. (Clancy, supra, 39 Cal.3d at p. 743.) The ordinance defined a public nuisance as " '[a]ny and every place of business in the City . . . in which obscene publications constitute all of the stock in trade, or a principal part thereof . . . .' " (Ibid.) The employment contract between Corona and Clancy, who was an independent contractor rather than an employee (id. at p. 747), provided that he was to be paid $60 per hour for his work in bringing public-nuisance actions, except that he would be paid only $30 per hour for his work in any public-nuisance action in which Corona did not prevail or in which Corona prevailed but did not recover attorney fees. (Id. at p. 745.)

Two weeks after the public-nuisance ordinance was enacted, Corona passed a resolution declaring the Book Store to be a public nuisance and revoking its business license. Thereafter, Corona and Clancy (as the city's " 'special attorney' ") filed a complaint against Ebel, her son Thomas Ebel, another individual, and the Book Store, seeking abatement of a public nuisance, declaratory judgment, and an injunction. (Clancy, supra, 39 Cal.3d at p. 744.)*fn6 The Ebels unsuccessfully attempted to disqualify Clancy as the attorney for Corona. (Clancy, at p. 744.) The Ebels then sought writ relief, contending it was "improper for an attorney representing the government to have a financial stake in the outcome of an action to abate a public nuisance," and asserting that "a government attorney prosecuting such actions must be neutral, as must an attorney prosecuting a criminal case." (Id. at p. 745.) This court generally agreed, finding the arrangement between Corona and Clancy "inappropriate under the circumstances." (Id. at p. 743.)

We observe as a threshold matter that our decision to disqualify Clancy from representing Corona in the public-nuisance action was founded not upon any specific statutory provision or rule governing the conduct of attorneys, but rather upon the courts' general authority "to disqualify counsel when necessary in the furtherance of justice." (Clancy, supra, 39 Cal.3d at p. 745.) Invoking that authority, this court stated that it "may order that Clancy be dismissed from the case if we find the contingent fee arrangement prejudices the Ebels." (Ibid.)

We concluded that for purposes of evaluating the propriety of a contingent-fee agreement between a public entity and a private attorney, the neutrality rules applicable to criminal prosecutors were equally applicable to government attorneys prosecuting certain civil cases. (Clancy, supra, 39 Cal.3d at pp. 746-747.) Accordingly, our decision set forth the responsibilities associated with the prosecution of a criminal case, noting that a prosecutor does not represent merely an ordinary party to a controversy, but instead is the representative of a " ' "sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done." ' " (Clancy, supra, 39 Cal.3d at p. 746; see People v. Superior Court (1977) 19 Cal.3d 255, 266 (Greer).) We noted that a prosecutor's duty of neutrality stems from two fundamental aspects of his or her employment. As a representative of the government, a prosecutor must act with the impartiality required of those who govern. Moreover, because a prosecutor has as a resource the vast power of the government, he or she must refrain from abusing that power by failing to act evenhandedly. (Clancy, supra, 39 Cal.3d at p. 746.) With these principles in mind, we declared that not only is a government lawyer's neutrality "essential to a fair outcome for the litigants in the case in which he is involved, it is essential to the proper function of the judicial process as a whole." (Ibid.)

Recognizing that a city attorney is a public official, we noted that "the rigorous ethical duties imposed on a criminal prosecutor also apply to government lawyers generally." (Clancy, supra, 39 Cal.3d at p. 748.) Thus, pursuant to the American Bar Association's then Model Code of Professional Responsibility, a lawyer who is a public officer " 'should not engage in activities in which his personal or professional interests are or foreseeably may be in conflict with his official duties.' " (Clancy, supra, 39 Cal.3d at p. 747, quoting former ABA Model Code Prof. Responsibility, EC 8-8.) " '[An] attorney holding public office should avoid all conduct which might lead the layman to conclude that the attorney is utilizing his public position to further his professional success or personal interests.' " (Clancy, supra, 30 Cal.3d at p. 747, quoting ABA Com. on Prof. Ethics, opn. No. 192 (1939).) Notably, we held that because public lawyers handling non-criminal matters are subject to the same ethical conflict-of-interest rules applicable to public prosecutors, "there is a class of civil actions that demands the representative of the government to be absolutely neutral. This requirement precludes the use in such cases of a contingent fee arrangement." (Clancy, supra, 39 Cal.3d at p. 748.)

We further held that public-nuisance abatement actions belong to the class of civil cases in which counsel representing the government must be absolutely neutral. (Clancy, supra, 39 Cal.3d at p. 749.) We came to this conclusion by analogizing a public-nuisance abatement action to an eminent domain action -- a type of proceeding in which we already had concluded that government attorneys must be ...

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