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Andres Turner et al v. Association of American

March 24, 2011


Alameda County Super. Ct. No. RG04166148 Superior Court of Alameda County, No. RG04166148, Steven Brick, Judge.

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

Filed 3/24/11; reposted to correct description date


In Turner v. Association of American Medical Colleges (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 1401 (Turner I), this court held that, when taking a standardized test, individuals with learning disabilities and other conditions affecting their ability to read are not entitled to accommodations under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act (Unruh Act) (Civ. Code, § 51)*fn1 and Disabled Persons Act (DPA) (§ 54 et seq.). We reversed the trial court's decision in favor of plaintiffs*fn2 and, on remand, defendant Association of American Medical Colleges sought an award of attorney fees under section 55 of the DPA. Section 55 provides that the "prevailing party" in an action for injunctive relief under the DPA "shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorney's fees." On remand, the trial court declined to award attorney fees to defendant because, among other reasons, all of the hours spent by defendant on the claim for injunctive relief under section 55 were inextricably intertwined with the defense on plaintiffs' claims under the Unruh Act and section 54.3 of the DPA, and only prevailing plaintiffs are entitled to attorney fees on those claims. That is, section 52 authorizes fee awards only to prevailing plaintiffs on Unruh Act claims, and section 54.3 authorizes fee awards only to prevailing plaintiffs on claims for violation of the DPA. The fee provisions were added to those two sections subsequent to the enactment of section 55.

This case presents an issue of first impression: Is a trial court required to award attorney fees to a prevailing defendant under the bilateral, "prevailing party" statutory fee-shifting provision in section 55 for attorney hours that were inextricably intertwined with the hours incurred in defending claims under sections 52 and 54.3?*fn3 We conclude that a prevailing defendant is not entitled to an attorney fee award for such hours. When the Legislature enacted the unilateral, "prevailing plaintiff" fee-shifting provisions in sections 52 and 54.3, it created an exception to section 55 by implication, prohibiting a fee award to a prevailing defendant for the same hours devoted to defending claims under sections 52 and 54.3. Thus, the trial court did not err in rejecting defendant's attorney fee request.


Defendant is a nonprofit organization whose members include medical schools and teaching hospitals throughout the country. Its mission is to improve public health by enhancing the effectiveness of academic medicine. Among other things, defendant develops and administers the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), a nationwide standardized test designed to assess a medical school applicant's knowledge of basic science concepts, writing skills, and facility in problem solving and critical thinking.

Plaintiffs Turner, Cashmore, Pierce, and Lebovitz are California residents with reading-related learning disabilities and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who applied to take the MCAT in California in 2004. Defendant denied their requests for more time and/or a private room in which to take the test. In July 2004, these four individuals and two nonprofit organizations, the National Disabled Students Union and the International Dyslexia Association, filed a class action complaint alleging that defendant failed to accommodate Turner, Cashmore, Pierce, Lebovitz, and other similarly situated students with learning disabilities who were seeking to take the MCAT. The complaint alleged causes of action under the Unruh Act, the DPA, and the unfair competition law (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq.). The complaint alleged that the requests for accommodations should have been considered under these state statutes, which define "disability" more broadly than the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) (42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.). Plaintiffs sought injunctive relief, declaratory relief, and attorney fees, but not damages.

The trial court granted plaintiffs' motion for class certification "for the limited purpose of determining whether [defendant] must apply California law to the members of the defined class." Following a five-day bench trial, the court ruled, among other things, that defendant is required to provide reasonable accommodations that do not otherwise fundamentally alter the MCAT to persons with established disabilities as defined under the Unruh Act and the DPA. The court rejected the cause of action under Business and Professions Code section 17200. It awarded plaintiffs approximately $1,969,000 in attorney fees and costs as the prevailing party under section 55.

In Turner I, supra, 167 Cal.App.4th 1401, this court reversed the trial court's judgment in favor of plaintiffs, as well as the fees award. On remand, defendant sought an award of attorney fees ($1,631,787.50) and costs ($35,690.22) as the new prevailing party under section 55. Defendant's request included all attorney hours reasonably spent on the case, rather than just those hours dedicated exclusively to the section 55 claim. Defendant asserted, "[b]ecause of the interrelated nature of plaintiffs' claims under the DPA and the Unruh Act and the common factual basis for each claim, it would be virtually impossible to segregate the time spent by [defendant] in defending against plaintiffs' claims under one statute but not the other."

The trial court denied defendant's request for attorney fees. The court stated that the fee award sought by defendant "would conflict with the statutory policy embodied in the Unruh Act and other sections of the DPA not to award fees to a prevailing defendant." The court "harmonize[d]" the statutory provisions by concluding that attorney fees should not be awarded to a prevailing defendant under section 55 unless the plaintiff's claims were frivolous, which the claims in this case plainly were not. The trial court also concluded that a "reasonable" fee under section 55 would be an award of "zero" fees, particularly in light of the plaintiffs' limited financial resources. The court awarded defendant $30,447.95 in costs. This appeal followed.*fn5


Ordinarily, a party to litigation may recover its attorney fees only when fee shifting is provided for by statute or by agreement of the parties. (Code Civ. Proc., § 1021;*fn6 Trope v. Katz (1995) 11 Cal.4th 274, 278 ["California follows what is commonly referred to as the American rule, which provides that each party to a lawsuit must ordinarily pay his own attorney fees. [Citations.]"].) In the present case we are confronted with the question of whether a prevailing defendant may recover statutorily authorized fees where such an award would conflict with other subsequently enacted statutes that provide that only prevailing plaintiffs may recover fees.

I. Standard of Review And General Principles of Statutory Interpretation

Generally, a trial court's determination of whether a party is entitled to an award of attorney fees, and the calculation of such an award, is reviewed for abuse of discretion. (Press v. Lucky Stores, Inc. (1983) 34 Cal.3d 311, 315; Molski v. Arciero Wine Group (2008) 164 Cal.App.4th 786, 790 (Molski).) However, where, as here, the propriety of an attorney fee award turns on an issue of statutory interpretation, the review is de novo. (Silver v. Boatwright Home Inspection, Inc. (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 443, 448-449.)

The present case requires this court to apply three different, but related, statutory provisions: sections 52, 54.3, and 55. In doing so, " '[u]nder well-established rules of statutory construction, we must ascertain the intent of the drafters so as to effectuate the purpose of the law. [Citation.] Because the statutory language is generally the most reliable indicator of legislative intent, we first examine the words themselves, giving them their usual and ordinary meaning and construing them in context.' [Citation.] '[E]very statute should be construed with reference to the whole system of law of which it is a part, so that all may be harmonized and have effect.' [Citation.]" (Mejia v. Reed (2003) 31 Cal.4th 657, 663 (Mejia).) " 'Where as here [multiple] codes are to be construed, they "must be regarded as blending into each other and forming a single statute." [Citation.] Accordingly, they "must be read together and so construed as to give effect, when possible, to all the provisions thereof." [Citation.]' [Citation.]" (Ibid.)

"When the plain meaning of the statutory text is insufficient to resolve the question of its interpretation, the courts may turn to rules or maxims of construction 'which serve as aids in the sense that they express familiar insights about conventional language usage.' [Citation.] Courts also look to the legislative history of the enactment. 'Both the legislative history of the statute and the wider historical circumstances of its enactment may be considered in ascertaining the legislative intent.' [Citation.] Finally, the court may consider the impact of an interpretation on public policy, for '[w]here uncertainty exists consideration should be given to the consequences that will flow from a particular interpretation.' [Citation.]" (Mejia, supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 663.) " 'We must select the construction that comports most closely with the apparent intent of the ...

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