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Cdf Firefighters v. Richard A. Maldonado

October 26, 2011

CDF FIREFIGHTERS, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
RICHARD A. MALDONADO, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL from an order of the Superior Court of Fresno County. Donald R. Franson, Jr., Judge. (Super. Ct. No. 04CECG01764)

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

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Respondent, CDF Firefighters (CDFF), the labor union for firefighters employed by the State of California, filed a complaint for breach of contract against two of its former members, appellant, Richard Maldonado, and Michael Pittman. The complaint alleged that appellant and Pittman had breached their contractual relationship with CDFF by failing to pay the fines that CDFF had levied against them. After six years of litigation, the $22,789.96 fine levied against appellant was found to be invalid and thus appellant was granted a partial judgment on the pleadings. Thereafter, CDFF dismissed its remaining claim against appellant for $743.30*fn1 with prejudice.

Appellant moved for an award of attorney fees under Civil Code*fn2 section 1717 as the prevailing party on CDFF's claim for $22,000. The trial court denied appellant's motion on the ground that CDFF's dismissal of its remaining claim for the $743 fine precluded any award of attorney fees under section 1717, subdivision (b)(2). That section provides that "[w]here an action has been voluntarily dismissed ... there shall be no prevailing party for purposes of this section."

Appellant contends that, because the $22,000 claim was a legally separate cause of action based on a distinct contractual obligation, it could not be voluntarily dismissed after it was adjudicated in appellant's favor. Therefore, appellant argues, he was the prevailing party on this claim and is entitled to an award of reasonable attorney fees. According to appellant, CDFF's dismissal of its remaining claim for $743 does not negate his prevailing party status on the $22,000 claim that was adjudicated.

As discussed below, appellant's position is correct. Therefore, the order will be reversed.

BACKGROUND

CDFF's constitution and bylaws govern membership in the union and create a contract between the parties. (CDF Firefighters v. Maldonado (2008) 158 Cal.App.4th 1226, 1230 (CDF Firefighters).) Under the bylaws' discipline section, either the CDFF board of directors or a union member may bring charges against another member based on specified misconduct. (Ibid.)

In September 2002, Pittman filed charges against then CDFF president Tom Gardner alleging that Gardner's delay in reinstating Pittman to union membership following his return to state service was improperly motivated. Appellant represented Pittman on the charges. Following a hearing before a three CDFF member committee, Pittman's charges against Gardner were dismissed. (CDF Firefighters, supra, 158 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1231-1232.)

In November 2002, CDFF member Larry German filed charges against appellant and Pittman alleging that they had violated his right to attend the statewide conference as a voting delegate. (CDF Firefighters, supra, 158 Cal.App.4th at p. 1232.) A CDFF hearing committee heard the charges and issued a decision in June 2003. This committee sustained two of the charges and officially reprimanded appellant and Pittman for their actions. The committee also found that appellant was responsible for reimbursing German's actual expenses and levied the $743 fine against him. (Id. at p. 1235.) Appellant did not pay this fine.

In January 2003, retired CDFF member Ron Bywater filed charges against Pittman pertaining to alleged improprieties that occurred in connection with Pittman's charges against Gardner. At the same time, the CDFF board of directors imposed a trusteeship on the CDFF chapters that appellant and Pittman belonged to. Thereafter, Bywater filed additional charges against appellant and Pittman alleging that they refused to comply with the CDFF trustees and that Pittman disrupted a membership meeting concerning the trusteeship. (CDF Firefighters, supra, 158 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1232-1234.) Following an October 2003 hearing, the hearing committee issued its decision in November 2003. Appellant and Pittman were expelled from CDFF membership and were fined 30 percent of the costs of the trusteeship. Pittman and appellant were advised that they each owed over $22,000. (Id. at pp. 1228, 1236.) Neither Pittman nor appellant paid this fine.

In June 2004, Pittman filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging his expulsion and seeking to overturn the $22,000 fine. Approximately two weeks later, CDFF filed the underlying breach of contract case against Pittman and appellant seeking to collect the fines levied on them in the Bywater proceeding and to collect the separate fine levied on appellant in the German proceeding. These two actions were later consolidated. (CDF Firefighters, supra, 158 Cal.App.4th at p. 1228.)

Following cross-motions for summary judgment, judgment was entered in favor of CDFF on its complaint. CDFF sought approximately $180,000 in attorney fees and was awarded approximately $129,000. Appellant's share was determined to be approximately $37,000. However, this court reversed the judgment granting CDFF's ...


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