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David Williams et al v. Butte County et al

IN THE COURT OF APPEAL OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA THIRD APPELLATE DISTRICT (Butte)


February 8, 2012

DAVID WILLIAMS ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND RESPONDENTS,
v.
BUTTE COUNTY ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND APPELLANTS.

(Super. Ct. No. 137329)

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

Williams v. Butte County

CA3

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

Plaintiff David Williams is a qualified medical marijuana patient who uses medical marijuana upon the recommendation of a physician. Williams belonged to a collective of medical marijuana patients who funded, cultivated, and distributed the crop amongst themselves. The marijuana was grown at Williams's home.

In 2005 a Butte County Sheriff's deputy came to Williams's home without a warrant. Although Williams produced copies of medical marijuana recommendations for himself and the other members of the collective, the deputy ordered him to destroy all but 12 of the 41 medical marijuana plants. Williams complied.

Williams brought suit in his own name and on behalf of Does 1 through 4, alleging various constitutional violations by defendant Butte County (County). County demurred based on a failure to state a cause of action. The trial court overruled the demurrer, rejecting County's argument that Williams could assert his right to grow medical marijuana cooperatively only as a defense in criminal court. County brought a petition for a writ of mandate, which we denied in County of Butte v. Superior Court (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 729 (County of Butte).

Williams filed a motion for attorney fees based on his success in the writ proceeding. The trial court granted the motion. Subsequently, Williams dismissed his complaint in the underlying action.

County appeals the trial court's award of attorney fees, arguing Williams was not a successful party because he did not achieve any of the relief he sought. In addition, County contends the trial court erred in denying its motion for attorney fees, since Williams did not file his lawsuit in good faith or with reasonable cause. We shall affirm the judgment.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The following facts are taken from County of Butte.

"The Compassionate Use Act--Proposition 215

"Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (Act), created Health and Safety Code section 11362.5, which provides that statutes prohibiting possession and cultivation of marijuana 'shall not apply to a patient, or to a patient's primary caregiver, who possesses or cultivates marijuana for the personal medical purposes of the patient upon the written or oral recommendation or approval of a physician.' (Health & Saf. Code, § 11362.5, subd. (d); all further statutory references are to the Health & Saf. Code.) The Act also states, as one of its purposes: 'To ensure that patients and their primary caregivers who obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes upon the recommendation of a physician are not subject to criminal prosecution or sanction.' (§ 11362.5, subd. (b)(1)(B).)

"The Legislature subsequently passed the Medical Marijuana Program Act (MMPA) to clarify and implement the Act. (Stats. 2003, ch. 875, § 2.) The MMPA added section 11362.77, which specifies an individual may possess no more than eight ounces of dried marijuana and maintain no more than six mature or 12 immature marijuana plants per qualified patient. (§ 11362.77, subd. (a).)

"The MMPA also added section 11362.775, providing that qualified patients who associate within the state in order collectively or cooperatively to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes will not be subject to state criminal sanctions. Section 11362.775 exempts qualified persons 'from criminal sanctions for possession for sale, transportation or furnishing marijuana, maintaining a location for unlawfully selling, giving away, or using controlled substances, managing a location for the storage, distribution of any controlled substance for sale, and the laws declaring the use of property for these purposes a nuisance.' (People v. Urziceanu (2005) 132 Cal.App.4th 747, 785." (County of Butte, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at pp. 732-733.)

Williams's Complaint

In his complaint, Williams alleged he was a resident of Butte County and a qualified medical marijuana patient who uses marijuana on his physician's recommendation. Does 1 through 4 are also qualified medical marijuana patients.

Williams and six other patients formed a collective. Each member agreed to contribute comparable amounts of money, property, and/or labor to the collective cultivation of medical marijuana, grown at Williams's home. Each member received an approximately equal share of the marijuana produced.

On September 8, 2005, Butte County Deputy Sheriff Jacob Hancock came to Williams's home without a warrant. Williams presented Hancock with copies of medical marijuana recommendations for himself and the six other qualified medical marijuana patients. Williams told Hancock all seven were members of a private patient collective.

Hancock ordered Williams to destroy all but 12 of the 41 medical marijuana plants growing on his property, under threat of arrest and prosecution. Williams complied.

Williams's complaint alleged (1) violation of the constitutional prohibition against municipal laws that conflict with the California Constitution, (2) unreasonable search and seizure, (3) violation of due process, (4) violation of the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act (Civ. Code, § 52.1), and (5) conversion. (County of Butte, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 733.)

County's Demurrer

County demurred to Williams's complaint in its entirety. County argued that if Williams believed he was lawfully cultivating all 41 marijuana plants, his only option under the law was to refuse to remove the plants and to prove the legality of the patient collective in criminal court. Instead, County contended, Williams is attempting to convert the limited defense provided by the Act into an affirmative right, allowing him to challenge Hancock's actions and seek civil damages. (County of Butte, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 734.)

The Trial Court's Ruling

The trial court overruled County's demurrer. The court observed that County, in its demurrer, did not focus on an interpretation of the MMPA, but on its contention that the Act provides a defense in criminal court and nothing more. Under County's theory, Williams's only recourse was to refuse the deputy's order, be arrested, and address the matter in criminal court after criminal charges were brought against him.

The court rejected this argument. The court explained: "'While it is true that the medical marijuana provisions do not specifically authorize an action by a patient for unlawful seizure of his marijuana, the constitution and laws of the state which otherwise protect the rights of citizens may nevertheless provide an avenue for relief. Thus, if plaintiff can show that he had a legal right to possess the marijuana in question, and that his rights were violated, he may bring his action based on generally applicable legal principles. Seriously ill patients certainly should not be required to risk criminal penalties and the stress and expense of a criminal trial in order to assert their rights. The plaintiff states a theory which would allow a civil court, rather than the criminal courts, to interpret and determine what constitutes Compassionate Use, who are qualified patients and what cooperative/collective efforts are included under the statute. The civil court appears to be an equally appropriate forum to address the issues of medical patients' rights.'" (County of Butte, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at pp. 734-735.)

Petition for Writ of Mandate

County filed a petition for writ of mandate. County asserted that Williams's alleged status as a qualified patient did not provide him standing to pursue a cause of action for conversion, unreasonable search and seizure, due process, or any other civil action. (County of Butte, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 735.)

We rejected this argument: "Here, the deputy, without a warrant, ordered Williams, on threat of arrest, to destroy a portion of the medical marijuana plants maintained by the collective. Article I, section 13 of the California Constitution guarantees individuals the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, free from unreasonable searches and seizures. As the Supreme Court has noted, in the context of medical marijuana: 'To be sure, law enforcement officers must have probable cause before they lawfully may arrest a person for any crime. [Citations.] Probable cause depends on all of the surrounding facts [citation], including those that reveal a person's status as a qualified patient or primary caregiver under [the Act].' (People v. Mower (2002) 28 Cal.4th 457, 468-469.)" (County of Butte, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at pp. 736-737.)

We also disagreed with County's contention that qualified patients may only assert a violation of constitutional rights through criminal prosecution. Under County's analysis, they must refuse to obey an official action, be arrested, and then challenge the officer's determination of probable cause. (County of Butte, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 738.)

We determined: ". . . Williams is not claiming complete immunity from arrest; there was no arrest. Instead, Williams seeks an adjudication as to whether the deputy had probable cause to order Williams to destroy his property, or whether a lack of probable cause led to a violation of his constitutional rights." (County of Butte, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 738.)

We concluded by noting: "Nor do we see floodgates opening and lawsuits flooding our burdened court system as a result of Williams's suit. Instead, we see an opportunity for an individual to request the same constitutional guarantee of due process available to all individuals, no matter what their status, under the state Constitution. The fact that this case involves medical marijuana and a qualified medical marijuana patient does not change these fundamental constitutional rights or an individual's right to assert them." (County of Butte, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 739.)

Attorney Fees Motion

Williams filed a motion for attorney fees, arguing the outcome of the writ proceeding made him a successful party under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5.*fn1 County opposed the motion and requested the court deny the motion without prejudice until a decision on the merits of Williams's claim at trial.

The trial court granted the motion: "The Court finds that Plaintiffs' counsel's hourly fee of $500 an hour is reasonable, as is the application of a lodestar multiplier of 2. The Court finds that Plaintiffs' counsel expended 147.6 hours. The Court denies Defendants' request to defer a ruling on these issues until a trial on the merits."

Williams filed a motion for summary judgment. Subsequently, Williams dismissed his civil action against County. County contends deposition testimony revealed Williams had been selling large quantities of marijuana to a friend who lived in Montana.

County filed a motion for attorney fees under section 1021.7. The court denied the motion, finding "[t]he plaintiff [Williams] maintained the action on his own behalf and on behalf of four other 'Doe' plaintiffs to address actions taken by the county after the Medical Marijuana Program Act (MMPA) was passed by the legislature. The county's actions were the result of the Butte County District Attorney's directive which required that each member of the collective actively (physically) participate in the cultivation and/or harvesting of the plants or be the primary caregiver of another patient. The appellate court ruled that under California law, the plaintiff had a protected property interest and could pursue a civil action to determine if the county had probable cause to order his property destroyed and whether this act led to a violation of his constitutional rights. This was a significant ruling, leading to a published opinion that will help clarify statewide which actions are unlawful under the MMPA. Plaintiff's litigation has benefitted others similarly situated even if he later dismissed his case. Secondly, this plaintiff could have been engaged in perfectly legal actions herein, but have been involved in illegal activity in another situation in another state. Such activity elsewhere would not appear to have any nexus to, or impact on, the present case." County filed a timely notice of appeal.

DISCUSSION Williams's Motion for Attorney Fees

The trial court awarded Williams attorney fees under section 1021.5, also known as the private attorney general doctrine. Section 1021.5 authorizes attorney fees to a successful party when the action has resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest; a significant benefit, whether pecuniary or non-pecuniary, has been conferred on the general public or a large class of persons; and the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement make the award appropriate. (Family Planning Specialists Medical Group, Inc. v. Powers (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 1561, 1567.)

Courts have awarded attorney fees under section 1021.5 to real parties in interest who successfully oppose a writ petition. Section 1021.5 fees have also been awarded on an interim basis where the lawsuit has achieved the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest, regardless of the ultimate outcome. (Wal-Mart Real Estate Business Trust v. City Council of San Marcos (2005) 132 Cal.App.4th 614, 622; Baggett v. Gates (1982) 32 Cal.3d 128, 143 (Baggett); Bouvia v. County of Los Angeles (1987) 195 Cal.App.3d 1075, 1084.)

County argues the trial court's award of attorney fees fails to qualify under section 1021.5 because Williams was not a "successful party." Since we must determine whether Williams qualifies under the undisputed facts, we review the question of law de novo. (Connerly v. State Personnel Bd. (2006) 37 Cal.4th 1169, 1175-1176.)

When considering attorney fees under section 1021.5, we take a broad, pragmatic view of what constitutes a successful party. (Graham v. DaimlerChrysler Corp. (2004) 34 Cal.4th 553, 565.) "'"Plaintiffs may be considered 'prevailing parties' for attorney's fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit."' [Citation.]" (Maria P. v. Riles (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1281, 1292 (Maria P.).)

In challenging Williams's status as a successful party, County focuses on Williams's dismissal of the underlying lawsuit and his failure to change County's policy concerning medical marijuana. Woven throughout County's appeal is its insistence that the later deposition testimony that alleged Williams sold large quantities of marijuana to a friend in Montana somehow vitiates our denial of County's petition for a writ of mandate. It does not.

In denying County's petition, we upheld the right of medical marijuana patients to file civil suits under California law, not just Williams's right to bring suit against County over the destruction of his plants. Therefore, we disagree with County's contention that our "carefully worded majority decision is instead limited to Williams, and the extreme allegations he asserted in his complaint."

We also disagree with County's assertion that "[i]t is clear from the limited focus and careful wording that the majority decision did not intend to create a right for all Californians to be able to assert a protected property interest in marijuana in civil court, regardless of federal law. The Defendants submit that the majority panel was troubled by the allegations in Williams' complaint, and in particular, the allegation that the Defendants had a policy of automatically seizing marijuana from qualified patients without probable cause. Therefore, the majority decision wanted to allow Williams the opportunity to present his claims at trial, and narrowly focused its decision to allow the lawsuit to go forward."

Again, we stated: "[W]e see an opportunity for an individual to request the same constitutional guarantee of due process available to all individuals, no matter what their status, under the state Constitution. The fact that this case involves medical marijuana and a qualified medical marijuana patient does not change these fundamental constitutional rights or an individual's right to assert them." (County of Butte, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 739.) Nothing in this language supports County's claim of limitation or uneasiness on our part in our ultimate ruling.

Much of County's appeal focuses on information revealed during discovery following our denial of County's writ petition. Specifically, County cites affidavits and depositions in a federal case in Montana. The defendant in that case pled guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to possess marijuana with intent to distribute. County deposed the defendant in federal prison. The defendant testified that "prior to and during the time that Williams was pursuing his civil action against the Defendants, Williams sold [defendant] several hundred pounds of marijuana through a series of ongoing transactions."

According to County: "If this court had known the truth about Williams' ongoing criminal conduct, and the fraudulent manner in which he portrayed himself in his complaint, the Defendants submit that there is no way that this Court would have ruled as it did." In denying County's writ petition, we upheld the trial court's order overruling County's demurrer to Williams's complaint. In ruling on a demurrer we accept as true all allegations in the complaint. Our decision concerned only the allegations in Williams's complaint, not subsequent events or discovery.

In our published opinion denying County's writ petition, we held medical marijuana patients may state civil claims for violations of their constitutional rights. Section 1201.5 allows attorney fees when the action has resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest. Williams's success in defeating County's petition resulted in just such a significant benefit being conferred on the general public. Case law supports this conclusion.

In Baggett, supra, 32 Cal.3d 128, police officers filed a writ petition after they were reassigned without a hearing. The trial court issued a peremptory writ of mandate ordering the defendants to give the officers an administrative appeal of their reassignments. The court did not award attorney fees. (Id. at p. 134.) The Supreme Court affirmed the issuance of the writ, but found the court abused its discretion in denying attorney fees. According to the court, regardless of whether the officers prevailed in their administrative hearings, their action resulted in securing for themselves and others basic rights and protections of the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act (Gov. Code, §§ 3300-3311). (Baggett, at p. 143.)

The plaintiff in Harbor v. Deukmejian (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1078 brought a writ petition in the appellate court challenging the Governor's line-item veto of welfare legislation. The court agreed that the line-item veto of a portion of the bill was improper but held that the bill violated the single-subject rule, refusing to require the state to implement the new statute. The court found attorney fees under section 1021.5 were appropriate: "We believe they are entitled to such an award, even though their named clients have not personally benefitted. They are the 'successful' party in that the impact of our decision is to vindicate the principle upon which they brought this action . . . that the Governor's power to veto legislation cannot be exercised to invalidate part of a bill which is not part of an appropriation bill." (Harbor, at p. 1103.)

Similarly, in Maria P., supra, 43 Cal.3d 1281, the plaintiffs successfully obtained a preliminary injunction preventing public school children from having their immigration status reported to the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Supreme Court affirmed an award of attorney fees even though the plaintiffs subsequently dismissed their suit. The Court pointed to prior decisions affirming attorney fees even when the action does not result in a favorable final judgment. (Id. at pp. 1291-1292.) "Plaintiff's action vindicated an important right affecting the public interest by protecting the confidentiality of the school records of Maria P. and other similarly situated children as mandated by federal law. . . . This is precisely the type of public interest lawsuit that the private attorney general doctrine of section 1021.5 was intended to foster." (Maria P., at p. 1293.)

Finally, in Bowman v. City of Berkeley (2005) 131 Cal.App.4th 173, the plaintiffs in a writ proceeding succeeded in obtaining a hearing on the city's approval of a senior citizen housing project. The project was ultimately approved, defeating the plaintiffs' objections. Nonetheless, the court awarded attorney fees "despite the subsequent failure of their other causes of action." (Id. at p. 179.)

Faced with this plethora of authorities supporting the award, County analogizes the present case to Miller v. California Com. on Status of Women (1985) 176 Cal.App.3d 454 (Miller). In Miller, the plaintiffs brought an action challenging the defendant government commission's expenditure of public funds to lobby for a constitutional amendment. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant, but this court reversed and remanded for trial. The plaintiffs partially won at trial and were awarded attorney fees. However, we reversed on both counts. The plaintiffs again requested attorney fees based on the reversal of the summary judgment in the defendant's favor. (Id. at pp. 455-457.) We denied the attorney fees request, labeling it "an amazing display of chutzpah." (Id. at pp. 455-457.)

Unlike the convoluted history of Miller, in the present case Williams sought and obtained the right to pursue a civil action, which resulted in a published decision by this court. In Miller, we stated "procedural success during the course of litigation is insufficient to justify attorneys' fees where the ruling is later vacated or reversed on the merits." (Miller, supra, 176 Cal.App.3d at p. 458, italics added.) Here, Williams's success in the writ proceeding was neither vacated nor reversed. Accordingly, we find the court did not err in awarding Williams attorney fees under section 1021.5.

County's Motion for Attorney Fees

County argues the trial court abused its discretion in declining to award it attorney fees. According to County, such fees were appropriate since Williams knew the allegations in his complaint were false. In addition, County contends, no reasonable attorney would have believed Williams's claims had merit.

Section 1021.7 provides that the court possesses the discretion to award "reasonable attorney's fees to the defendant or defendants as part of the costs, upon a finding by the court that the action was not filed or maintained in good faith and with reasonable cause" in damage actions against peace officers. The statute is designed to deter unwarranted lawsuits and to allow blameless public entities to recover litigation costs. (Hall v. Regents of University of California (1996) 43 Cal.App.4th 1580, 1587.) However, the Legislature did not intend to chill any valid assertion of a litigant's rights against a public entity; therefore, the statute should only be applied in the clearest of cases. (Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. Stockton Port Dist. (1983) 140 Cal.App.3d 111, 117.)

County claims a lack of good faith or reasonable cause on Williams's part in filing his lawsuit. County bases these claims on Williams's alleged actions in selling massive quantities of marijuana to a friend in Montana. According to County, Williams knew the allegations in his complaint were false, since "[w]hen Williams filed his complaint in April of 2007, it is undisputed that Williams had been selling large quantities of marijuana for well over a year, and was continuing to do so, in absolute violation of state and federal law."

However there is a disconnect between the activities County cites and the activities underlying Williams's suit. County fails to link the allegations regarding Williams's activities as a member of a medical marijuana collective disputing County's right to order him to destroy his plants with the uncorroborated testimony of a felon in a federal case.

As the trial court pointed out, Williams "could have been engaged in perfectly legal actions herein, but have been involved in illegal activity in another situation in another state. Such activity elsewhere would not appear to have any nexus to, or impact on, the present case." The court did not abuse its discretion in denying County attorney fees.

DISPOSITION

The judgment is affirmed. Williams shall recover costs on appeal.

We concur: ROBIE , J. MAURO , J.


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