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Maria Esther Rey et al v. Madera Unified School District et al

February 28, 2012

MARIA ESTHER REY ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND APPELLANTS,
v.
MADERA UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND RESPONDENTS.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Madera County. James E. Oakley, Judge. (Super. Ct. No. MCV043467)

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

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

In August 2008, appellants, Maria Esther Rey, Jesse Lopez, and Carlos Uranga, filed a complaint for violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA; Elec. Code, § 14025 et seq.) against respondents, Madera Unified School District, Madera Unified Governing Board of Trustees (collectively District), Madera County Board of Education in its capacity as the county committee on school district organization (County Committee), and Rebecca Martinez in her official capacity as the Madera County Clerk-Recorder (County Clerk). Appellants alleged that the District's "at-large" method of electing members of the District's governing board caused dilution of the Latino vote.

Appellants also applied for a preliminary injunction to enjoin the District's November 4, 2008, election. Respondents did not oppose appellants' preliminary injunction application. Moreover, the District immediately initiated the process for changing its method of election.

On October 14, 2008, the trial court issued a preliminary injunction enjoining the County Clerk from certifying the results of the November 4, 2008, election. The trial court found that appellants were the prevailing parties and therefore were entitled to attorney fees and costs under the CVRA. At issue was the amount of the fee award.

The County Committee took the position that it had not violated any duties under the CVRA and therefore was not liable for appellants' attorney fees and costs. The trial court agreed and granted the County Committee's motion for summary judgment.

Although appellants requested approximately $1.7 million in attorney fees, the trial court awarded them $162,500 in fees to be paid by the District. In making this award, the trial court excluded the fees incurred in litigating against the County Committee.

On appeal, appellants challenge the summary judgment and the amount of the fees awarded. According to appellants, the County Committee should be liable under the CVRA because it had the power to initiate a change in the method of voting within the District. Appellants further argue that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding less than 10 percent of the requested fees.

As discussed below, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment and did not abuse its discretion in reducing the fee award. Therefore, the judgment will be affirmed.

BACKGROUND

At-large voting refers to the system where voters of an entire jurisdiction elect candidates to each open seat, not just the seats in a particular district. It has long been recognized that such at-large voting schemes may minimize or cancel out the voting strength of a protected class, i.e., a class of voters who are members of a race, color or language minority group. (Thornburg v. Gingles (1986) 478 U.S. 30, 47; Sanchez v. City of Modesto (2006) 145 Cal.App.4th 660, 669 (Sanchez).) To protect against a voting system that impairs the minority voters' opportunity to participate in the political process, both federal and California law create liability for vote dilution. (Sanchez, supra, 145 Cal.App.4th at p. 667.)

When at-large voting dilutes the vote of a protected class in California, the CVRA provides a private right of action. (Sanchez, supra, 145 Cal.App.4th at p. 667.) To prove a CVRA violation, the plaintiffs must show that the voting was racially polarized. However, they do not need to either show that members of a protected class live in a geographically compact area or demonstrate a discriminatory intent on the part of voters or officials. (Ibid.)

The District, one of nine school districts in Madera County, was established in 1964. At that time, the County Committee's predecessor, an independent county committee on school district organization, submitted a proposal for formation of the District to the State Board of Education for review. This proposal included a provision that " 'the governing board members of that unified district would consist of seven members elected at-large.' " The State Board of Education approved the proposal. Thereafter, the voters approved the formation of the District.

In March 2008, appellants' counsel, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR), sent a letter to the District's superintendent advising the District that its "at-large system may dilute the ability of Latino residents ... to elect candidates of their choice to the school board" in violation of the CVRA. Appellants' counsel urged the District to voluntarily change its election system from at-large to district-based. The District responded that LCCR's letter did not explain how the District's at-large election process dilutes the Latino vote or otherwise violates the CVRA. LCCR then sent a follow-up letter to the District dated June 11, 2008, stating that they believed that the District was in violation of the CVRA due to racially polarized voting and requested the District to respond regarding a voluntary change to the current at-large system no later than June 30, 2008. The District did not respond.

On August 21, 2008, appellants filed the underlying complaint alleging that the at-large voting method violated the CVRA. Appellants also sought a preliminary injunction to block the November 4, 2008, election and requested an order requiring respondents to pay appellants' attorney fees and costs as mandated by the CVRA.

The District and the County Committee each filed a "non-opposition" to appellants' motion for a preliminary injunction. The District explained that, although it was too late to modify the November 4, 2008, election, the District was "even now taking steps (of its own volition) to transition from an at-large election process to a trustee area election process" and thus, further litigation and judicial intervention were unnecessary. The County Committee explained that it had no involvement in the election and thus did not have a direct interest in whether the election proceeded as scheduled. The County Clerk responded that she had no control over whether the election was conducted by district or at-large and that it was already too late for her to stop the District election without putting the entire election in peril.

On October 14, 2008, the trial court granted appellants' application and preliminarily enjoined the County Clerk from certifying the results of the scheduled November 4, 2008, election. The court noted that none of the respondents had opposed appellants' application.

In early December 2008, the parties stipulated to a stay of the matter pending further order of the court, except that appellants could move for attorney fees and the County Committee could re-notice its demurrer to the complaint. This stipulation noted that on November 5, 2008, the District's board approved a specific plan for converting to trustee-area elections. Further, on November 12, 2008, the County Committee, acting pursuant to Education Code section 5019, approved the District's proposal to establish trustee areas and to convert the system of electing board trustees to a trustee-area electoral system. The trial court accepted and approved the stipulation and it became the order of the court on December 9, 2008.

Thereafter, appellants filed their initial fee motion seeking over $1 million in attorney fees. The County Committee filed an amended demurrer arguing that the County Committee could not be held liable because the CVRA creates no actionable duties for a county committee.

Following a September 2009 hearing, the trial court ruled on both the demurrer and the fee motion. The court found the appellants were entitled to attorney fees as prevailing parties, but left the amount of the award to be determined later. Nevertheless, at the hearing, the court characterized the amount of the fee request as "patently unreasonable." The court also overruled the County Committee's demurrer. However, the court concluded that the County Clerk was not liable for attorney fees because she had no discretion to cause or prevent violations of the CVRA.

In January 2010, the County Committee moved for summary judgment arguing that it had not violated any duties under the CVRA and had legislative immunity. In response, appellants moved to voluntarily dismiss their case conditioned on the court retaining jurisdiction to award fees and costs. The County Committee opposed appellants' dismissal motion arguing that if the motion were granted it could be held liable for the payment of fees and costs without being found liable under the CVRA. The court denied appellants' dismissal motion.

In August 2010, the court granted the County Committee's summary judgment motion and awarded fees and costs to appellants. Appellants had requested approximately $1.7 million in fees and $105,000 in costs. However, the court declined to award appellants any fees incurred in the dispute between appellants and the County Committee. The court further found the attorneys' normal billing rates of $295 to $760 per hour to be excessive and instead awarded what it found to be a reasonable rate for the Central Valley of $325 per hour. The court concluded that the number of attorneys employed before and during the preliminary injunction hearing resulted in significant duplication of work and found the reasonable number of hours to be 500, representing 12 and one-half weeks of a full-time attorney. Multiplying 500 hours by $325 per hour, the court awarded appellants $162,500 against the District, finding it to be "fair and reasonable to all parties considering all of the factors considered by the court."

Thereafter, the court ordered the District to pay appellants $105,320.80 in litigation expenses, denied appellants' request for attorney fees and expenses from the County Clerk, and dismissed the complaint against the District and the County Clerk as moot.

DISCUSSION

1. The trial court properly granted summary judgment to the County Committee.

a. Standard of review.

On appeal from the trial court's grant of a summary judgment motion, this court takes the facts from the record that was before the trial court and reviews the trial court's decision de novo. (Lonicki v. Sutter Health Central (2008) 43 Cal.4th 201, 206.) We liberally construe the evidence in support of the party ...


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