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Weiss v. City of Los Angeles

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Fourth Division

August 8, 2016

CODY WEISS, Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
City of Los Angeles et al., Defendants and Appellants.

         APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County No. BS141354, James C. Chalfant, Judge.

          Michael N. Feuer, City Attorney, Thomas S. Peters, Chief Deputy City Attorney, Ronald S. Whitaker, Assistant City Attorney and Gerald Masahiro Sato, Deputy City Attorney, for Defendant and Appellant, City of Los Angeles.

          Manatt, Phelps & Philips and Michael M. Berger for Defendant and Appellant Xerox Business Services, LLC.

          Ahdoot & Wolfson and Theodore Walter Maya; Zimmerman Reed, Caleb Lucas-Hansen Marker and Bradley Christopher Buhrow for Plaintiff and Respondent.

          WILLHITE, J.

         When a person challenges a parking citation, the Vehicle Code provides three potential levels of review: initial review, administrative hearing, and de novo appeal to the superior court. (Veh. Code, §§ 40215, subds. (a)-(c), 40230, subds. (a), (d).)[1] As to the initial review, section 40215, subdivision (a) provides, in substance, that the request for initial review is made to “the issuing agency, ” that the “issuing agency shall cancel” the citation if certain specified circumstances are satisfied, and that “[t]he issuing agency shall advise the processing agency, if any, of the cancellation.”

         In this appeal by the City of Los Angeles (City) and Xerox Business Services, Inc. (Xerox) from the trial court’s grant of petitioner Cody Weiss’ petition for a writ of mandate, we consider whether the City, as the “issuing agency” for notice of parking violations in the City (see § 40202), must conduct the “initial review” of challenged citations (§ 40215, subd. (a)), or whether it may delegate that duty to Xerox, its “processing agency” (§ 40200.6, subd. (a)) with which it contracts “for the processing of notices of parking violations” (§ 40200.5, subd. (a)).[2] Based on the language of section 40215, subdivision (a) and relevant legislative history, we hold, as did the trial court, that the City is required to conduct the initial review, and cannot contract with Xerox to perform that duty. Therefore, we affirm the trial court’s issuance of a writ of mandate. We also affirm the trial court’s award of approximately $722, 000 in attorney fees to Weiss pursuant to the California private attorney general statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5.

         BACKGROUND[3]

         I. Weiss’ Citation and Petition

         In March 2012, Weiss received a parking citation for a violation of Los Angeles Municipal Code section 80.69(c), for exceeding a two-hour posted time limit on La Jolla Avenue in Los Angeles. Weiss timely contested the citation by filing an online statement claiming his vehicle “was not parked... in excess of two hours.” He provided no evidence to support his statement; he simply “decline[d] responsibility” for the parking violation, and “request[ed] that this citation be dismissed immediately.” In April 2012, after an initial review performed by Xerox, Weiss received a letter advising him that an initial review had been performed and the citation would not be cancelled. Although Weiss could have sought administrative review of this denial, he did not. Instead, he paid the $55 citation.

         In January 2013, Weiss filed the instant petition seeking a writ of mandate directing the City and Xerox to provide a legally sufficient initial review, in compliance with section 40215, subdivision (a), once an alleged violator exercises his or her right to challenge a parking citation under that statute.[4]

         II. First Trial Phase

         The trial court bifurcated the trial on the issues raised by Weiss’ petition. In the first phase of the trial, the trial court deferred the question whether Xerox, a processing agency, was authorized by section 40215 to perform initial reviews. Rather, the court first considered only Weiss’ claim that the initial review process, as currently constituted, did not comply with the statutory obligations of the initial review under the Vehicle Code, in that (among other assertions) it was too rigid and did not provide sufficient discretion to dismiss citations. As most of the evidence presented in this phase of the trial is largely immaterial to the issues on appeal, we summarize only certain portions.

         Since 1985, the City has contracted with Xerox to act as its processing agency. As part of Xerox’s processing duties, the City delegates the duty under section 40215, subdivision (a) to conduct the initial review of contested citations. Xerox is paid based on the number of parking citations processed per month, but does not receive additional compensation to conduct initial reviews.

         Xerox performs the initial reviews through its Parking Violations Bureau (Bureau), which is staffed by a subcontractor. About five percent of parking citations issued by the City result in a request for an initial review. In fiscal year 2013, Xerox conducted 135, 291 initial reviews.

         The initial review is conducted by Bureau clerks, who must adhere to 46 Business Processing Rules (BPR), drafted by the City (or by Xerox and approved by the City). Each BPR contains scenarios regarding common complaints and specific types of citations (e.g., citations involving parking meters, disabled person placards and license plates, and residential parking permits). Clerks receive training on the BPRs when hired, when BPRs are changed, and at weekly meetings. The City also issues memoranda to provide guidance.

         When considering a contested citation, the Bureau clerk refers to the applicable BPR, if any; if that BPR permits dismissal of a citation, the clerk dismisses it. If no BPR addresses the particular challenge, but a motorist has presented sufficient evidence to overcome a citation, clerks are instructed to refer the matter to a supervisor for a decision. The motorist learns the result of the initial review through one of 97 form letters drafted and approved by the City, on City letterhead, sent to the motorist by Xerox.

         Considering this (and other) evidence, the court concluded that, setting aside the issue whether Xerox was authorized to conduct the initial review, the City’s system of initial review complied with the Vehicle Code requirements in the scope of the review, in the fairness of its procedure to the motorist, and in the fairness of its substantive decision-making process.

         III. Second Trial Phase

         In the second phase of the trial, the trial court considered the question at issue in this appeal: whether section 40215, subdivision (a) requires that the City, as the issuing agency, conduct the initial review, rather than its processing agency, Xerox. At the court’s request, the parties briefed the issue extensively. In its ruling, the court reviewed the statutory framework, its legislative history (including pertinent existing, amended and repealed Vehicle Code sections), and case law. Conceding that the question was close, the court concluded that changes to the statutory scheme in 1995 reflected the Legislature’s intent to place a nondelegable duty to perform the initial review under section 40215, subdivision (a) on the City, the public agency that issues parking citations.

         In September 2014, after Weiss dismissed his remaining claims, the court entered judgment in Weiss’ favor.[5] The court issued a peremptory writ of mandate, ordering the City, as the issuing agency, to conduct the initial review of contested parking citations, pursuant to section 40215, subdivision (a), and “not to contract, subcontract, or otherwise delegate [its] duty to make such initial review decisions to any other entity or ‘processing agency’....” Xerox was permanently enjoined from making initial review decisions as described in section 40215, subdivision (a).

         IV. Attorney Fees

         After extensive post-trial briefing, Weiss was awarded $721, 994.81 in attorney fees pursuant to the private attorney general fee statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. The City and Xerox timely appealed from the judgment and order awarding attorney fees. We consolidated the appeals.

         DISCUSSION[6]

         I. The Writ of Mandate

         A. Standing

         Before considering the principal issue in this case-whether section 40215, subdivision (a) requires the City, as the issuing agency, to perform the initial review of contested parking citations-we must first consider Xerox’s contention that Weiss lacks standing to seek a writ of mandate.[7]

         A traditional writ of mandate under Code of Civil Procedure section 1085 is a way to compel a public entity to perform a legal, typically ministerial, duty. Under this statute, the trial court reviews an administrative action to determine if an agency’s action “was arbitrary, capricious, or entirely lacking in evidentiary support, contrary to established public policy, unlawful [or] procedurally unfair.... [Citations.] ‘Although mandate will not lie to control a public agency’s discretion, that is to say, force the exercise of discretion in a particular manner, it will lie to correct abuses of discretion. [Citation.]’” (Klajic v. Castaic Lake Water Agency (2001) 90 Cal.App.4th 987, 995, fn. omitted.)

         “As a general rule, a party must be ‘beneficially interested’ to seek a writ of mandate. [Citation.] ‘The requirement that a petitioner be “beneficially interested” has been generally interpreted to mean that one may obtain the writ only if the person has some special interest to be served or some particular right to be preserved or protected over and above the interest held in common with the public at large.... [Citations.]’” (Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach (2011) 52 Cal.4th 155, 165 (Save the Plastic Bag).) “The beneficial interest must be direct and substantial. [Citations.]” (Ibid.)

         In the instant case, Weiss unsuccessfully challenged his own parking citation at the initial review, then elected to pay the fine rather than pursue further appeal. Given his choice to pay the fine rather than pursue further review, he lacks a beneficial interest in the outcome of this mandamus proceeding (he has paid the fine and his citation cannot be overturned), and thus he lacks general standing to pursue mandamus relief. (Save the Plastic Bag, supra, 52 Cal.4th at p. 165; see Associated Builders & Contractors, Inc. v. San Francisco Airports Com. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 352, 361-362 (Associated Builders).)

         In the trial court, relying on these principles, Xerox demurred to Weiss’ petition on the ground that he lacked standing. The trial court overruled the demurrer, concluding that Weiss has standing under the “public interest” exception to pursue mandamus seeking prospective injunctive and declaratory relief. On appeal, Xerox challenges the court’s ruling. We conclude that the trial court’s ruling is squarely within the doctrine of public interest standing.

         “The exercise of jurisdiction in mandamus rests to a considerable extent in the wise discretion of the court.” (McDonald v. Stockton Met. Transit Dist. (1973) 36 Cal.App.3d 436, 440, citing Bd. of Soc. Welfare v. County of L.A. (1945) 27 Cal.2d 98, 100-101 (Bd. of Soc. Welfare).) Under the doctrine of public interest standing, “‘“where the question is one of public right and the object of the mandamus is to procure the enforcement of a public duty, the [petitioner] need not show that he has any legal or special interest in the result, since it is sufficient that he is interested as a citizen in having the laws executed and the duty in question enforced.”’ [Citation.]” (Save the Plastic Bag, supra, 52 Cal.4th at p. 166.) Indeed, California “courts have repeatedly applied the ‘public right/public duty’ exception to the general rule that ordinarily a writ of mandate will issue only to persons who are ‘beneficially interested.’ [Citation.]” (Tobe v. City of Santa Ana (1995) 9 Cal.4th 1069, 1116-1117.) In determining whether a petitioner has public interest standing, the court also considers the burden on those who have a beneficial interest, and would have general standing, but who may be disinclined or ill-equipped to seek review. (See Driving Sch. Assn. of Cal. v. San Mateo Union High Sch. Dist. (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 1513, 1518-1519 (Driving School).)

         In the instant case, given that the standing issue was raised by demurrer, we (as did the trial court) accept as true all facts properly pleaded in the petition. (Evans v. City of Berkeley (2006) 38 Cal.4th 1, 6.) Weiss alleged that the City issued 8, 000 parking citations per day, or 5.7 million over a 24-month period in 2009-2010, generating revenue of $335 million, or nearly three percent of the City’s budget, but failed to comply with its statutory duties in performing the initial review required by section 40215.[8] Based on these allegations, the trial court concluded there was “no question that ensuring that the City follows the proper procedure for [processing and collecting] parking tickets is a matter of public right.” Further, the court also agreed with Weiss’ allegations that only a short window of time is available within which to mount such a challenge, [9] and that typically only a minimal fine is at issue on any individual citation. Thus, given the burden of mounting a challenge to the initial review procedure, it was unlikely an individual motorist would do so. Accordingly, the court determined that Weiss had public interest standing to seek prospective relief, because unless such standing is available, the important public interest raised by his petition would be effectively insulated from judicial review.[10] (See Driving School, supra, 11 Cal.App.4th at p. 1519 [public interest standing granted for writ seeking order that school district desist charging tuition for drivers’ education because individual students were unlikely to have the financial resources or interest to challenge the district’s statutory authority].)

         The trial court’s reasoning is unassailable, and certainly not an abuse of discretion. It falls well within the proper bounds of public interest standing, and serves the purpose of that doctrine: to promote “‘the policy of guaranteeing citizens the opportunity to ensure that no governmental body impairs or defeats the purpose of legislation establishing a public right.’ [Citation].” (Save the Plastic Bag, supra, 52 Cal.4th at p. 166.)

         B. Whether the City Must Conduct the Initial Review of Contested Parking Citations

         Having determined that Weiss has standing to seek prospective relief by writ of mandate, we turn to whether the trial court properly issued the writ. Because resolution of that question rests on statutory interpretation (i.e., whether § 40215, subd. (a) requires the City, as the issuing agency, to conduct the initial review of contested parking citations), we review the trial court’s ruling de novo. (Marlton Recovery Partners, LLC v. County of Los Angeles (2015) 242 Cal.App.4th 510, 517.)

         1. Issuing, Processing and ...


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