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Fish v. Santa Clara County

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

July 16, 2019

RONALD CRAIG FISH, Plaintiff,
v.
SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING MAGNUM AVIATION INC.'S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS' FEES RE: DKT. NO. 42

          VIRGINIA K. DEMARCHI, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Pro se plaintiff Ronald Fish sued defendants Magnum Aviation, Inc. (“Magnum”) and Santa Clara County (“the County”) for violation of his right to just compensation for the taking of his property. Dkt. No. 1 at 1. Specifically, he sought a declaratory judgment that defendants' anticipated seizure of his private airplane hangars pursuant to certain sublease agreements is an unconstitutional taking under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and “Section 2” of the California Constitution. Id. He also sought a declaratory judgment that the reversion clause in his subleases with Magnum violates the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), Cal. Civ. Code § 1770(19), because the clause is unconstitutional and unconscionable. Id. Mr. Fish sought an injunction barring defendants from taking possession of his hangars once his sublease expires or, in the alternative, requiring defendants to compensate him for the hangars. Id.

         The Court granted Magnum's motion to dismiss with prejudice and without leave to amend. Dkt. No. 28. Magnum now moves for an award of $15, 785.00 in attorneys' fees incurred in connection with its successful motion to dismiss, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) and California Civil Code § 1780(e). Dkt. No. 42. The Court heard oral argument on Magnum's fees motion on June 18, 2019. Dkt. No. 46.

         Having considered the parties' motion papers and arguments made at the hearing, the Court denies Magnum's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Mr. Fish's Claims Against Magnum

         Mr. Fish is a retired attorney and airplane owner who resides in Los Gatos, California. Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 1; see also Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 23. Magnum is the fixed base operator of the South Santa Clara County Airport in San Martin, California. See Id. ¶¶ 8, 10, Ex. C at 1; see also Dkt. No. 15 at 3. Mr. Fish owns two portable airplane hangars at the airport. Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 1. The hangars sit on land that Mr. Fish subleases from Magnum, who in turn leases the land from the County. Id. ¶¶ 1-3. The County owns the land on which the airport is located. Id. ¶ 2.

         The facts alleged in Mr. Fish's complaint are described in detail in the Court's order dismissing Mr. Fish's claims. Dkt. No. 28. For purposes of Magnum's motion for attorneys' fees, the salient facts are as follows:

         Magnum and the County are parties to a master lease agreement which contains the following reversion clause: “Upon expiration of this lease agreement, Lessee agrees to immediately surrender possession of the premises and any improvements thereon to Lessor. . . . All improvements shall become the property of Lessor free and clear of all liens and encumbrances.” Dkt. No. 1 ¶¶ 3, 10-11. Mr. Fish (or his law corporation) and Magnum are parties to sublease agreements, which state in relevant part:

Upon the expiration of this Lease Agreement [on December 11, 2020], Lessee agrees to immediately surrender possession of the Hangar Space and any improvements thereon to Lessor. However, Lessee may elect to remove the Hangar from the Hangar Space prior to the expiration of the term of this Lease. . . . All improvements shall become the property of the Lessor, free and clear of all liens and encumbrances should the Lessee elect not to, nor cause removal of the Improvement (the Hangar.) prior to the expiration of the Lease Agreement.

Id. ¶¶ 10-12, Ex. C at 1 ¶ 2. The sublease agreements include a reversion clause similar to the one in the master lease agreement: “All and any alterations, improvement or modification to the Hangar Ground Space, including the Hangar structure, shall become Lessor's property and shall remain on the Hangar Ground Space at the expiration of this agreement, without compensation, remuneration or payment to the Lessee.” Id. at 3 ¶ 10.

         The master lease between the County and Magnum expires on December 11, 2020, and all of the subleases-including Mr. Fish's-expire on that same day. Now that the expiration date draws near, Mr. Fish wishes to avoid having to move his hangars and to prevent Magnum and the County from seizing possession of them without compensating him for their value. Id. ¶¶ 20, 22-23, 25-26. Mr. Fish filed this action on November 2, 2018. Id. ¶ 34; see generally Dkt. No. 1.

         B. Magnum's Motion to Dismiss

         On November 30, 2018, counsel for Magnum contacted Mr. Fish by telephone. Dkt. No. 43 ¶ 3. The details of the conversation are disputed, but for purposes of this motion, the Court assumes that Magnum did not advise Mr. Fish that it intended to seek dismissal of the ...


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