Court Finds County Committee On School District Organization Did Not Violate The California Voting Rights Act And Confirms Trial Court’s 90% Reduction In Award Of Attorneys’ Fees

On February 28, 2012, the court in Maria Esther Rey v. Madera Unified School District (February 28, 2012) held that a county committee on school district organization may not be held liable under the California Voting Rights Act ("CVRA," Elections Code § 14025 et seq.) when the county committee has taken no action to impose or apply an election method on behalf of one of its school districts. The court also upheld the trial court’s decision to reduce by over 90%, the amount of attorneys’ fees awarded to plaintiffs in the case.

The district was represented by Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo attorneys David Soldani, William Woolman and Jennifer Cantrell.

On the eve of the District's November 2008 election, Maria Esther Rey, Jesse Lopez and Carlos Uranga filed a lawsuit alleging a violation of the CVRA against the Madera Unified School District, the Madera County Committee on School District Organization, and other parties claiming that the District's at-large method of election was impairing Hispanics from electing representation of their choice. The lawsuit requested the District change to a by-trustee area election method.  The plaintiffs also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction seeking to stop the District's November 2008 governing board member election.

The lawsuit placed the District in an impossible situation. The lawsuit was filed after candidates had already applied to run in the November 2008 election and at a time in which the District could not have transitioned to a by-trustee area election method prior to the November 2008 election. The timing of the lawsuit left the District with only two options: (1) expend a significant amount of money and resources to fight the lawsuit on the merits; or (2) voluntarily transition to a by-trustee area election method. The District made the strategic decision to minimize the potential for paying a significant attorneys' fee award by not opposing the suit on the merits, opting instead to immediately transition to a by-trustee area election method.

This strategy paid off when the trial court awarded $162,500 in attorneys' fees, despite a request for over $1.7 million. This represented a discount of over 90%!

The District was understandably shocked at the request for over $1.7 million from the District and other parties for their efforts expended in a largely uncontested lawsuit.

After an unsuccessful attempt to mediate the amount of the requested fees, we retained an attorneys' fees expert and vigorously opposed the fee request, attacking it on the grounds that the attorneys were charging exorbitant hourly rates (in excess of $700 per hour in some cases) and claiming to have spent an excessive amount of time working on the case. For example, attorneys claimed they spent 195.45 hours for filing the complaint (a 7 page document). Interestingly, the same attorneys had previously filed at least three other CVRA complaints in other cases that were essentially identical (which we were quick to point out to the court). The trial court at one point observed that the attorneys' fees request was "patently unreasonable" and reduced the award by over 90%.

The appellate court also upheld the trial court's ruling that the County Committee had no liability since the County Committee never had any role in ordering, calling, conducting or otherwise carrying out the District's elections.

The Rey case provides greater clarity on how attorneys' fees may be calculated and awarded to prevailing parties under the CVRA and, significantly, demonstrates that courts still have common sense when it comes to awarding attorneys' fees.

School and community college districts that continue to elect their governing board members at-large should assess their potential liability under the CVRA to determine whether they should continue to utilize this method of election. Attorneys from Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo have assisted many entities in evaluating their liability under the CVRA and transitioning to by-trustee area elections.

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