Court of Appeal Rules That Trial Courts May Exercise Discretion to Deny Attorney Fee Awards in California Public Records Act Lawsuits Achieving Minimal or Insignificant Results
In a matter of first impression, the California Court of Appeal (2nd District) has ruled that an attorney fee award need not be granted in every instance that a petitioner prevails in a lawsuit compelling disclosure of documents under the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”). In Riskin v. Downtown Los Angeles Property Owners Association (Case No. B309814 [March 17, 2022]), the Court of Appeal held that a trial court may exercise its discretion not to award attorney fees in CPRA cases where a petitioner has only achieved minimal or insignificant results.
Adrian Riskin (“Petitioner”), a “self-described ‘open records activist,’” submitted three public records requests to the Downtown Los Angeles Property Owners Association, a business improvement district (“the BID”) subject to the CPRA. The requests sought emails exchanged between the BID and other BIDs in the area, as well as emails to and from certain board members of the BID. In response to the requests, the BID produced approximately 50 total emails and asserted that any otherwise responsive emails were protected from disclosure under the exemptions provided in the CPRA. Petitioner believed that additional emails existed that the BID was withholding, and further believed he was entitled to the emails that the BID asserted were protected from disclosure. Petitioner and the BID exchanged a number of letters attempting to resolve their differences on these matters, but were ultimately unsuccessful.
Petitioner filed a lawsuit in August 2018 seeking to establish the BID violated the CPRA and compelling it to release documents. Petitioner argued the BID wrongfully withheld documents and failed to conduct a reasonable search of its records. After extensive briefing, oral argument, and review of all of the records the BID had withheld, the trial court determined that one additional document was responsive to one of the three records requests and should have been produced by the BID. The document consisted of two email chains totaling approximately 20 sentences, described by the court as “entirely innocuous, consisting mostly of scheduling information.” Thereafter, Petitioner sought an award of attorney fees in the amount of $123,119.11 under the CPRA. The BID argued that given the minimal success Petitioner achieved by way of his lawsuit, he should receive no attorney fee award whatsoever. The trial court ultimately awarded Petitioner approximately $71,000 in attorney fees, stating that statutory language in the CPRA compelled it to award such fees, even though the significance of the one document ordered released was “highly speculative and attenuated, at best, and completely inconsequential, at worst.” The BID appealed the attorney fee award.
In reversing the attorney fee award, the Court of Appeal determined the trial court erred in its rationale that the CPRA required such an award. The Court specifically addressed the interpretation of Government Code section 6259(d), which states in relevant part that “the court shall award court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees…should the requestor prevail in litigation filed pursuant to [the CPRA].” In examining Section 6259(d), the Court determined that in CPRA cases where the petitioner achieved only minimal or insignificant results, a trial court has the discretion to deny an attorney fee award altogether. In so holding, the Court determined that “if appropriate to the particular case, the trial court must determine whether a litigant who obtains partial relief under the CPRA is a prevailing party by analyzing whether the documents were ‘so minimal or insignificant’ to justify a finding that the litigant did not prevail.” Accordingly, the Court of Appeal determined that trial courts are empowered to deny attorney fee awards in such instances.
The Riskin case provides clarity on an issue that has long been discussed, but never ruled on, in other appellate cases. For example, in Los Angeles Times v. Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority (2001) 88 Cal.App.4th, 1381, the Court of Appeal stated that it could conceive of circumstances in which attorney fee awards could be denied on the grounds that the success achieved was minimal or insignificant, but did not go so far as to rule on the issue. Riskin now provides guidance to trial courts assessing cases in which a CPRA challenge has resulted in achieving only minimal success.
While Riskin helps provide clarity on the attorney fee award question, it has limited application in the processing of and response to CPRA requests generally. Public agencies should continue to be mindful of their obligation to timely and thoroughly respond to CPRA requests and take care to follow the strict statutory requirements, exceptions and timelines. The Riskin case may provide relief in a small number of challenges, but most CPRA litigation with successful plaintiffs will still likely result in an award of attorney fees. Public agencies should not hesitate to contact legal counsel for strategies and assistance in properly responding to CPRA requests to minimize the risk of related litigation.