Ruling Limits Attorneys’ Fee Award in California Voting Rights Act Case

06.21.2012

FRESNO, Calif. – Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo (AALRR) notched a key victory on behalf of one of its school district clients that provides greater clarity as to how attorneys’ fees may be calculated in suits brought under the California Voting Rights Act.

Earlier this year, the 5th District Court of Appeal ruled that county committees on school district reorganization that review proposals to reorganize school or community college districts cannot be held liable under the state’s Voting Rights Act if they took no action to dictate what election method a school district should use. Enacted in 2002, the Voting Rights Act made it easier to challenge at-large or mixed-system elections where it can be shown that they dilute the strength of minority votes.

Also noteworthy about the outcome in Maria Esther Rey v. Madera Unified School District is that the appellate court upheld an earlier trial court ruling greatly reducing the attorneys’ fees sought by the plaintiffs in the case, finding the rates charged by the appellants’ attorneys were excessive and the hours they claimed, duplicative. The appellate court refused to grant an award of attorneys’ fees against the Madera County Committee on School District Organization finding it did not violate the law, and upheld the lower court’s ruling slashing fees requested from the district from approximately $1.7 million to $162,500.

David Soldani, a senior associate in the firm’s Fresno office, who represented Madera Unified School District, said the case marks the first time defendants have challenged in court the astronomical attorneys’ fees commonly sought by plaintiffs bringing claims under the California Voting Rights Act. “It’s significant for our districts with limited resources,” said Soldani, a senior associate in the firm’s Fresno office. “The message it sends is that courts aren’t just going to rubber stamp unreasonable fee requests.” Partner William Woolman of AALRR’s Fresno office says, “Plaintiffs, if unchecked, can cause fees in these cases to escalate quickly.  This case will no doubt be cited frequently in the future when attacking unreasonable fee requests.”

The Rey case is one of several lawsuits the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area has filed against school districts and other local governments, accusing them of using voting systems that impair the ability of minorities to influence the outcome of elections.  Previous cases have settled with agreements to change voting systems along with the payment of significant attorneys’ fees. In the first case brought under the state’s Voting Rights Act, the City of Modesto paid plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees of $3.1 million to settle a case over how its city council members were elected.

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