Second District, Division 1 Finds No Abuse of Discretion in Various Fee Awards.
It is amazing how ocean views, privacy, and trees all seem to be in the mix of many neighbor/homeowner association disputes. The next one is no exception, producing substantial cross-fee awards under Civil Code section 1354 that probably only made the lawyers happy participants in the overall controversy.
Murrell v. Rollings Hill Community Assn., Case Nos. B202019/204632 (2d Dist., Div. 1 Jan. 31, 2011) (unpublished) opens with this nice summarizing paragraph: “A contentious and costly feud over trees and a neighbor’s view has spawned multiple legal actions, cross-actions, five appeals and two cross-appeals. George and Anne-Merelie Murrell and Leonard and Linda Fuller are neighbors on adjacent residential lots overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the city of Rolling Hills. To obtain an unobstructed ocean view, the Fullers wanted certain trees on ‘the Murrell property’ trimmed or removed. The Murrells, who sought to preserve privacy, resisted. So began the decade-plus dispute now before this court [which also included the Rolling Hills Community Association and a volunteer HOA director].”
Boy sitting on pine tree. Maginel Wright Barney. Library of Congress.
Except for the director, the Murrells, Fullers, and HOA got mixed results, but results that a referee and trial court could parse out to make the following fee awards: (1) $399,930.88 (out of a requested $647,974.25) in fees to the Murrells and against HOA, but with HOA obtaining $159,148.84 (out of a requested $237,053) in fees against Murrells on a pine tree claim; and (2) $333,525 (out of a requested $488,906.69) in fees to the Fullers and against the Murrells. The Murrells and HOA appealed the various fee awards and various merits rulings.
Presiding Justice Mallano, in a 63 page unpublished opinion on behalf of a 2-1 panel, affirmed across the board. (The dissenting justice did not agree with some merits adjudications and one particular fee award.)
The $159,148.84 fee award to HOA did not surmount the deferential abuse of discretion review standard. (PLCM Group, Inc. v. Drexler, 22 Cal.4th 1084, 1095 (2000) [one of our Leading Cases].) Although a different judge decided a fee request than the judge presiding over germane matters, the Murrells failed to cite authority as to why de novo review was warranted under the circumstances The trial court even apportioned out noncompensable work from compensable work, with the Murrells failing to pinpoint what aspects of the apportionment were wrong. A moving declaration authenticating time records was competent substantiation of the work expended, and a $250 hourly rate for one associate was found to be proper. Other challenges to generalized charges were forfeited by the Murrells’ failure to provide citations to the specifics.
The Murrells were not any more successful on their challenges to the $333,525 fee award to the Fullers and to the inadequacy of the $399,930.88 fee award to them. A referee was appointed and made proper calculations of what fees should be recovered by each side. Some hourly rates were pared down correctly by the referee because the moving party failed to present evidence of what attorneys were paid in the downtown L.A. market. The apportionment used by the referee and trial court, which is applicable to section 1354 fee awards, was no abuse of discretion given the overlapping nature of the various claims. Again, the generalized attacks of reasonableness by the Murrells did not meet their burden of challenging the fee award to the Fullers. (Farber v. Bay View Terrace Homeowners Assn., 141 Cal.App.4th 1007, 1015-1016 (2006).)
Finally, on a costs issue, the appellate court majority ruled that Civil Code section 1354 does not allow recovery of costs not authorized under Code of Civil Procedure section 1032, such as phone charges, copying charges, and expert witness expenses.
Putting into perspective the social utility of $400,000 in attorney’s fees spent on a neighbor tree view dispute, we note in passing that $400,000 will buy 26,667 doses of flu vaccine at $15/dose, 6,667 doses of malaria vaccine, at $60/dose, and 50,000 meals on wheels, at $8/meal; and, that in 2009, median household income in the United States was $49,777, an amount that has since declined.