Petitioners Did Prevail Because Their Actions Motivated A Water District To Disclose Previously Withheld Records.
Writ relief does not happen often, but plaintiffs seeing that the lower court was against them sought it and were awarded by the Third District in Harrell & Gifford v. Superior Court (Hornbrook Community Services Dist.), Case Nos. C085484/C085606 (3d Dist. July 27, 2018) (unpublished).
The writ proceeding largely considered what it means to be a prevailing party under the California Public Records Act (CPRA), which has a fee-shifting statute in favor of a prevailing plaintiff by virtue of Government Code section 6259(d).
In this case, two plaintiffs—one of whom had been employed by the District/served on the District’s Board and another of which had attended District meetings, such that they had insight into documents possessed and stored by the District at any particular time—separately asked for documents from the District. However, District refused to comply so as to trigger both plaintiffs to file CPRA actions. Finally, six months after one plaintiff filed his action and two months after the other was filed, meetings finally occurred in an effort to meet and confer over the document demands. Not all of the proper records were produced, a lot of it having to do with the way District somewhat haphazardly stored records. However, the lower court seemed to be jaded by the lengthy post-filing meetings and found both plaintiffs’ CPRA petitions lacked merit. Even more alarming for them, it then put plaintiffs on notice that it would hold a hearing to determine whether their actions were frivolous and as a result they were liable to the District for fees under another CPRA fee-shifting feature. That prompted plaintiffs, as petitioners, to seek writ relief from the appellate work.
The appellate court found that although no formal order was entered, the lower court did deny the petitions as having a lack of merit such that the prevailing party issue was ripe for determination on review. The proper test for a plaintiff’s recovery of fees as a prevailing party under CPRA is whether plaintiff’s lawsuit motivated defendants to provide documents or modify their behavior, whether or not a favorable final judgment is entered in the CPRA action. (San Diegans for Open Government v. City of San Diego, 247 Cal.App.4th 1306, 1321-1322 (2016); Sukumar v. City of San Diego, 14 Cal.App.5th 451, 454 (2017).) Here, the clear record showed that plaintiffs’ actions did trigger the release of documents, so that it was an abuse of discretion to find them other than prevailing parties. The appellate court ordered the trial court to vacate its order finding plaintiffs had not prevailed, to enter an order determining they did prevail, and to then determine the reasonable fees and costs under section 6259(d).
A nice reversal of fortune on appeal!