Court Did Reject Request For Much More In Fees, As Well As Request For A Multiplier.
University of California at San Diego (UCSD) had a policy and procedure, when an undergraduate student challenges a decision of violating the university’s academic integrity policy by an internal board and appeal to the Council of Provosts, to only identify witnesses if they were a party to the misconduct or were supportive of the university’s claims in the internal proceedings. This policy was at issue in Dorfman v. The Regents of the University of California, Case No. D071327 (4th Dist., Div. 1 Jan. 23, 2018) (unpublished), where a private attorney general fee award was issued—with UCSD appealing the award altogether and with the disgruntled student saying it should have been more, augmented by a positive multiplier. Both sides went away sad, because the trial court’s award of fees was sustained on appeal.
Boiled down, plaintiff UCSD undergraduate student was accused by his chemistry professor of cheating on a midterm exam by copying “Student X’s” answers, exposing plaintiff to dismissal for alleged violation of the university’s academic integrity policy. (Sounds like a spy or criminal confidential informant movie, right?) The university refused to identify “Student X,” taking the position that X was not a relevant witness to the proceeding based on its policy on witness identification. Plaintiff was dismissed from UCSD by the internal board, with the Council of Provosts ultimately agreeing with the dismissal decision. The trial court in a writ of mandate decision sustained the result, but the 4/1 DCA in an earlier unpublished decision found that the university’s refusal to provide the identity of Student X was a right-to-fair-process violation but remanded for further proceedings before the superior court. On remand, the trial court did direct UCSD to conduct further proceedings but also issued broader relief which the 4/1 panel reined back in this second appeal. However, before the decision in Case No. D071327, the trial judge did grant plaintiff $99,090 in fees pursuant to the private attorney general (work for the lead attorney), although not granting the request for combined fees of two people amounting to about $185,779 plus a 3 -5 positive multiplier. Both sides appealed, UCSD saying no fees were warranted and plaintiff saying the fees awarded were insufficient.
Both sides were disappointed on the fee award, because the trial judge’s ruling was affirmed.
On the UCSD side of the ledger, the appellate court did believe a public right was vindicated with respect to ruling otherwise on UCSD’s policy to interpret relevant rules to identify witnesses only if they were a party to the misconduct or were supportive of university’s claims, presumably not Student X—bolstered by a supporting fee motion declaration by a UCSD official responsible for training student advocates for academic disciplinary proceedings which indicated he was bringing the earlier unpublished appellate decision up before training advocates to secure fair administrative proceedings in academic misconduct cases in the future. The fact that the earlier appellate decision was not published is not determinative on the public interest issue. (Serrano v. Stefan Meril Plastering Co., Inc., 52 Cal.4th 1018, 1029 (2011).) That turned consideration to whether the financial burden imposed on student to litigate the matter was disproportionate to his personal stake in the outcome. That was a resounding “no,” given that the ruling below did not guarantee that student will not again face dismissal or ultimately graduate from UCSD based on remand protocols.
However, student did not win on his side of the ledger. He contested not awarding fees for work of this father, but father never made an appearance in the case and the trial judge was justified in believing these claimed fees were duplicative of the fees actually awarded. As far as the multiplier request, the lead attorney did not work on a contingency basis and the trial judge admitted it was a “close call” but did not abuse her discretion in going the other way.