Myriad of Arguments, Including Prevailing Party Determination, Were Rejected On Appeal.
This one shows how a delinquent water bill for $25,000 can mushroom into additional fee exposure of $82,762 when there is a local fee-shifting ordinance under which a local water district prevails.
What occurred in San Benito County Water Dist. v. McAlpine, Case No. H044258 (6th Dist. Aug. 31, 2018) (unpublished) was that Water District brought a limited civil complaint, later superseded by a first amended complaint taking the matter to superior court, by which it was attempting to collet for overdue unpaid groundwater charges from defendant as well as attorney’s fees and costs of collection as allowed by a local regulation which provided the Water District could collect attorney’s fees and costs on delinquent accounts. Eventually, Water District obtained a trial court preliminary injunction preventing delinquent water customer from pumping groundwater until its account was brought current. Water customer did pay $25,000 under protest. Water District moved to recoup $96,569.87 in fees under the fee-shifting local regulation, but the trial judge awarded $82,762 (based on duplicative work by District’s attorneys). Later, defendant apparently filed a separate petition challenging certain charges as running afoul of Proposition 218.
The Sixth District affirmed the fee award, in the process rebuffing the four challenges leveled by disgruntled water customer.
First, Water District did indeed prevail because the case under review was not about Proposition 218 and District obtaining its main litigation objective through the issuance of an injunction which resulted in water customer paying its delinquent account.
Second, the fee award did not contravene the “pay first, litigate later” policy codified in California Constitution, article XIII, § 32. The substantive problems were that this case did not involve a tax and did not involve a state agency. Beyond that, had water customer paid and then made its challenges, the pay first rule was vindicated rather than make Water District file a collection action in the first instance.
Third, District did not have to give any prelitigation notices applicable to limited civil cases because the first amended complaint in superior court superseded that earlier pleading.
Finally, water customer’s challenge to the excessiveness of the award was deemed waived, because customer only relied on mere assertions without providing specific challenges to the fee award.