A recent Metropolitan News story, “$100,000 Sufficient Attorney Fees for Catalysts of Impound Rule Change,” reports that plaintiffs whose lawsuit prompted the City of Los Angeles to change its policy of impounding cars driven by holders of drivers’ licenses issued by foreign countries have lost a bid in this district’s Court of Appeal to increase their award of attorney fees from $100,000 to $1.7 million. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John S. Wiley Jr., sitting on assignment to Div. Seven, wrote the unpublished opinion. It affirms a judgment by Judge Elihu Berle in three appeals from the same case.
In two of the challenges, the plaintiffs contend the award was unjustifiably meager. The City of Los Angeles cross-appealed, arguing that no fees should have been awarded at all. The opinion also rejects the protest by three other plaintiffs to the dismissal of their causes of action against the cities of Escondido and Long Beach on the ground that disputes with those defendants were resolved in prior actions.
The underlying case concerns the cities’ policies in interpreting Vehicle Code §14602.6(a)(1), which allows police to impound a car when it is driven by a person who has never “been issued a driver’s license.” All plaintiffs in the case had cars impounded despite having driver licenses issued in foreign countries. In 2007, a federal class action was brought against various California government entities in the case of Salazar v. Schwarzeneggar. The Salazar litigation involved many plaintiffs and defendants at different times, most of whom were not parties to the present appeal.
That case was unsuccessful for the plaintiffs. The court dismissed with prejudice their claim under Art. I, §13 of the California Constitution—the right to be secure from unreasonable seizures—ruling that the section “does not provide a private cause of action for damages.” The court also declined to take supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state claims, and several of the plaintiffs and others sued various cities in state court in 2011. Two of the plaintiffs in the state case, Laurencio Marin and Vincent Soltero, settled with Los Angeles for $4,000 each. Berle awarded the two men $100,000 in attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure §1021.5, the private attorney general statute.
Wiley explained that the award of fees was proper under a catalyst theory, which allows for attorney fees when a plaintiff prompts the defendant to change its behavior, even if there was no judicial resolution of the dispute. In 2012, before the city settled with Marin and Soltero, then-Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, since retired, issued “Special Order No. 7,” which changed the LAPD’s impound policy. The order—which drew considerable controversy—removed from officers discretion as to whether a vehicle driven by an unlicensed vehicle should be impounded, directing that it not be under specified circumstances. The order provided that a driver’s license issued “by any jurisdiction (foreign or domestic)” would be recognized.
(The Court of Appeal for this district held in 2014 “that Special Order 7 is within the wide discretion of the police chief.”) Wiley said: “The catalyst theory required Marin and Soltero to establish (1) that their lawsuit was a catalyst motivating the City of Los Angeles to provide the primary relief sought; (2) that the lawsuit had merit and achieved its catalytic effect by threat of victory, not by dint of nuisance and threat of expense; and (3) that Marin and Soltero reasonably attempted to settle the litigation before filing their suit…
“The trial court found Marin and Soltero satisfied these three requirements and thus were entitled to a fee award. The court expressly identified each factor and made appropriate findings.” Although Berle found that Marin and Soltero had been successful, he noted that it was a limited success. The settlement amount they had each received was minute, and they had suffered many failures throughout the litigation, including a failure to obtain class certification. Wiley said:
“The court acknowledged the plaintiffs contributed in some degree to the advent of Special Order No. 7, but noted even that success was mixed. Special Order No. 7 was a move in the right direction, as far as plaintiffs were concerned, but plaintiffs continued to challenge Los Angeles Police Department’s impound policies even as embodied in Special Order No. 7. The trial court dryly remarked ‘[i]t is unusual to argue that plaintiffs have been successful in remedying a state of affairs which they continued to attack.’ ”
For this reason, Wiley explained that Berle had appropriately denied the plaintiffs their requested lodestar and multiplier. As to the third appeal in the case, Wiley noted that Escondido and Long Beach had shown the three elements of claim preclusion applied to the three plaintiffs challenging the award of summary judgment to those cities.
“Claim preclusion applies when a second suit involves (1) the same cause of action (2) between the same parties (3) after a final judgment on the merits in the first suit,” he wrote. The three plaintiffs and both cities had all been parties to the Salazar litigation, which had included a cause of action for the California Constitution claim which was the only claim in their state case. The federal court had dismissed that claim with prejudice, which is a final judgment on the merits.
The case is Sancandi v. City of Los Angeles, B268839. Counsel for the plaintiffs were Barrett S. Litt of Pasadena; Cynthia Anderson-Barker of Los Angeles; and Robert Mann and Donald W. Cook of Los Angeles. The cities were represented, respectively, by Assistant City Attorney Gabriel S. Dermer for Los Angeles, Deputy City Attorney Adam C. Phillips for Escondido, and Deputy City Attorney Howard D. Russell for Long Beach.