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Court Rejects Plaintiff’s Effort to Recover Excessive Fees from City in Civil Rights Litigation

San Francisco, CA – Late Wednesday, the San Francisco-based First District Court of Appeal ruled that state law allows trial courts to consider the overall equities when deciding attorney’s fees awards in civil rights suits.

The ruling, which came in Tanzel v. City of Richmond, A120253, represents a major victory for public entities facing excessive fee demands from prevailing plaintiffs. Meyers Nave principal Joseph M. Quinn represents the City of Richmond in this litigation.

In the underlying action, Yasmeen Tanzel challenged the City’s nuisance vehicle forfeiture ordinance. The ordinance authorized seizure and forfeiture of vehicles used to solicit prostitution or deal drugs. Tanzel presented several independent challenges to the ordinance. Notably, at the time of the lawsuit, Tanzel’s counsel had already filed several substantially identical lawsuits against other cities and the City of Richmond had agreed to forego enforcement of the ordinance pending resolution of those cases.

The trial court upheld some of Tanzel’s challenges and rejected others. Ultimately, Tanzel moved for an order directing the City to pay her attorney’s fees under the so-called private attorney general statute, which, under certain circumstances, allows a successful plaintiff to recover her attorney’s fees from the public entity that she sued. Tanzel and her counsel demanded more than a quarter of a million dollars in fees. Agreeing with the City’s counsel, the Honorable Barbara Zuniga of the Superior Court held that Tanzel was entitled to recover only a small portion of the fees she incurred. Judge Zuniga of the Superior Court limited Tanzel’s award to $43,000, based on such factors as Tanzel’s minor success, the limited practical effect of the judgment, the duplicative nature of the litigation, the enforcement status of the challenged ordinance and the plaintiff’s failure to try to settle the claims without unnecessary litigation, and her unreasonable rejection of the City’s settlement offers. Tanzel appealed, and increased her fee demand to approximately $350,000.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s limited fee award. Writing for the unanimous three-justice panel, Presiding Justice Ignacio J. Ruvolo wrote that “In computing the attorney fees award, the trial court here analyzed the appropriate factors and reached a decision that was reasonable under the facts.” Specifically, the justices observed the trial court was right to consider Tanzel’s failure on the majority of her claims. The justices also noted that the Court found that “the trial court acted well within its discretion in finding that ‘the unjustified duplication of work that took place requires a negative multiplier decreasing the lodestar.’”

The justices further explained that the City’s non-enforcement of the challenged ordinance supported limiting the attorney’s fees award and that Tanzel’s unreasonable refusal to stay the action pending resolution of the related litigation: “[T]he trial court was justified in concluding that the practical results achieved in this case were, at most, de minimis.”

“This opinion is great news for the people of Richmond and all California taxpayers, especially in these troubled times,” said Mr. Quinn. “All the circumstances of a case should factor into whether the taxpayers should be required to pay an attorney’s fees award and, if so, how much of that burden the taxpayers should bear.”

In addition to representing parties in attorney’s fees litigation, Mr. Quinn also provides expert services in attorney’s fees disputes in state and federal courts.

About Meyers Nave

Founded in 1986, Meyers Nave is a law firm recognized for its work with all types of public entities in California and provides the full scope of legal services to cities, counties, redevelopment agencies and special districts statewide.

Meyers Nave’s areas of practice include labor/employment; torts; redevelopment; city attorney/general counsel representations; eminent domain; litigation; writs and appeals; public contracts and land use; and environmental law.



Jayne Williams
Meyers Nave