Thursday, October 4, 2007
Appeals Court Upholds Attorney Fee Award Against Local Landlord
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
An award of more than $100,000 in fees to the attorneys who represented four Los Angeles families in a wrongful eviction suit against their former landlord was upheld yesterday by this district’s Court of Appeal.
Div. Seven ruled that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias did not abuse her discretion in awarding the fees to lawyers from O’Melveny and Myers and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. Attorneys for landlord Shawn Ayromloo argued that the plaintiffs should not awarded fees for prevailing on tort claims of wrongful eviction, forcible detainer, and emotional infliction of emotional distress.
The attorneys’ fee clauses in the plaintiffs’ leases were broad enough to cover all of the issues in the case, Justice Earl Johnson Jr. wrote for the Court of Appeal.
Thirty-two families sued Ayromloo, containing that he illegally evicted them by refusing to allow them to move back in after city-ordered repairs were made, and that he instead re-rented the units had higher rates. Elias agreed, ordering the landlord to pay nearly $30,000 per family in damages based on the additional profits earned by leasing to new tenants, along with additional sums to each family for lost security deposits, emotional distress, and loss of personal property.
Four of the families had written leases, and the attorneys moved for an award of fees for work done on behalf of those plaintiffs, seeking more than $400,000. The motion was based on clauses in the leases providing that the prevailing party was entitled to recover attorney fees in any litigation “in connection with” the leases.
Elias ruled that the language of the clauses covered both contract and tort claims, that there need not be an apportionment of fees between the lease and non-lease plaintiffs as long as all of the work for which fees were awarded dealt with issues applicable to the lease plaintiffs, and that fees need not be limited either to the amount of the plaintiffs’ damages or to the guidelines set forth in the local rules.
The judge awarded just under $124,000 in fees, saying “counsel knew this was a mildly pro bono type of work” and noting the relatively small amount at stake; concluding that some of the work for which fees were sought applied only to non-lease plaintiffs; and that a portion of the representation dealt with issues outside the scope of the leases.
On appeal, the defendant argued that the only issues as to which the fee clauses applied were those dealing with security deposits. Johnson disagreed, saying the trial judge was correct with regard to the broad scope of the “in connection with” language.
The justice went on to say that the amount awarded, while well in excess of the guidelines set forth in Local Rule 3.2, was reasonably calculated under the “lodestar” method and well within the judge’s discretion. Elias, he said, properly took into consideration “the nature of the litigation, its difficulty, the amount involved, the skill required in its handling, the skill employed, the attention given, the success or failure, and other circumstances in the case.”
Attorneys on appeal were Pollie Okoronkwo and Wayne M. Abb for the landlord and Paul B. Salvaty, Catalina J. Vergara and Shannon Keast of O’Melveny & Myers and T.E. Glenn of LAFLA for the tenants.
The case is Cruz v. Ayromloo, 07 S.O.S. 6082.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company