Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Justices Overturns C.A. Ruling on Private Attorney General Law
Attorneys Who Fought Court Reporters Over Transcript Fees Win Reversal
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The attorneys who secured a ruling that trial courts have authority to review fees charged to non-noticing parties for expedited deposition transcripts may be entitled to fees under the private attorney general statute, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The justices, in a 6-1 ruling, reversed a contrary decision of this district’s Court of Appeal. The high court held that the plaintiffs’ attorneys in a personal injury case in Los Angeles Superior Court vindicated an important public right, and sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether the other criteria for a fee award were met.
The ruling stems from a personal injury suit by Porfirio and Lourdes Serrano against Stefan Merli Plastering Company, Inc. The company’s attorneys noticed the depositions of several of the Serrano’s’ expert witnesses, and the depositions were reported by Coast Court Reporters.
After the defense attorneys ordered expedited transcripts of the depositions, the plaintiffs’ lawyers asked to have their copies expedited as well. The fees charged by the court reporters included $261.56 for expediting delivery.
After the plaintiffs objected to the amount, the reporting firm initially would not provide the transcripts without payment, but ultimately agreed to furnish them, subject to the court’s ruling as to the reasonableness of the charges and the plaintiffs’ obligation to pay them.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Aurelio Munoz, now retired, found that Coast’s expedited service fees were “unconscionable,” but concluded that he had no authority to limit the fees charged. The Court of Appeal, however, held in Serrano v. Stefan Merli Plastering Co., Inc. (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 1014 that the trial court’s inherent power to insure the orderly administration of justice permitted it to reduce the fees charged.
On remand, Munoz ruled that the expedite charges were unreasonable and granted the plaintiffs a refund, plus interest. But he denied their motion for $50,000 in attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1021.5, holding that the plaintiffs were “not trying to vindicate the public’s interest.”
The Court of Appeal affirmed, over the dissent of Justice Walter Croskey, who wrote the earlier opinion. The panel held that the litigation stemmed from a “private business disagreement” between the parties, rather than an effort to enforce an important public right.
But Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the high court, said the plaintiffs had obtained a ruling that establishes an important principle and will affect many future litigants.
“While the proceedings in the trial court regarding transcript charges might be deemed a minor dispute limited to the circumstances of this litigation, on appeal Coast strenuously defended its institutional interest in controlling the fees charged to a nonnoticing party without judicial oversight,” Corrigan wrote.
The Court of Appeal’s opinion in the first appeal, the justice added, “makes it plain that the court was addressing statutory and constitutional rights of considerable public importance” in resolving unsettled questions as to whether the statute allowing deposition reporters to determine their fees contains an implied reasonableness requirement, and whether the court in which an action is pending is the proper forum for resolving a dispute over the fees.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye joined in the opinion, as did Justices Marvin Baxter, Ming Chin, Kathryn M. Werdegar, and Goodwin H. Liu. The lone dissenter was Justice Joyce L. Kennard, who argued that the expedite fee was not unreasonable, given that it was “less than half of [Coast’s] charge for the original requested by defendant.”
Attorneys who argued in the Supreme Court were Stephen Monroe, of the Law Offices of David B. Bloom, for the plaintiffs and John L. Dodd for Coast Court Reporters.
The case is Serrano v. Stefan Merli Plastering Co., Inc., 11 S.O.S. 5832.
The court issued one other ruling yesterday, in People v. Vang, 11 S.O.S. 5839.
The Fourth District’s Div. One held in that case that it was error to allow a prosecutor to ask a gang member hypothetical questions that tracked the actual facts of the case. The Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction on the ground the error was harmless.
The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal ruling, but said there was no error.
“It is required, not prohibited, that hypothetical questions be based on the evidence,” Justice Ming Chin wrote for the court. “The questioner is not required to disguise the fact the questions are based on that evidence.”
Werdegar argued in a separate concurrence that there might not have been a need for expert opinion in the case, which she said was “the true question” before the court, since the issue was motive. But she said the defendant was properly convicted because any error was harmless.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company