Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Court of Appeal Awards Attorney Fees to Party Committee
Panel Says Ruling on Membership Expansion Vindicated Public Rights
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A prior Court of Appeal ruling that allows political party central committees to expand their membership beyond those persons listed in the Elections Code conferred a substantial benefit on the general public, this district’s Court of Appeal said yesterday.
Div. Six reached that conclusion in partially reversing a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge’s ruling that denied an award of fees to the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee under the private attorney general’s statute.
The panel limited its ruling to the issue of expansion, however, holding that the former member who brought the suit is not required to pay fees incurred by the committee in successfully defending its right to expel her.
Justice Kenneth Yegan, writing for the court, agreed with Judge Charles Crandall that Gail Wilson’s removal—on charges that she had interfered with the committee’s work by filing a baseless charge that its officers had violated elections laws—was not a matter of broad public concern.
Wilson was removed from the committee at its February 2007 meeting by a vote of 22-10, after members found that she had disrupted the committee’s work by filing a baseless complaint accusing the committee and its officials of violating election laws.
In her petition for writ of mandate and prohibition, she alleged that the committee had deprived her of free speech and due process, had violated the Elections Code by removing her on grounds not specified in the code, and had deprived her of her common law right of fair procedure.
She also sought to prohibit the committee from expanding its membership beyond those persons entitled to serve under the code.
The Elections Code provides that the central committee is to consist of 20 to 25 members elected by supervisor district, plus certain recent party nominees to state and federal office. A bylaws amendment that Wilson opposed, however, added several state party officials living in the county, as well as the presidents of volunteer Democratic clubs chartered by the committee, as ex-officio members.
Wilson, a retired college chemistry teacher, filed for re-election to the committee at the 2006 primary election, and earned a two-year term when the number of candidates did not exceed the number of seats to which her district was entitled.
Prior to the 2006 general election, Wilson filed her complaint with the District Attorney’s Office. As she described it later in her petition, she accused the committee treasurer, San Luis Obispo attorney Stewart Jenkins, of soliciting funds without the party’s written consent, in violation of Sec. 20201 of the code, although the committee’s description of the ensuing investigation was somewhat broader.
The District Attorney’s Office found no cause to take action, but party officials expressed bitterness at Wilson for forcing them to put aside political work so close to an election in order to respond to the investigation. Citing a bylaws provision allowing removal of a member for failing “to contribute to the substantial work of the committee,” 22 members signed a motion calling for Wilson’s dismissal.
Following a meeting at which members, including Wilson, were allowed to speak for or against removal, the committee took its vote and Wilson was ousted. She then filed her Superior Court action, seeking an order reinstating her to membership and removing all non-statutory members from the committee.
The trial judge, and the Court of Appeal, ruled against Wilson on both issues, holding that central committees have a constitutional right to determine their own memberships. Wilson’s constitutional due process claim was rejected on the ground that the committee is not a state actor.
The Court of Appeal further held, in Wilson v. San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 489, that if Wilson had a common law right of fair procedure, the process established by the committee was sufficient because Wilson was given notice and an opportunity to be heard before she was voted off.
The committee sought more than $100,000 in attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1021.5, which provides for such an award when litigation results in a “significant benefit” being “conferred on the general public or a large class of persons.”
In denying fees, Crandall cited Adoption of Joshua S. (2008) 42 Cal.4th 945. The high court held there that the central issue in the case, whether California law permitted a parent’s non-marital partner to adopt a child without the parent relinquishing parental rights, involved personal, rather than public, rights.
But Yegan wrote yesterday that while the claim concerning Wilson’s removal from the committee involved her personal right to serve, the issue of whether a central committee may expand its membership beyond the statutory limitations involved the broader public interest.
“This claim did not seek to vindicate respondent’s alleged private right to reinstatement as Committee member,” the justice wrote. “Instead, it sought to interfere with the public right of political parties and their members to choose their leaders.”
The panel sent the case back to the trial court with directions to award the committee attorney fees on that claim, as well as fees incurred for establishing its entitlement to Sec. 1021.5 fees.
The case is Wilson v. San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee, 11 S.O.S. 907.
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