Wednesday, February 29, 2012
County Agency Not Liable for Districts’ Polarized Voting—C.A.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A county’s committee on school district organization is not responsible for polarized voting in the districts that make up the county, the Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The justices affirmed the dismissal of the Madera County Board of Education from a lawsuit charging it and the Madera Unified School District from a suit under the California Voting Rights Act. It also rejected the Hispanic plaintiffs’ claim that Madera Superior Court Judge James Oakley abused his discretion by awarding their attorneys from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher $162,500 in attorney fees, a fraction of the $1.7 million they had sought.
The plaintiffs sued in August 2008, arguing that the Madera district was in violation of the CVRA because it elected school board members at-large, and by doing so prevented Hispanics from electing their candidates of choice. The plaintiffs alleged that they had attempted to persuade the defendants to change the method of election without litigating, but that the district had denied that voting in its elections was racially polarized.
Both the CVRA and its federal counterpart provide remedies for such racially polarized voting. But the CVRA is friendlier to plaintiffs, who do not have to prove that the disfavored minority lives in a geographically compact area or that the defendant or its officials have a discriminatory animus.
The plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction. The district responded that it was already working toward a system of electing board members from “trustee areas” and agreed to delay its November 2008 election.
The judge ultimately granted the plaintiffs an injunction against the district, but granted summary judgment to the county agency on the ground that it has no responsibility for CVRA compliance by the local districts. He agreed that the plaintiffs were entitled to attorney fees against the district only, but cut the amount substantially.
In doing so, Oakley reasoned that Gibson Dunn could not justify putting in more than 500 hours on the case, even though it claimed a “patently unreasonable” 3,028 hours. He also rejected the firm’s hourly rate request, with some attorneys claiming more than $700 per hour, and its request for a “modest” premium of 8 percent.
The judge concluded that there was no need for the plaintiffs to import out-of-town counsel, and that a “blended” rate of $325 per hour was reasonable, based on the rates generally charged by attorneys of similar skill and experience in Madera County.
Justice Herbert Levy, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the plaintiffs demonstrated no error on Oakley’s part.
In Madera County, the justice explained, the elected Board of Education functions as the committee on school district organization, setting the boundaries of the local school districts, of which there are currently nine.
Contrary to the plaintiffs’ argument, Levy said, the board is not responsible for monitoring the local districts in order to ensure compliance with the CVRA.
The language of the act, the jurist explained, “indicates that liability is based on active involvement with the election.” Since the county agency is responsible for the initial election establishing a school district, but not for subsequent elections, the plain meaning of the legislation makes clear that it has no liability with regard to polarized voting at those elections.
Turning to the fee award, the justice noted that trial judges are vested with broad discretion because they are in the best position to evaluate the nature and necessity of the work performed in their courts.
Here, Levy explained, it was not unreasonable for the judge to conclude that it was unnecessary for more than 10 attorneys to work a total of more than 3,000 hours on a case whose merits were resolved within three months of the complaint being filed.
With respect to the need for out-of-town counsel, Levy cited declarations by two local lawyers, whom the trial judge found to have been qualified, and who said they would have been willing to represent the plaintiffs. In any event, he said, the plaintiffs’ claim that local counsel were unwilling to bring suit against local agencies was speculative, given that there was no evidence the plaintiffs tried to engage local lawyers to represent them.
Nor was a fee multiplier required under the circumstances, the justice said. Oakley, he explained, carefully examined all of the relevant criteria, and made appropriate findings, including his determination that additional fees would impose an undue burden on taxpayers, because the district would likely cut instruction rather than seek additional sources of funding to pay the higher fees.
The case is Rey v. Madera Unified School District, 12 S.O.S. 973.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company