Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Page 1


C.A. Rejects $3 Million Attorney Fee Bid in L.A. Billboard Case




Attorneys who succeeded in overturning an agreement that would have granted two outdoor advertising companies exemptions from Los Angeles city ordinances regulating outdoor advertising are not entitled to fees under the private attorney general statute, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Terry Green did not abuse his discretion when he rejected Summit Media LLC’s motion for more than $3 million in attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure §1021.5, Justice Elizabeth Grimes wrote for Div. Eight.

Green had concluded that while the litigation vindicated an important public right and benefitted the public as a whole, that benefit was not disproportionate to Summit Media’s “enormous” personal stake in the issue. The company’s pursuit of the litigation was largely designed to secure a level playing field with its competitors, and only incidentally to benefit the public, the judge said.

‘Plainly Mistaken’

Grimes said Summit Media was “plainly mistaken” in its contention that the trial judge based his ruling on the fact that the company could afford to bear the fees itself.

The justice wrote:

“The trial court’s discussion at the hearing shows it was well aware of the legal standard applicable to the financial burden requirement:  namely, whether the litigation imposed a financial burden that was out of proportion to plaintiff’s individual stake in the matter.  Plaintiff’s suggestion that the trial court’s ruling was based on plaintiff’s ability to pay or on plaintiff’s lack of altruistic motives has no support in the record.”

The fee motion was part of litigation over a settlement agreement under which the City of Los Angeles exempted CBS Outdoor (now Outfront Media, Inc.) and Clear Channel Outdoor from ordinances banning the conversion of billboards to digital displays.

Prior Opinion

Summit brought the motion following a prior ruling by the Court of Appeal that the settlement violated municipal ordinances. The court, in a 2012 opinion by Grimes, said that Green should have ordered revocation of permits issued pursuant to the agreement, which allowed CBS and Clear Channel to digitize up to 840 billboards.

That case was Summit Media LLC v. City of Los Angeles (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 921.

In 2002 the Los Angeles City Council established a ban on new offsite outdoor advertising signs throughout the city and prohibited alterations or enlargements of legally existing off-site signs. The city also established an inspection program and assessed an annual fee to pay for it.

Shortly thereafter Vista Media Group, a competitor of CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor, brought a “reverse validation” action, seeking a judicial declaration that the sign fee ordinance was invalid on constitutional grounds.

Vista Media settled its claims with the city, and after various legal proceedings CBS and Clear Channel also became parties to the settlement agreement, which, among other things, exempted them from the inspection program and numerous zoning and building laws regulating off-site signs in the city.

The settlement agreement also required the city to issue new permits allowing CBS and Clear Channel to digitize up to 840 signs, a full one-quarter of their total inventory, despite the city’s ban on that very type of modification. It also exempted them from the usual procedures for obtaining permits, giving their applications precedence over the requests of other property owners in the city.

In 2008, Summit Media, petitioned for a writ of mandate ordering the city to set aside and cease implementing the settlement agreement.

Totally Void

Green agreed with Summit that the settlement agreement was void for all purposes. He rejected Summit‘s contention, however, that all permits that had been issued pursuant to the settlement agreement should be revoked, concluding that the issue of permit revocation was an administrative issue,

The Court of Appeal held that Green properly voided the settlement agreement, but also ruled that a judgment invalidating all digital conversion permits issued pursuant to the settlement agreement would not be “grossly excessive in relation to the harm.”

Grimes said at the time:

“We see nothing ‘grossly excessive’ in the revocation of illegal permits issued under an illegal settlement agreement that contravenes municipal ordinances.”

Summit then returned to the trial court, seeking to require the defendants to demolish the affected billboards, and to recover its attorney fees. Green, however, held that the companies could restore the billboards to their previous, non-digital state, and denied the fees.

The Court of Appeal said neither ruling was an abuse of the judge’s discretion.

Attorneys on appeal were Timothy L. Alger, Julie E. Schwartz and Sunita Bali of Perkins Coie for Summit Media, Tayo A. Popoola of the City Attorney’s Office for Los Angeles, Laura W. Brill and Richard M. Simon of Kendall Brill & Klieger for Outfront Media, and James L. Arnone and Benjamin J. Hanelin of Latham & Watkins for Clear Channel Outdoor.  

The case is Summit Media v. City of Los Angeles (CBS Outdoor LLC), 15 S.O.S. 4313.


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