Tuesday, June 9, 2020
Court of Appeal:
Yegan Says CCP §1021.5 Requirement of Significant Benefit to Large Group of Persons Is Met; University Will Be Deterred From Violating Its Own Rules in Conducting Title IX Investigations
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An incoming freshman who, based on an allegation of dating-relationship violence, was placed on interim suspension before classes began and sued to gain reinstatement, was entitled to attorney fees under the private attorney general statute, the Court of Appeal for this district has held, disagreeing with the trial court that the action was solely for the plaintiff’s own benefit.
Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Thomas P. Anderle dismissed the action as moot after the University of California at Santa Barbara (“UCSB”), after completing its investigation, exonerated the student, who sued as “John Doe.” In ordering dismissal, the judge declined to grant an order for attorney fees.
Reversal came in an opinion by Acting Presiding Justice Kenneth Yegan of Div. Six. UCSB delayed its “Title IX” investigation in contravention of its own rules and, he declared, Doe is entitled to fees under Code of Civil Procedure §1021.5, the private attorney general statute.
(Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bars gender-based discrimination—including sexual violence—in federally funded educational institutions.)
Significant Public Benefit
Doe’s action against the Regents of the University of California did, contrary to Anderle’s notion, confer “a significant benefit...on the general public or a large class of persons,” as required under §1021.5, Yegan said, explaining:
“Doe’s action held the university accountable for its violation of these policies and enjoined an indefinite interim suspension issued in violation of those rules. The action enforced a student’s right to have the university comply with its own policies governing the time limits for resolving Title IX complaints and investigations. It confirmed the availability of injunctive relief to prohibit an interim suspension where the university unreasonably delays completion of a Title IX investigation, fails to consider less restrictive measures, and conceals critical evidence utilized in issuing the interim suspension order, all in violation of UCSB’s policies.”
“Doe’s action and the injunction he obtained will provide a significant benefit to a large group of people. The injunction should deter UCSB from violating its policies requiring prompt resolution of Title IX allegations, particularly where interim suspensions are issued. The deterrent effect of the injunction will benefit all students at UCSB, including those similarly situated to Doe, who will be assured that, once enrolled at a public university, they will not be unreasonably, arbitrarily, and indefinitely suspended in violation of the university’s own policies.”
The jurist noted that the regents conceded that Doe met two of the requirements for an award under §1021.5: he prevailed in his action (having been awarded a preliminary injunction barring his interim suspension) and enforced an important right. However, the regents contested not only that there was a public benefit, but also that there was “the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement.”
Doe—represented below (and on appeal) by San Diego attorney Robert P. Ottilie—sought $265,508 in attorney fees based on services rendered in the Superior Court.
“The parties do not dispute that Doe had no ability to pay for legal representation, as would be true for most students,” Yegan wrote. “Without representation, the interim suspension in this case would have resulted in a de facto expulsion, in violation of UCSB’s policies.”
“In these circumstances, the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement makes an award of attorney’s fees under section 1021.5 appropriate….The policy underlying section 1021.5 is furthered by awarding fees.”
Dismissal of Action
Doe argued that Anderle erred in dismissing the action for mootness because it was not adjudicated that the interim suspension, though judicially blocked, was wrongful. Yegan rejected that contention and, in the course of his discussion, proclaimed that Doe could truthfully state that the suspension he contested never occurred.
“Because the superior court could not grant Doe effectual relief on any of his claims, it did not err in dismissing the action as moot,” he wrote, going on to say:
“Moreover, the interim suspension was rendered inoperative by the superior court’s order staying and preliminarily enjoining the suspension ‘through the conclusion of the entire administrative process.’ Therefore, in the unlikely event Doe is asked if he was ever placed on interim suspension, he can legitimately answer, ‘No.’ ”
(Any such assertion by Doe that he was never placed on interim suspension would contradict Yegan’s recitation at the outset of his opinion that before Doe “even arrived in Santa Barbara, UCSB placed him on interim suspension.”)
“In these circumstances,” Yegan observed, “the continuation of Doe’s lawsuit would result in a waste of judicial resources and a needless expense for the parties.”
The matter was remanded for a determination of “the appropriate amount of fees to be awarded and the amount of the multiplier, if any.”
The case is Doe v. Regents of the University of California, B293153.
Jonathan D. Miller and Alison M. Bernal of the Santa Barbara firm of Nye, Stirling, Hale & Miller represented the regents.
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