Thursday, September 10, 2020
Court of Appeal:
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An unincorporated association representing the voting rights of psychiatric patients at a state hospital acted as a “de facto intervener” in an election contest raised by city officials and may collect attorney fees as a “successful party” under California’s private attorney general statute, the Fifth District Court of Appeal held yesterday.
The opinion by Justice Donald R. Franson Jr. reverses an order by Fresno Superior Court Judge Rosemary T. McGuire denying a motion for attorney fees filed by Detainee-Americans for Civic Equality (“DACE”), a voter advocacy association representing patients at the Department of State Hospitals-Coalinga. The state facility treats prisoners and sex offenders committed under court order for psychiatric rehabilitation.
McGuire found that DACE did not qualify as a “party” for purposes of the “successful party” requirement of the private attorney general statute, Code of Civil Procedure §1021.5. The statute allows a court to award attorney fees to a successful party in an action enforcing rights affecting a public interest.
Instead, McGuire characterized the role of DACE in the election contest brought by Coalinga city councilmembers as an amicus curiae, not a de facto intervenor.
Association Has Standing
“As the foundation for the application of section 1021.5 to this case, we conclude an unincorporated association has standing to appear in an election contest as a representative of its members if (1) its members live in the area affected by the outcome of the election, (2) its members would suffer injury from an adverse outcome in the election contest, and (3) the questions involved were of a public nature.”
The association met each of those requirements, he said.
“For purposes of section 1021.5’s ‘successful party’ criterion, we conclude a ‘de facto intervener’ qualifies as a ‘party,’ ” Franson declared in the opinion, which was joined by Presiding Justice Brad R. Hill and Justice Jennifer R.S. Detjen.
“We further conclude the unincorporated association was a ‘de facto intervener’ because it fully participated in the election contest by presenting evidence and legal arguments that were not duplicated by the other parties,” he continued. “The submission of evidence is an important factor that distinguishes interveners from amici curiae. Consequently, the association qualifies as a ‘party’ for purposes of section 1021.5.”
In 2018, Coalinga’s then-mayor, Nathan Vosburg, and four councilmembers claimed the Coalinga state hospital patients were ineligible to vote and illegally participated in the 2017 election, where a local measure to raise sales tax was narrowly defeated. Had the hospital’s patients been excluded from voting, the measure would have passed by 40 votes, they contended.
DACE filed a motion to intervene in the election contest, along with a cross complaint against officials claiming that the patients are entitled to vote in Coalinga elections. DACE also filed a 15-page opening brief supported by declarations from hospital patients and a 14-page reply brief.
The trial court issued an order denying the election contest. DACE filed a motion for attorney fees under §1021.5 for $44,218.
Trial Court Ruling
In her ruling denying the motion for attorney fees, McGuire concluded that DACE was “not a person or party directly impacted” by the election contest and therefore not a de facto intervener “vested with the same procedural rights and remedies as the original parties to the suit.”
“This analysis is devoid of any reference to an unincorporated association’s ability to appear in litigation in a representative capacity and does not acknowledge cases in which an association of voters or taxpayers has appeared in an election contest.”
He went on to say:
“[O]ur examination of DACE’s briefs and declarations leads us to find as a matter of law that DACE made a unique contribution to the defense of the election contest.”
Other issues were dealt with in an unpublished portion of the opinion.
The case is Vosburg v. County of Fresno, 2020 S.O.S. 4372.
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