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California Voting Rights Act

Rey et al. v. Madera Unified School District

Legal Background

The California Voting Rights Act (“CVRA”) prohibits an at-large method of election when it is “imposed or applied” in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice. “At-large” means voters of an entire jurisdiction elect candidates to each open seat. In contrast, “by-trustee area” is a method of election where candidates must reside in a particular area and voters only vote for candidates in their area of residence. (California Elections Code § 14027.)

Factual and Procedural Background

In 2008, the Madera Unified School District maintained an “at-large” method of election for its governing board members. Plaintiffs (Rey et al.) resided in the District and are members of a protected class. In March of 2008, Plaintiffs, by way of the Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights (“LCCR”), alleged that the District’s election method violated the CVRA and requested that the District change to a “by-trustee area” method of election. The District did not comply at that time.

In September 2008, LCCR filed a legal complaint and a request for preliminary injunction against the District and the County Committee on School District Organization (“County Committee”). LCCR alleged that the District’s at-large method violated the CVRA. Neither the District nor the County Committee opposed the request for the preliminary injunction. In December 2008, the County Committee approved the District’s proposal to establish trustee areas and convert to a by-trustee area method of election.

In December 2008, LCCR filed a motion to recover more than $1 million in attorney fees and costs from the District and the County Committee.

Holding: County Committee Not Liable Under the CVRA

The court acknowledged that under Education Code § 5019 the County Committee, among others, has the authority to initiate changes to the District’s election method. However, the court found that the County Committee’s failure to exercise its authority did not rise to the level of “imposing” or “applying” the election method as prohibited by the CVRA. The court held that, in this instance, the County Committee was not liable under the CVRA based on the following factors:

  1. The County Committee did not impose or apply the District’s at-large voting method;
  2. The County Committee had no affirmative duty to ensure that the District complied with the CVRA;
  3. The County Committee was not placed on notice of LCCR’s demand prior to the filing of the legal complaint; and
  4. The County Committee did not oppose the preliminary injunction.

Holding: $1.8 Million in Attorney Fees and Costs Not Reasonable

LCCR requested attorney fees totaling approximately $1.7 million (plus $100,000 in costs). The alleged basis for those fees included more than 3,000 hours of legal work billed at rates ranging from $295 per hour to $760 per hour. The trial court held that LCCR was entitled to “reasonable” fees and costs because it was the “prevailing party.”

However, the court found the hours and the rates to be “patently unreasonable.” Accordingly, the court reduced the attorney fees award to a “reasonable” amount which it determined to be $162,500. The court made this determination based primarily on three findings:

  1. The billing rates were excessive. The court found that $325 per hour was the reasonable rate in the Central Valley for legal services;
  2. The hours billed in pursuit of the County Committee were not subject to an award of attorney fees because the plaintiff did not prevail over the County Committee; and
  3. The number of hours was otherwise excessive. The court found that 500 hours was a reasonable number to accomplish the desired outcome in the case at hand.

Conclusion

The County Committee liability holding provides some clarity on liability under the CVRA. On its face, the holding appears to exclude the County Committee on School District Organization from liability. A closer reading, however, reveals that the court stops short of a wholesale exclusion and leaves open the possibility that a County Committee may be liable if either of the following circumstances exist:

  1. The County Committee receives a letter demanding/requesting that it take action; or
  2. The County Committee takes a legal position to oppose allegations that a school district within its jurisdiction is in violation of the CVRA.

The Attorney Fees holding makes clear that awards for attorney fees must be based on reasonable figures. While every case will be fact specific, the holding sets forth a general reference point for an attorney fees award when an action is filed under the CVRA and the defendant is fully cooperative.

Contact Paul R. Gant, Partner at Kingsley Bogard LLP, with questions.

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