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California: Renewed Motion for Attorney Fees Properly Denied When Correct Authority Not Diligently Raised

The California Court of Appeal has affirmed the denial of two requests for attorney fees brought by the state of California, two state agencies and three state officials (collectively, the state), after they successfully defended against a complaint brought by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). The complaint initially raised two causes of action, one state, one federal. As to the state-law claim, the CCPOA failed to comply with the applicable claims-filing requirements of the Government Claims Act (Gov. Code, § 810 et seq.). Accordingly, the trial court dismissed that claim. Some 18 months later, it granted summary judgment to the state with respect to CCPOA’s federal claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The state first filed for attorney fees under a state-law provision authorizing defendants to recover after prevailing on dispositive motions under the Claims Act. While acknowledging that a motion for summary judgment is a “dispositive motion,” the trial court held that CCPOA’ s § 1983 (federal) claim was not subject to the (state) Claims Act.
Months later, the State moved for attorney fees pursuant to the federal Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976 (42 U.S.C. § 1988(b)). The trial court denied that motion too, reasoning that the State could not seek the same relief under a different statute (after having been previously denied).

The state appealed. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s rulings. With respect to the second motion, it held that the state should have advanced all correct legal theories for an award of attorney fees in its original motion, “so as not to burden the trial court with repeated motions for the same relief.” In the absence of a sufficient explanation for having failed to rely on the federal statute in the first place, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the requested relief. See: California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. v. Virga, (2010)181 Cal.App.4th 30.

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Related legal cases

California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. v. Virga

Padgett v. Wright