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California Supreme Court Clarifies Meaning of Public Interest Litigation

The California Supreme Court has held that the issues underlying a published appellate decision, viz., Serrano v. Stefan Merli Plastering Co., Inc. (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 1014, qualify the case as public interest litigation, which may entitle the prevailing party to an award of attorney fees under California's "private attorney general" statute (Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5), where the case establishes a trial court's authority to ensure that litigants are not charged unreasonable fees for obtaining necessary deposition transcripts.

The trial court had ruled that because, in its view, the plaintiffs in the case had acted in their own interest to resolve what the court deemed a "private business disagreement" and that any benefit conferred on other litigants was therefore only incidental, an award of attorney fees under section 1021.5 was not appropriate. The Court of Appeals, in a split decision, affirmed.

On review, the California Supreme Court disagreed. It held that insofar as deposition reporters are officers of the court and depositions play an important role in litigation, conditioning a party's right to receive a copy of a transcript on payment of an unreasonable fee would undermine the administration of justice and could potentially constitute a denial of due process. Accordingly, the case involved an important right affecting the public interest. See: Serrano v. Stefan Merli Plastering Co., Inc., 52 Cal.4th 1018, 262 P.3d 568 (Cal: Supreme Court, 2011).

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Related legal case

Serrano v. Stefan Merli Plastering Co., Inc.