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A Trial Court Has Discretion To Deny Attorney’s Fees Under The Public Records Act
In the summer of 2017, Adrian Riskin submitted three California Public Records Act (CPRA) requests to the Downtown Los Angeles Property Owners Association. Ruskin requested copies of three categories of documents.
The Association would not agree to give Riskin all the documents he wanted, so Riskin petitioned the trial court to compel the Association to produce certain records.
The trial court ordered disclosure of part of a five-page document but otherwise denied Riskin the declaratory relief he wanted. Because Riskin won disclosure of part of a document, Riskin moved for an award of attorney’s fees and costs.
Riskin relied on Government Code Section 6259(d), which states that “The court shall award court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees to the requester should the requester prevail in litigation filed pursuant to [the CPRA].” The trial court interpreted the “shall award” language in this provision to mean that it must award attorney’s fees and costs if a requester prevails in litigation.
The Association appealed the award of fees and costs. On appeal, the Court of Appeal considered two issues: (1) what does the word “prevail” mean in the CPRA context; and (2) whether the “minimal or insignificant” standard applies to this situation.
The “minimal or insignificant” standard is a relatively new, court-created doctrine. Courts have ruled that if a requester “prevailed” by winning disclosure of documents, but the document(s) that were disclosed were so minimal or insignificant as to justify a finding that the requester did not actually prevail, the requester is not entitled to fees and costs. This has become known as the “minimal or insignificant” standard.
The Court of Appeal first found that a person prevails in a CPRA case if the litigation results in a defendant-agency releasing a copy of a document it previously withheld. That is, the lawsuit must motivate the defendant agency to produce the document(s).
The Court of Appeal also adopted the “minimal or insignificant” standard and held that it applies if the requester obtains only partial relief under the CPRA. The Court of Appeal held that the trial court has the discretion to decide whether a document’s disclosure is so minimal or insignificant to justify a finding that the requester did not actually prevail. The Court of Appeal remanded the case back to the trial court so that the trial court could use its discretion to determine whether this partial-document disclosure was minimal or insignificant.
Riskin v. Downtown Los Angeles Property Owners Association, 2022 WL 805377.
This case gives public agencies the “minimal or insignificant” defense to a motion for fees and costs in CPRA cases if the requestor wins only partial relief. LCW attorneys can both help public agencies comply with the CPRA to avoid litigation and use this defense to reduce or eliminate CPRA fees and cost awards.