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Attorneys’ Fees Awarded To Newspaper That Defeated A Reverse-CPRA Action
The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) is a cooperative water wholesaler with 26 members including the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP). In 2014, following then-Governor Brown’s declaration that California was in a drought, MWD began a Turf Removal Rebate Program. The Program provided money or rebates to customers of its member agencies who replaced their grass with drought-tolerant landscaping. MWD paid $370 to $450 million in rebates. There were about 40,000 participants in the Program, 7,800 of whom were DWP customers. The City of Los Angeles’s Controller questioned the utility of the Program and observed that the rebates were concentrated in certain neighborhoods and certain businesses.
On May 19, 2015, a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune) made a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request to MWD for information related to the participants in the Program including their names, addresses, and rebate amounts.
Before responding to the Tribune’s request, the MWD provided a copy of the request to DWP. DWP objected to revealing its customers’ names and addresses. DWP and MWD thereafter agreed that MWD’s disclosure would be limited and redacted.
On July 31, 2015, DWP sued to prevent MWD from releasing information about anyone (even individuals who were not DWP customers) who participated in the Program. This type of lawsuit is referred to as a “reverse CPRA” action. Reverse CPRA actions are viewed as necessary to protect the privacy rights of individuals whose personal information may be contained in government records. The trial court issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the disclosure of DWP customer information. The West Basin Municipal Water District, Foothill Municipal Water District, and the Upper San Gabriel Municipal Water Districts (Utility Intervenors) thereafter joined DWP’s lawsuit and sought similar retraining orders for their own customers.
On August 6, 2015, the Tribune intervened in DWP’s lawsuit against MWD and at the same time, filed a CPRA cross-petition against MWD to compel the disclosure of the names and addresses of Program recipients.
On January 15, 2016, the trial court denied DWP’s writ petition and granted the Tribune’s cross-petition to compel disclosure of the records from MWD. The trial court also awarded the Tribune’s attorneys’ fees for intervening in the reverse CPRA lawsuit. However, the trial court declined to award the Tribune attorneys’ fees for the legal briefing on the Tribune’s fee motion.
The California Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision to award attorneys’ fees to the Tribune on the reverse CPRA action. The Court of Appeal found that the Tribune meets the requirements of Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, which is known as the “private attorney general” exception to the general rule that parties bear their own attorneys’ fees. The court reasoned that the Tribune was attempting to enforce the public’s right to know how the government uses public money, and that disclosure of the records sought would confer a significant benefit to the public.
The Court of Appeal overturned the trial court’s decision to deny the Tribune its fees for work related to the briefing on its motion for attorneys’ fees. The Court of Appeal found that the attorney work was not duplicative, and the Tribune was entitled to those fees as the prevailing party.
City of Los Angeles v. Metropolitan Water District, 42 Cal.App.5th 290 (2019).
Agencies considering bringing a reverse CPRA action must consider the possibility of an attorneys’ fee award against the agency if the party seeking the records intervenes in that action, and it receives a ruling ordering disclosure of the records at issue.