Attorney's Fees - ''Successful'' Party Definition
The California Supreme Court addressed the meaning of "successful" in Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 as follows:
"Common sense dictates that the determination of success under section 1021.5 must depend on more than mere appearance. As we said in Woodland Hills, the trial court must 'realistically assess the litigation and determine, from a practical perspective, whether or not the action served to vindicate an important right . . . .' (Id., at p. 938).
The rule followed by most federal courts construing 'prevailing party' under the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act, is that the inquiry as to a party's success must be a pragmatic one that may range outside the merits of the underlying dispute.
'It's initial focus might well be on establishing the precise factual/legal condition that the fee claimant has sought to change or affect . . . . With this condition taken as a benchmark, inquiry may then turn to whether as a quite practical matter the outcome, in whatever form it is realized, is one to which the plaintiff fee claimant's efforts contributed in a significant way, and which does involve an actual conferral of benefit or relief from burden when measured against the benchmark condition.'
"The critical fact is the impact of the action, not the manner of its resolution. If the impact has been the 'enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest' and a consequent conferral of a 'significant benefit on the general public or a large class of persons' a section 1021.5 award is not barred because the case was won on a preliminary issue . . . or because it was settled before trial. . . . As Congress seems to have reasoned in enacting the Fees Act:
'A "prevailing party" should not be penalized for seeking an out of court settlement, thus helping to lessen docket congestion.
Similarly, after a complaint is filed, a defendant might voluntarily cease the unlawful practice. a court should still award fees even though it might conclude, as a matter of equity, that no formal relief . . . is needed.' . . . " ( Folsom v. Butte County Assn. of Governments (1982) 32 Cal. 3d 668, 685-686 186 Cal. Rptr. 589, 652 P.2d 437).
In Harbor v. Deukmejian (1987) 43 Cal. 3d 1078, 1103 240 Cal. Rptr. 569, 742 P.2d 1290, the Supreme Court, applying this reasoning in Folsom, awarded fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, even though no relief was awarded the plaintiffs in the case at bar, on the grounds that they had vindicated the principle on which the action was brought.
The Harbor opinion implies that clarification afforded by the decision would likely avoid unlawful acts in the future.