Awarding Attorney Fees In ''Benefit the Public Good'' Cases

Williams v. San Francisco Bd. of Permit Appeals (1999) involved an owner and resident of a Victorian home in San Francisco--on a block containing only Victorian structures--who sought to prevent his next door neighbor from destroying a single-story Victorian structure and replacing it with a four-story, three-unit, 7,000-square-foot apartment building. The homeowner successfully sued to get the local planning board to consider its own guidelines in approving the building permit. The appellate court upheld the trial court's denial of the homeowner's request for attorney fees under section 1021.5, stating: "There was nothing 'abstract' and everything 'concrete' about the interests so tenaciously asserted by the homeowner in the court below.. . . Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the homeowner's interest in maintaining the aesthetic integrity of his immediate neighborhood and protecting both his property's privacy and its access to light, air and views, constitutes an 'individual stake' equally as significant as a purely pecuniary one." (Williams, supra, 74 Cal. App. 4th at pp. 970-971; see also City of Hawaiian Gardens v. City of Long Beach (1998) 61 Cal. App. 4th 1100, 1103, 1106, 1113 72 Cal. Rptr. 2d 134 one city successfully sued another city to block a street closure at the cities' border, but was unsuccessful in obtaining a 1021.5 attorney fee award because the suit yielded a "substantial benefit" to the residents of the suing city; see also Christward Ministry v. County of San Diego (1993) 13 Cal. App. 4th 31, 49-50 16 Cal. Rptr. 2d 435 a religious retreat was partially successful in challenging on environmental grounds the expansion of a neighboring county landfill, which allegedly would have obstructed the retreat's key offering--its panoramic ocean view; the trial court denied the retreat's request for 1021.5 attorney fees, stating the retreat's " 'private interests . . . with reference to the use of their property is the real basis for the action . . .' "; the appellate court said it could not quarrel with the reasonableness of this assessment.) The basic legal standard for applying the financial burden criterion involves a realistic and practical comparison of the litigant's personal interest with the cost of suit. (Foresters Assn., supra, 30 Cal. App. 4th at p. 570; Hewlett, supra, 54 Cal. App. 4th at p. 544.) The issue, in short, is whether the cost of litigation is out of proportion to the litigant's stake in the litigation. (Foresters Assn., supra, 30 Cal. App. 4th at p. 574.) " 'The private attorney general theory recognizes citizens frequently have common interests of significant societal importance, but which do not involve any individual's personal interests to the extent necessary to encourage private litigation to enforce the right. To encourage such suits, attorney fees are awarded when a significant public benefit is conferred through litigation pursued by one whose personal stake is insufficient to otherwise encourage the action.' " ( Id. at p. 570, quoting Beach Colony II v. California Coastal Com., supra, 166 Cal. App. 3d at p. 114.)