Private Attorney General Doctrine California
"Section 1021.5 codifies the 'private attorney general' doctrine under which attorney fees may be awarded to successful litigants.
'The doctrine rests upon the recognition that privately initiated lawsuits are often essential to the effectuation of the fundamental public policies embodied in constitutional or statutory provisions, and that, without some mechanism authorizing the award of attorney fees, private actions to enforce such important public policies will as a practical matter frequently be infeasible.' ( Woodland Hills Residents Assn., Inc. v. City Council (1979) 23 Cal. 3d 917, 933 [154 Cal. Rptr. 503, 593 P.2d 200] (Woodland Hills).)
Entitlement to fees under section 1021.5 requires a showing that the litigation:
'(1) served to vindicate an important public right;
(2) conferred a significant benefit on the general public or a large class of persons;
(3) [was necessary and] imposed a financial burden on plaintiffs which was out of proportion to their individual stake in the matter.' ( Baggett v. Gates (1982) 32 Cal. 3d 128, 142 [185 Cal. Rptr. 232, 649 P.2d 874].)" (California Licensed Foresters Assn. v. State Bd. of Forestry (1994) 30 Cal. App. 4th 562, 568-569 [35 Cal. Rptr. 2d 396] (Foresters Assn.).)
In short, section 1021.5 acts as an incentive for the pursuit of public interest-related litigation that might otherwise have been too costly to bring. (See Los Angeles Police Protective League v. City of Los Angeles (1986) 188 Cal. App. 3d 1, 17 [232 Cal. Rptr. 697]; Foresters Assn., supra, 30 Cal. App. 4th at p. 570.)
Section 1021.5 provides in relevant part: "Upon motion, a court may award attorney fees to a successful party against one or more opposing parties in any action which has resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest if:
(a) a significant benefit, whether pecuniary or nonpecuniary, has been conferred on the general public or a large class of persons, (b) the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement, or of enforcement by one public entity against another public entity, are such as to make the award appropriate, and (c) such fees should not in the interest of justice be paid out of the recovery, if any."
The trial court's determination regarding the above noted three criteria of section 1021.5 lies within the court's discretion. ( Feminist Women's Health Center v. Blythe (1995) 32 Cal. App. 4th 1641, 1666 [39 Cal. Rptr. 2d 189].)
The trial court is to assess the litigation realistically and determine from a practical perspective whether these criteria have been met. (Hewlett v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp. (1997) 54 Cal. App. 4th 499, 544 [63 Cal. Rptr. 2d 118].)