In 2020, the California courts of appeal published several cases with useful guidance for litigators claiming or opposing statutory attorney’s fees.

  1. In Department of Fair Employment & Hous. v. Cathy’s Creations, Inc. (2020) 54 Cal.App.5th 404, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) sued a bakery that denied services to a same-sex couple, but lost its suit for injunctive relief. The court held that the prevailing defendant was not entitled to attorney’s fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 because Government Code section 12974, a unilateral fee-shifting statute that provides fees to DFEH only, is the later and more specific statute.
  2. In Reynolds v. Ford Motor Co. (2020) 47 Cal.App.5th 1105, a “lemon law” case, defendant settled with the buyer after extensive litigation and the court awarded attorney’s fees under the Song-Beverly Act. On appeal, the court held that the fee award could not be reduced using the proportion of fees to damages and, furthermore, the trial court did not have to take the attorney’s contingent fee agreement into account when determining counsel’s fee.
  3. In Santana v. FCA US, LLC (2020) 56 Cal.App.5th 334, a “lemon law” case, the court of appeal refused to apportion the attorney’s fees between the prevailing plaintiff’s fee-shifting statutory claim and a non-fee-shifting fraud claim because the same facts were involved and the defendant failed to show that time was spent solely on the non-fee-shifting claim.
  4. In Cruz v. Fusion Buffet (2020) 57 Cal.App.5th 221, a wage and hour case, the court held that an employer’s claim for costs under Code of Civil Procedure section 998 was trumped by the one-sided statutory fee provision in Labor Code section 1194, which grants attorney’s fees only to a prevailing employee.
  5. In Arace v. Medico Invs., LLC (2020) 48 Cal.App.5th 977, a financial elder abuse case, the court held that a plaintiff who prevails on a claim under the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (EADACPA) may recover attorney’s fees, even when no damages were awarded on that claim.
  6. In Marshall v. Webster (2020) 54 Cal.App.5th 275, an anti-SLAPP case, plaintiffs brought a defamation suit for statements made about them online and defendant was awarded attorney’s fees as the prevailing party on an anti-SLAPP motion. On appeal, the court held that the defendant’s San Francisco attorney was entitled to fees at the Bay Area market rate, not the local Siskiyou County rate, when the defendant could not afford a lawyer and was not able to find a local attorney to take his case on a contingency basis.
  7.  In Mikhaeilpoor v. BMW of N. Am., LLC (2020) 48 Cal.App.5th 240, a “lemon law” case, the court affirmed a reduction of the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees due to inefficient use of multiple counsel.
  8. In Cornerstone Realty Advisors v. Summit Healthcare REIT (2020) 56 CA5th 771, the court did a detailed review of costs-of-proof sanctions imposed by the trial court, and reduced them to reasonable costs and attorney’s fees.
  9. In Taylor v. County of Los Angeles (2020) 50 Cal.App.5th 205, an attorney’s lien on a former client’s settlement was dramatically reduced due in large part due to the attorney’s failure to keep contemporaneous time records.
  10. In Reeve v. Meleyco (2020) 46 Cal.App.5th 1092, the court rejected an attorney’s claim for a referral fee because the client had not given written consent as required by the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Finally, employment attorneys should note that in Conyer v. Hula Media Servs., LLC (review granted Dec. 16, 2020, S264821, superseded opinion at 53 Cal.App.5th 1189), a Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) case, the court of appeal invalidated an arbitration agreement’s two-sided attorney’s fee clause, but severed the impermissible clause and upheld the agreement. The California Supreme Court has granted review to decide whether it was error to sever unconscionable terms and order the agreement enforced without first determining if the invalid provisions were included in the agreement in bad faith.

For a detailed discussion of all aspects of attorney fee awards, see California Attorney Fee Awards (3d ed. Cal. CEB). The March 2021 update covers the cases noted above, as well as all legislative and court rule changes effective in 2021.

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