The City sued its retirement board claiming that the board had misapplied the formula, paying too much in pensions to a group of retirees whose pensions were linked to current pay of active employees of the same rank. A voluntary association of the retirees intervened and achieved a partial success on issues that might have required retirees to repay the retirement system the most. This decision holds that the trial court properly found that the association was a successful party despite its loss on some other issues and that in winning rights for a 500+-member group of employees, the association vindicated important rights of a substantial group of the public. The trial court had denied a private attorney general fee award under CCP 1021.5 because it concluded the financial burden was not unfair given how much the association won for its members. The decision reverses, holding that the trial court miscomputed the financial benefit to association members but more importantly that this is an unusual case in which the impoverished status of the retirees and their voluntary association justified a fee award even if the financial benefit (in not having to refund money to the retirement board) exceeded the cost of the litigation since this was just the sort of suit to vindicate rights the recipients couldn’t afford to pay for on their own. While the prevailing party’s wealth can’t be used to deny a private attorney general fee award, its poverty may justify an award in circumstances where it otherwise not be available.
California Court of Appeal, First District, Division 4 (Reardon, J.); November 29, 2018; 29 Cal. App. 5th 688