California Appellate Court Finds That State Trial Courts Do Not Need to Specify How They Calculate Awards of Attorneys’ Fees

Posted on November 5th, 2014 by Legal Fee Advisors

In a September 2014 decision, a Second District Court of Appeals in California found that, in contrast to federal law, California state law does not mandate that trial courts demonstrate exactly how attorneys’ fees are calculated.[1]

This case involved a lawsuit brought by an employee of the California Department of Corrections And Rehabilitation (CDCR).  The plaintiff, Terri Switzer, alleged that the CDCR had failed to accommodate her psychiatric disability in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).[2]  The trial court awarded Ms. Switzer $35,000 in emotional distress damages, along with a total of $579,600 in attorneys’ fees.[3]  On appeal, the CDCR claimed that the trial court’s award of attorneys’ fees should be reversed because the trial court “did not show how the . . . attorneys’ fees award was calculated,”, and that “[w]hen the record is unclear . . . the award may be reversed and remanded to the trial court for further consideration.”[4]  The appellate court completely rejected this notion based on the precedent set in Taylor v. Nabors Drilling USA, LP, 222 Cal.App.4th 1228, 1249-1250 (2014).  Given the abuse of discretion standard of review, California state law automatically presumes that the trial court considered all the relevant factors in calculating an award of attorneys’ fees, unless it is clear that no reasonable basis for the trial court’s decision can be shown.  This approach stands in contrast to a case decided under federal law that was cited by the CDCR, which requires the lower court “to provide a concise but clear explanation of its reasons for the fee award.”[5] However, since the claims in that case were brought under federal law, not California state law, the court in the present case held that Harman had no influence over its current decision.

This case is a clear example of a situation where federal and state law have different approaches regarding awards of attorneys’ fees.  The California state approach places a higher reliance on the competence of trial courts to correctly assess awards of attorneys’ fees, since those awards will only be reviewed in detail if they appear to be wildly incorrect.  In contrast, by requiring a more thorough and exact accounting, the federal approach seems more likely to catch errors made by the trial court in assessing the correct amount of attorneys’ fees.  The appellate court even mentions that, in not requiring a trial court to explain its decision regarding awards of attorneys’ fees, the California state approach makes it more difficult to uphold the fee amount as reasonable.[6]  This means that the California state approach relies more on attorneys to correctly account for their hours in detail at the trial court level, since there is less opportunity for a more thorough investigation at the appellate court level.


M. Connelly

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[2]Switzer v. California Dep’t of Corr. & Rehab., No. B246005, 2014 WL 4737916 (Cal. Ct. App. Sept. 24, 2014) (unpublished)

[2] Id. at *2.

[3] Id.  at *2, *35.

[4] Id. at *36.

[5] Harman v. City and County of San Francisco, 136 Cal. App. 4th 1279, 1308 (1d Dist. 2006).

[6]Switzer v. Cal. Dept. of Corrections, Case No. B246005 at *36 (2d Dist., Div. 4 Sept. 24, 2014) (unpublished).

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