GREAT LAKES PROPERTIES INC v. CITY OF EL SEGUNDO

Reset A A Font size: Print

Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 4, California.

GREAT LAKES PROPERTIES, INC., Cross-Complainant and Appellant, v. CITY OF EL SEGUNDO et al., Cross-Defendants and Respondents.

GREAT LAKES PROPERTIES, INC., Cross-Complainant and Appellant, v. C & M DEVELOPMENT COMPANY, Cross-Defendant and Respondent.

Civ. 43321, 43350.

Decided: October 24, 1974

Pollock, Williams & Berwanger, John P. Pollock and Charles V. Berwanger, Los Angeles, for cross-complainant and appellant Great Lakes Properties, Inc. Burke, Williams & Sorensen, and Mark C. Allen, Jr., Los Angeles, for cross-defendants and respondents City of El Segundo, City of Manhattan Beach, and City of Palos Verdes Estates. Rose & Leventhal, Michael D. Leventhal, Kenneth L. Freeman, Beverly Hills, for cross-defendant and respondent C & M Development Co. Hanna & Morton, Harold C. Morton, Edward S. Renwick, Lauren P. Brainard, and Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, and Arthur Groman, Los Angeles, for Occidental Petroleum Corp. as amicus curiae in support of respondents.

The sole issue presented by these appeals is whether Section 27428 of the Public Resources Code, a part of the California Coastal Zone Conservation Act of 1972,1 authorizes the award of attorneys' fees to successful defendants and cross-defendants, as well as to successful plaintiffs and cross-complainants. We have concluded that it does, and that the orders appealed from herein consequently must be affirmed.

Appellant here, Great Lakes Properties, Inc., was named as a defendant in an action brought against it and others by the Portuguese Bend Defense Committee. Great Lakes filed a cross-complaint against numerous public and private entities, including respondents herein. The complaint, with which we are not otherwise involved, sought injunctive relief under the Act (§ 27425). The cross-complaint asked for similar relief, and as well for an award of civil penalties (§§ 27500 and 27501) in an amount pleaded to be in excess of $705,000,000.00. Respondents' demurrers to the cross-complaint were sustained without leave to amend and the action was dismissed as to each respondent. Thereafter, each respondent moved the court to award attorneys' fees, pursuant to section 27428. The amount of the fees sought, as opposed to the power of the court to award them, was stipulated to be reasonable. The court entered separate orders awarding fees to respondent C & M Development Company and to respondent cities, and these appeals followed.

Section 27428 provides: ‘Any person who prevails in a civil action brought to enjoin a violation of this division [the Act] or to recover civil penalties shall be awarded his costs, including reasonable attorneys fees.’ The Act itself defines ‘person’ in section 27105: ‘'Person’ includes any individual, organization, partnership, and corporation, including any utility and any agency of federal, state, and local government.' Appellant argues that the word ‘person’ as used in section 27478 refers only to plaintiffs. We disagree.

It is axiomatic that in the interpretation of a statute where the language is clear, its plain meaning should be followed. (45 Cal.Jur.2d 621, Statutes, § 108.)

‘. . . ‘One who contends that a provision of an act must not be applied according to the natural or customary purport of its language must show either that some other section of the act expands or restricts its meaning, that the provision itself is repugnant to the general purview of the act, or that the act considered in pari materia with other acts, or with the legislative history of the subject matter, imports a different meaning.’ (2A Sands, Statutes and Statutory Construction (4th ed. of Sutherland, Statutory Construction, 1973) § 46.01, p. 49.)' (Leroy T. v. Workmen's Comp. Appeals Bd., (1974) 12 Cal.3d 434 at p. 438, 115 Cal.Rptr. 761, at 763, 525 P.2d 665, at 667).

In support of its argument that ‘person’ as used in section 27428, does not include defendants, appellant claims that the Act uses the word ‘person’ in varying ways depending upon the sections involved. Appellant seizes upon seven sections, two of which we refer to for purposes of illustration. Thus, appellant argues that section 27400 (‘. . . any person wishing to perform any development within the permit area shall obtain a permit . . .’) limits persons to those who wish to proceed with a development within the permit area and who must obtain a permit; appellant also states that section 27425 (‘Any person may obtain an action for declaratory and equitable relief to restrain violation of this division . . .’) is limited to those who seek to enjoin the developer from proceeding with a development in violation of the Act. The argument is specious. Those sections and the others referred to by appellant in no way limit the broad definition of the word ‘person’ (found in § 27105, supra). Rather, they apply that broad definition to the specific situations referred to in the sections in question. ‘Person’ retains the same meaning throughout the Act. We deem the fact the Act itself defines ‘person’ to be of importance. ‘When a statute prescribes the meaning to be given to particular terms used by it, that meaning is generally binding on the courts . . ..’ (People v. Western Airlines, Inc., (1954) 42 Cal.2d 621, 638, 268 P.2d 723, 733.)

In Kalico, Inc. v. Dooley, (1961) 198 Cal.App.2d 379, 17 Cal.Rptr. 799, a contention identical to that made here was rejected. There a statute provided that the court ‘. . . shall award to the prevailing party a reasonable attorney's fee . . ..’ The argument was that ‘prevailing party’ really meant prevailing claimant and not prevailing defendant. The court held that the language of the section was clear and included defendants as well as plaintiffs.

Appellant purports to find a compelling reason to depart from the clear language of the statute by pointing to the purposes of the Act. It is true that an important consideration in the interpretation of a statute is the objective or purpose of that statute (e. g., People ex rel. San Francisco, Bay Com. etc. v. Emeryville, (1968) 69 Cal.2d 533, 543, 544, 72 Cal.Rptr. 790, 446 P.2d 790). In enacting the Act by the initiative process the People set forth a finding (§ 27001) that it is necessary to preserve the natural resources of the California coastline.

Appellant points out that the Act provides that individuals may seek to enforce its provisions by suing for injunctive relief without posting a bond (§ 27425) and by suing for civil penalties (§ 27426). It argues that to interpret section 27428 as allowing attorney's fees to successful defendants would frustrate the purpose of encouraging private plaintiffs to enforce the Act. The argument is not persuasive. In appellant's own words, the Act ‘. . . assures those persons who may wish to compel compliance with [it] that they will not be burdened with the substantial financial cost of having to utilize their personal financial resources to finance a lawsuit if they prevail.’ (emphasis supplied) But it is inherent in the scheme of things that if private persons suing under the Act to not prevail, they will inevitably be financially burdened by their own attorney's fees and by the investment of their time and efforts in prosecuting the action.

It is purely speculative to urge that the added burden of having to pay an attorney's fees will deter efforts to enforce the Act. This is particularly true in light of the clear and mandatory nature of the language. Section 27428 says that any person who prevails ‘shall’ be awarded his costs and ‘shall’ is used in a mandatory sense (§ 15). The fact that the Act expresses a policy to encourage the protection of the coastline cannot detract from this clear language.

There are many statutes which allow the recovery of attorney's fees to successful plaintiffs under varying circumstances and they are phrased in varying ways.2 Each of the statutes referred to in footnote 2 allows the recovery of attorneys' fees to variously described persons under certain circumstances, and each expresses the policy of the State of California in the field in which the statute operates. The Act also expresses the policy of the state, but it clearly shows that in enacting the statute the People did not feel that policy would be thwarted if the victor, be he defendant or plaintiff, is allowed to recover attorney's fees.

Allowing for attorney's fees to be paid to any person who prevails in a civil action brought under the Act also serves the purpose of preventing frivolous litigation. No policy embodied in the Act encourages such lawsuits.

The orders appealed from are affirmed.

FOOTNOTES

FOOTNOTE.  

1.  This legislation is hereinafter referred to as the Act. Unless otherwise noted, all statutory references are to the Public Resources Code.

2.  (E. g., Insurance Code, section 1619 ‘. . . the court may allow to the plaintiff a reasonable attorney fee . . .’; Code of Civil Procedure, section 836 ‘If the plaintiff recovers judgment, he shall be allowed as costs one hundred dollars ($100) to cover counsel fees . . . If the action is dismissed or the defendant recovers judgment, he shall be allowed one hundred dollars ($100) to cover counsel fees . . .’; Code of Civil Procedure, section 117j, attorney's fees to be paid by unsuccessful defendant to plaintiff on small claims appeal; Civil Code, section 1747.60(c) ‘. . . The [credit] cardholder shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorney's fees . . .’; Civil Code, section 1812.62, judgment for buyer [of dance studio lessons] may be entered for treble damages ‘plus reasonable attorney's fees'; Civil Code, section 1811.1 (Unruh Act)—‘Reasonable attorney's fees and costs shall be awarded to the prevailing party in any action on a contract or installment account subject to the provisions of this chapter regardless of whether such action is instituted by the seller, holder or buyer. Where the defendant alleges in his answer that he tendered to the plaintiff the full amount to which he was entitled, and thereupon deposits in court, for the plaintiff, the amount so tendered, and the allegation is found to be true, then the defendant is deemed to be a prevailing party within the meaning of the article.’; Civil Code, section 2983.4, the Rees-Levering Motor Vehicle Sales and Finance Act—similar to Civil Code, section 1811.1.)

COLE,* Associate Justice. FN* John L. Cole, Judge of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, assigned by the Chairman of the Judicial Council.

FILES, P. J., and JEFFERSON, J., concur.