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March 1, 2012

Court Finds County Committee On School District Organization Did Not Violate The California Voting Rights Act


On February 28, 2012, the Court of Appeal issued a ruling involving a novel question under the California Voting Rights Act: Whether a county committee on school district organization1 may be held liable under the California Voting Rights Act (“CVRA,” Elections Code § 14025 et seq.) when the county committee has taken no action to impose or apply an election method on behalf of one of its school districts.

In Maria Esther Rey v. Madera Unified School District (February 28, 2012) 2012 WL 615668, the Fifth District Court of Appeal held that the Madera County Committee On School District Organization (“County Committee”) had not violated the CVRA. The District was represented by Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo attorneys David Soldani, William Woolman and Jennifer Cantrell.

The District did not oppose the lawsuit on its merits and immediately after its filing, the District transitioned to a by-trustee area election method in order to limit its exposure to an attorneys’ fee award; a strategy which ultimately paid off. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision to substantially reduce the amount of attorneys’ fees sought by the plaintiffs, from approximately $1.7 million to $162,500.

Background

The CVRA prohibits the use of at-large elections where its use impairs the ability of a protected class to elect representation of their choice or to infl uence the outcome of elections.

In August 2008, appellants Maria Esther Rey, Jesse Lopez and Carlos Uranga (“Appellants”) filed a complaint for violation of the CVRA against respondents Madera Unified School District (“District”), Madera Unified Governing Board of Trustees, Madera County Board of Education in its capacity as the County Committee on School District Organization and the Madera County Clerk - Recorder (collectively “Respondents”) claiming that the District’s at-large method of election was impairing Hispanics from electing representation of their choice.

Appellants named the County Committee as a defendant in the lawsuit because under the Education Code, county committees have the authority to change a school district’s method of election. Appellants also filed a preliminary injunction seeking to stop the District’s November 4, 2008, governing board member election. The Respondents, including the District, did not oppose the injunction, which the trial court granted on October 14, 2008.

In early December 2008, the parties agreed to put the litigation on hold pending further order of the court except that the Appellants were free to seek attorneys’ fees from the Respondents. In January 2010, the County Committee filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that because it had not acted to impose or apply an election method on the District, it had not violated the CVRA. In August 2010, the trial court granted the County Committee’s motion finding that the County Committee neither “imposed” nor “applied” an election method in violation of the CVRA. The court also ruled on the appellants’ request for an award of attorneys’ fees, awarded no fees against the County Committee and reduced the fees requested against the District from approximately $1.7 million to $162,500.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The County Committee’s
Liability Under The CVRA

The evidence presented to the trial court was that in 1964, the County Committee proposed that the District be formed and elect its governing board members at large. Since that time, however, the County Committee had no involvement in the District’s elections. Appellants argued that since county committees have authority under the Education Code to impose by-trustee area elections on districts, the failure of the County Committee to impose a bytrustee area election method on the District while allowing the District to continue conducting at-large elections, violated Elections Code section 14027 which provides:

An at-large method may not be imposed or applied in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to infl uence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of the rights of voters who are members of a protected class . . .

The appellate court disagreed and held the Legislature’s use of the phrase “imposed or applied” indicates that liability for violating Elections Code section 14027 is premised on the party having taken some sort of affirmative action with respect to the election. The ordinary meaning of “apply” is “bring into action” or “put into effect.” In this context, “impose” means “to bring into being.”

The court noted that in this case, the County Committee never had any role in ordering, calling, conducting or otherwise carrying out the District’s elections.

The Attorneys’ Fees Award

The trial court further ruled that because the County Committee did not violate the CVRA, it was not liable for any of the attorneys’ fees requested by Appellants. On appeal, Appellants argued that the County Committee should be responsible for paying attorneys’ fees even though the County Committee was found not to be liable on the underlying merits of the action.

The court noted that Appellants did not prevail against the County Committee and the County Committee was not responsible for the at-large method of election that Appellants successfully challenged. Further, the County Committee did not oppose Appellants’ request for an injunction to stop the November 2008 election. In sum, the County Committee’s only interest in the litigation was whether it could be held liable under the CVRA; because it prevailed on that issue, the trial court correctly concluded the County Committee was not liable for attorneys’ fees.

Appellants also argued the trial court abused its discretion when it greatly reduced the attorneys’ fees award against the District. The appellate court acknowledged the trial court’s concern with the number of hours claimed by Appellants’ attorneys and found the rates they charged to be excessive for the Central San Joaquin Valley (where the case was litigated).

The appellate court upheld the trial court’s reduced fee award, finding the trial court acted within its discretion when it (1) refused to award a multiplier on the attorneys’ fees requested by Appellants and (2) found many of the hours claimed by Appellants’ attorneys to be duplicative and (3) found the attorneys’ rates, excessive.

Impact on County Committees on School District Organization

Many county committees are concerned about their potential liability under the CVRA and more particularly, liability for signifi cant attorneys’ fees and costs. The Rey decision makes clear that as long as a county committee does not affirmatively act to impose or apply an at-large method of election on its districts, it cannot be held liable under the CVRA.

Interestingly, the court observed that under the Education Code, the duty to order and call governing board member elections rests with the county superintendent of schools and the district’s governing board and as such, both could be said to “apply” a voting method. It is likely that CVRA plaintiffs may interpret that statement to mean county superintendents of schools can also be liable under the CVRA and as such, we anticipate that CVRA plaintiffs may attempt to name county superintendents of schools in subsequent CVRA lawsuits.

The irony of such an interpretation is that unlike county committees, the county superintendent of schools has no authority or ability to order a school district to cease conducting at-large elections and cannot transition a school district to a by-trustee area method of election.

Impact on School Districts,Community College Districts, Cities, and Special Districts

At-large elections conducted by school districts, community college districts, cities and special districts are all subject to the provisions of the CVRA. Because prevailing plaintiffs under a CVRA lawsuit may recover their attorneys’ fees and costs, another important aspect of the Rey case is that it provides greater clarity on how attorneys’ fees may be calculated and awarded to prevailing parties under the CVRA.

School districts, community college districts, cities and special districts that continue to elect their governing board members using an at-large method of election should assess their potential liability under the CVRA by obtaining an analysis of their recent election history to determine whether any racially polarized voting exists, which is the key element to establishing liability under the CVRA. If racially polarized voting is present in their election history, public entities should give serious consideration to transitioning to a by-trustee area method of election which is immune from liability under the CVRA.

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