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Santa Clara Must Pay $3.3 Million in Legal Fees to Plaintiffs in Voting Rights Lawsuit

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle has tentatively awarded $3.3 million in legal fees and $174,000 in costs to the plaintiffs in Santa Clara’s California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit, originally filed in 2017. In May, Kuhnle found the City in violation of the CVRA.

Santa Clara has already paid its own attorneys almost $1 million.

The tentative rulings were distributed Friday afternoon. The plaintiffs had asked for $4.4 million in fees and nearly $200,000 in costs.

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Kuhnle pared down some of the plaintiffs’ fees and costs, awarding them about 75 percent of what they asked for.

In response to the City’s claim that the fees being asked for were “excessive and unreasonable,” Kuhnle wrote “This court regularly adjudicates motions in which parties are seeking to recover reasonable attorneys’ fees” and “the Court is well-equipped to calibrate local rates…”

Kuhnle also found that the Plaintiffs’ attorneys’ staffing was “reasonable. This was fast-moving litigation. It featured a greater percentage of work requiring specialized knowledge and expertise…the case focused in trails, not pre-trial work.”

The Judge also found that, contrary to the City’s arguments, the case was indeed “novel, complex or difficult” and justified a “multiplier” — an additional factor that justifies increasing the award by a percentage because of the difficulty, uniqueness, risk undertaken in the case, or attorneys’ success in arguing it.*

Although Kuhnle reduced the multiplier from 1.8 to 1.4, and applied it only to the fees incurred before he found the City in violation, he wrote at length on the justification for it.

The legal questions in the case “were both novel and difficult,” he wrote. “The CVRA…has clear differences from federal law and few …cases provide guidance” on applying it.

“While more than 15 years have passed” since the CVRA was enacted, Kuhnle wrote, “there are only three published cases** interpreting its provisions…None of these cases addressed issues in dispute here.

“The CVRA claims at issue here were difficult. They involved complicated statistical techniques …to evaluate political cohesion and the occurrence of racially polarized voting.” Further, “Litigating this case required a substantial amount of time and commitment and would have been uncompensated had the claims not been proven.”

Kuhnle came down on the City’s side about one fee item: $50,000 spent campaigning against last year’s Measure A — the two multi-member districting plan that failed to get voter approval.

“Measure A was never litigated,” he wrote. It was not a “core litigation goal” as the plaintiffs claimed “because it was not before this court …Plaintiffs did present legal arguments related to ‘the City’s two multimember district plans’ but this was after Measure A was defeated.”

However, Kuhnle did consider proper time charged for “consulting with experts regarding remedies,” “public meetings on district-based elections” required by law, and “review of federal cases on alternative voting systems.”

On Jan. 22, there will be a final Superior Court hearing on the fee and cost awards before Kuhnle publishes his final ruling.

Santa Clara will not only enter the history books at the fourth CVRA case to go to trial, it is also a contender for the city that spent the most taxpayer money fighting a CVRA lawsuit.

In Sanchez v. The City of Modesto (2006), after an initial win in Superior Court that was struck down by an Appeals court, Modesto settled and paid the plaintiffs $3 million in legal fees, and reportedly $1.7 million to its own attorneys.

When Jauregui v Palmdale was finally settled in 2015 after three years of litigation, Palmdale paid $4.5 million in plaintiff’s legal bills and an estimated $1.5 million for its own attorneys.

* In the landmark lawsuit about equity in California school funding, Serrano v Priest (1977), the court ruled that multipliers were justified if the case “resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest.” Rey v Madera ruled that awards in CVRA lawsuits could be adjusted by negative or positive multipliers depending on other factors in addition to the public interest.

** Sanchez v. Modesto (2006), Rey v. Madera Unified School District (2012) and Jauregui v Palmdale (2013).

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