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SACRAMENTO — Assemblyman Lou Correa has taken a front-line position in this year’s push to reform California’s unfair competition law. But that doesn’t guarantee the Orange County Democrat’s efforts will get anywhere. Correa is set to introduce reform legislation — the first from a Democrat on the issue. But stakeholders on both sides of the debate are looking for the real action to occur in the Senate and Assembly judiciary committees, not the Correa-chaired Business and Professions Committee. Not only do the judiciary panels control the fate of anything Correa proposes, both are led by Democrats interested in pitching ideas of their own. And the plaintiffs bar, which has close ties to the Democratic power brokers on the judiciary committees, is resisting substantial changes to the statute — the Business and Professions Code Section 17200 — and wants any reform to come from its judiciary allies. “My preference is to work through the Assembly and Senate judiciary committees,” said Bruce Brusavich, president of Consumer Attorneys of California. “I feel more comfortable working there . . . to protect consumers.” If legislation is needed, Brusavich said a joint committee bill would send a strong message to other legislators that the issue had been scrutinized by people with experience on judicial issues. The plaintiffs bar has said reform might not be needed at all if another solution can be found to halt the proliferation of 17200 suits that sparked this year’s talk of reform. Although reform has been proposed every session for the last seven years, the effort gained momentum this time around when legislators began looking into the behavior of a handful of plaintiffs firms in Southern California and the Sacramento area. Legislators and others have accused the attorneys of using 17200 for “extortion,” suing several small businesses for minor regulatory violations and then offering to settle out before a judge can scrutinize the cases. Earlier this year, the judiciary committees held a hearing to find out what was going on. Martha Escutia, chair of the Senate committee, then introduced a spot bill in case she determines reform is needed. The Assembly Judiciary Committee, which is led by Ellen Corbett, also has a placeholder. “I haven’t formulated anything specific for the bill, [but] I’m starting to look at . . . suggestions,” Corbett said. “I’m still trying to determine the best course of action.” Tort reformers, led by the big business-backed Civil Justice Association of California, aren’t holding their breath. “I think the chairs of the judiciary committees may have their agenda, and it may include stopping others’ bills,” said Jeffrey Sievers, CJAC vice president. “[Corbett and Escutia] have been more friendly and more in agreement with the plaintiffs bar.” Corbett said she’s also closely watching investigations by the State Bar and the attorney general’s office to see what enforcement action they might take against allegedly unethical behavior. And Escutia has pursued other, non-legislative fixes to halt the “extortion” suits. She has written letters to judges in the Southern California cases and to Chief Justice Ronald George asking for help Fred Main, general counsel to the California Chamber of Commerce, called those activities “a token answer.” But he’s not completely without hope. “There are a lot of Democratic lawmakers who have constituents who are going crazy,” Main said. “I’m not so pessimistic that there can’t be something substantial out of Correa’s office.” Sievers said he is confident that Escutia and Corbett won’t introduce anything that hasn’t been approved by the plaintiffs bar. Corbett said that accusation was simply wrong. “My call to action on this has purely been motivated by hearing the horror stories of the small business people,” Corbett said. “I’m not being pulled one way or the other by interest groups.” For now, then, those interest groups can busy themselves with trying to figure out exactly what Correa is going to do. Correa’s office won’t say when he plans to announce legislation, but he recently asked several organizations concerned with reform to help him with his bill. He sent them a document called “17200 Reform ‘Building Blocks’: Draft Language,” which contains a dozen ideas to reform the statute, several of which have been pitched by various parties over the years. Correa plans to use stakeholders’ feedback to help craft his language. His office emphasized that the document was only part of the vetting process, and he’s not limited by or married to the 12 suggestions. Sievers, of CJAC, said that although his group is pleased with Correa’s efforts, none of the 12 proposals go far enough and still leave a lot of room for abuse. They don’t require a plaintiff show real injury, and there isn’t real res judicata that would protect defendants from repeatedly getting hit over the same violations, he said. The plaintiffs weren’t turned on either. “Some of this we’ve seen in one form or another in the last six years,” said Brusavich, of Consumer Attorneys, which is still evaluating Correa’s suggestions. Though Consumer Attorneys doesn’t think Correa is unduly influenced by the tort reformers — he seems to be legitimately concerned with his constituents hit by extortion suits — Brusavich said many of the ideas seemed to be “recycled CJAC stuff.” If Correa doesn’t deliver, and Escutia and Corbett act how they predict, the tort reformers aren’t completely without hope: They can still try for a ballot initiative. In 2001, CJAC took steps to determine how voters would receive an initiative, but has been silent recently as to whether it’s on the table this year for the 2004 ballot. Sievers would only speak generally about the idea. “[It] might cause legislators to think that if they don’t solve the problem, interested parties may take it to the people,” he said. Plaintiffs attorneys have pledged to fight such an idea — an expensive prospect for both sides. Sources close to the issue point out that this might be the year, though, because voters are already fired up about the lawsuits in Southern California. Assemblywoman Corbett has heard the rumors, which she said are common when an interest group wants to pressure legislators. “I don’t think it would change what I’m doing. I’ve always considered it a pretty serious situation,” Corbett said. “An initiative wouldn’t change my sincerity at looking at the issue.”

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