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Attorneys statewide owe a debt of gratitude to Remcho, Johansen & Purcell. On Friday, the six-lawyer firm with offices in Sacramento and San Leandro won attorneys the right to intervene in their own clients’ suits to seek attorneys fees under the state’s private attorney general statute. San Francisco’s First District Court of Appeal held that the right to pursue those fees awarded under that law � Code of Civil Procedure � 1021.5 � belongs to attorneys, absent an enforceable agreement to the contrary. To rule otherwise, Justice Linda Gemello wrote, “would diminish the certainty that attorneys who undertake public interest cases will receive reasonable compensation and dilute � 1021.5′s effectiveness at encouraging counsel to undertake litigation enforcing important public policies.” She added that denying fees in such situations “would also provide a windfall to the wrongdoing defendant, at the expense of the attorneys who labored in the public interest.” Justices Barbara Jones and Mark Simons concurred. The private attorney general statute lets courts award legal fees to any “successful party” who has pursued a suit that “resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest.” In the case at hand, Remcho, Johansen & Purcell had succeeded in getting the First District to rule three years ago that the town of San Anselmo had violated the state Elections Code by awarding an interim contract for waste management services to Marin Sanitary Service, even though that contract was the subject of an upcoming referendum vote. On remand to the Marin County Superior Court, the main issue was whether Remcho and its clients were entitled to fees under the private attorney general statute. However, the clients � Suzanne Lindelli and North Bay Corp. � advised the firm that they no longer wanted to be the moving parties in the fee request. Remcho then sought to intervene and seek fees itself. But Marin County Superior Court Judge Lynn O’Malley Taylor denied the motion, concluding that the firm lacked standing to seek fees on its own behalf. On Friday, the First District reversed that ruling, construing “successful party” under the private attorney general statute as authorizing fees to litigants or their counsel. Justice Gemello noted that the ruling conflicts with the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeal’s 2004 decision in Churchill Village v. General Electric, 361 F.3d 566, which held that the private attorney general statute “confers no legally enforceable interest on the attorneys themselves.” Gemello said, however, that the Ninth Circuit’s “narrow construction” isn’t consistent with the California Supreme Court’s interpretation of a successful party. The First District refused to decide the amount of fees owed to Remcho, calling that a “factual issue” more properly calculated by the trial court. Thomas Willis, a partner in Remcho’s San Leandro office, said he was “obviously pleased” with the ruling and called it a “logical extension” of Flannery v. Prentice, 26 Cal.4th 572, a 2001 California Supreme Court ruling that, absent some agreement with the client, holds that fees awarded under the Fair Employment and Housing Act “belong to the attorneys who labored to earn them.” Elliot Bien, a partner in Novato’s Bien & Summers who represented Marin Sanitary Service, declined to comment. The full text of Lindelli v. Town of San Anselmo ( Marin Sanitary Service), A108886, will appear in Wednesday’s California Daily Opinion Service.

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