PEOPLE EX REL. DEPT. OF TRANSPORTATION v. SUPERIOR COURT No. C069391.
203 Cal.App.4th 1505 (2012)
138 Cal. Rptr. 3d 472
THE PEOPLE ex rel. DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, Petitioner, v. THE SUPERIOR COURT OF SUTTER COUNTY, Respondent; ALLEN MENIGOZ et al., Real Parties in Interest.
Court of Appeals of California, Third District.
March 1, 2012.
Ronald W. Beals , Joann Georgallis and Claire P. LeFlore for Petitioner.
No appearance for Respondent.
Desmond, Nolan, Livaich & Cunningham, Gary Livaich , Brian Manning and Kristen Ditlevsen for Real Parties in Interest.
This petition for writ of mandate by the Department of Transportation (DOT) arises from an eminent domain action. DOT accepted the property owners' final demand for compensation several days before the scheduled trial date, resulting in a stipulated judgment. Upon motion by the property owners, the trial court awarded litigation expenses to them under Code of Civil Procedure section 1250.410.
DOT contends that section 1250.410 does not permit an award of litigation expenses because the case was resolved before trial in the matter. Section 1250.410, subdivision (b) provides that the trial court may award litigation expenses if it finds "that the offer of the plaintiff [(the government)] was unreasonable and that the demand of the defendant [(the property owner(s))] was reasonable viewed in the light of the evidence admitted and the compensation awarded in the proceeding ...." The current case does not involve the situation contemplated by the statute, which assumes there has been evidence admitted at trial and a resulting award of compensation. Consequently, we shall conclude the trial court erred in awarding litigation expenses.
The underlying eminent domain proceeding commenced in 2009. The parties represent that they exchanged statements concerning the valuation of the property and disclosed expert witnesses in August of 2010. Witnesses were subsequently deposed in September of that year.
Section 1250.410, subdivision (a) provides that at least 20 days before trial on issues of compensation in an eminent domain action, the parties must file their final offer or demand for compensation. DOT and the property owners submitted their final offer and final demand on September 29, 2010, which was 20 days before the scheduled trial date of October 19, 2010. DOT offered $159,000. The property owners demanded $189,000, specifying that the amount did not include interest or costs. DOT submitted a notice of acceptance of the property owners' offer on October 14, 2010, five days before
The parties subsequently entered a stipulation for judgment in condemnation. The judgment entered pursuant to the stipulation specified the property owners would recover the interest due as well as "their costs of suit incurred in this proceeding consistent with statute after defendants file a memorandum of costs." The stipulated judgment did not mention litigation expenses.
Upon motion by the property owners, the trial court entered an order granting litigation expenses in the current proceeding. The court subsequently determined the amount of expenses to be awarded. The court's final ruling awarding costs and fees (including $57,224.50 in attorney's fees) was entered in August of 2011, with service on August 15.
This petition for writ of mandate or prohibition was filed on October 11, 2011. The property owners filed their preliminary opposition on October 21, 2011. We subsequently advised the parties that we were considering issuing a peremptory writ in the first instance and provided additional time to file any further opposition. (See Palma v. U.S. Industrial Fasteners, Inc. (1984) 36 Cal.3d 171 [203 Cal.Rptr. 626, 681 P.2d 893] (Palma).) The property owners filed further opposition on November 14, 2011. DOT filed a reply on November 21, 2011.
The property owners claim the current case is distinguishable because of the nature of an award of litigation expenses. Specifically, they argue that the award was not made in furtherance of the parties' agreement and is instead akin to a final order on a "collateral matter," which is "distinct and severable from the general subject of the litigation ...." (Southern Pacific Co. v. Oppenheimer (1960) 54 Cal.2d 784, 786 [8 Cal.Rptr. 657, 356 P.2d 441].) Accordingly, the property owners claim the award of litigation expenses is independently appealable and the fact that a stipulated judgment was entered is of no consequence.
Further, as we shall explain, writ review is warranted because the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction in applying section 1250.410 to the current case. (See American Mut. Liab. Ins. Co. v. Superior Court (1974) 38 Cal.App.3d 579, 588 [113 Cal.Rptr. 561].) Accordingly, we conclude that this matter is reviewable in the current writ proceeding.
II. Litigation Expenses
DOT asserts that the statute does not contemplate an award of litigation expenses in the current case, in which they accepted the property owners' final demand and thereby averted a trial. We agree.
Further, the decision whether to award litigation expenses pursuant to section 1250.410 is not based on the general reasonableness of the government's conduct in the eminent domain proceeding. The focus of the statute is a case in which the government's unreasonable conduct forces the matter to trial. By its own terms, the statute does not always permit full recompense to the property owner for litigation expenses. It is the final offer and final demand that are evaluated for reasonableness against the award pursuant to section 1250.410. Consequently, even if the government's conduct with respect to earlier compensation offers and demands is unreasonable, the government is not liable for litigation expenses if it makes a reasonable final offer.
There is, however, a case, Coachella Valley County Water Dist. v. Dreyfuss (1979) 91 Cal.App.3d 949, 957 [154 Cal.Rptr. 467] (Coachella), in which the appellate court allowed a somewhat broader construction of section 1250.410. The property owners in the current case argue that Coachella is controlling. We disagree.
In Coachella, the government accepted the property owners' final statutory demand after the jury was impaneled and sworn. (Coachella, supra, 91 Cal.App.3d at pp. 952-953.) The property owners moved the trial court for litigation expenses, which were denied. (Id. at p. 953.) The appellate court concluded the trial court erred. The court phrased the question as follows: "Does section 1250.410 permit an award of litigation expenses where the condemner fails to accept the property owner's final demand until after commencement of trial?"
Coachella did not directly address the situation presented by the current case, where no trial had commenced. Instead, the court in that case noted: "Assuming that a claim under section 1250.410 will not lie where a condemner accepts a property owner's demand before trial commences, here trial had commenced. Where a case has been set for jury trial, trial commences with the examination of prospective jurors." (Coachella, supra, 91 Cal.App.3d at p. 957.)
We decline to extend the ruling in Coachella to the current situation.
Having complied with the procedural requirements for issuance of a peremptory writ in the first instance, we are authorized to issue the peremptory writ forthwith. (See Palma v. U.S. Industrial Fasteners, Inc., supra, 36 Cal.3d 171.) Let a peremptory writ of mandate issue directing respondent superior court to vacate its award and determination of litigation expenses pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 1250.410, and enter a new and different order denying such expenses. Our decision does not affect the trial court's award of the ordinary costs of suit to the property owners. (Code Civ. Proc., § 1268.710.) Real parties in interest (the property owners) shall also recover their costs of this writ proceeding since the government is normally required to pay appellate costs in an eminent domain action regardless of who prevails. (See Code Civ. Proc., § 1268.720; Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.493(a)(1)(B).)
Butz, J., and Hoch, J., concurred.
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