Thursday, January 25, 2007

Temple City Redevelopment Agency v. Bayside Drive Ltd. Partnership (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 25, 2007)

I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with Justice Vogel here. Though I recognize that our disagreement may largely be a philosophical one, and one upon which reasonable minds can -- and surely do -- disagree.

Justice Vogel believes that when the words of a statute are clear, the courts should follow them, even when -- as here, in my view -- the result is absurd, and clearly one that the Legislature did not intend. So, here, CCP 1268.610(a)(1) says that a defendant is entitled to recover his litigation expenses (including attorney's fees) "whenever[ t]he proceeding is wholly or partly dismissed for any reason." Justice Vogel concludes that this statute means what is says. So that a defendant who gets dismissed from a lawsuit because he voluntarily sold the property subject to condemnation, thereby changing owners, during this suit is entitled to a windfall recovery of his entire attorneys' fees and costs in that suit. Even though the only reason he was dismissed is because he essentially gave up and sold the property to someone else. Which, by the way, was precisely what happened here, and the basis on which the defendant requests -- and Justice Vogel awards -- over $40,000 in costs and fees, in addition to other costs and fees on appeal.

I disagree. To me, the Legislature clearly did not intend such a result. Moreover, such an interpretation would lead to absurd results; for example, a defendant who died (or became incompetent) would be entitled to recover, or who sold the property and then repurchased it, or who sold the property to a relative -- all of these individuals would be entitled to drain tens of thousands of dollars from the public fisc even if the city ultimately won the lawsuit on the merits, since these changes would mean that the defendant was (at some point) dismissed from the lawsuit.

We see this sort of thing play out in various contexts: for example, in statutes that say "no less than 7 days" when the Legislature clearly and indisputably meant "no more than 7 days". Some judges say: Follow the law as written even if it's totally absurd. Others say: "The whole point of judges is to judge, not merely to be an automaton and apply the words of a statute as if they were a robot." I think that the case for judicial review and interpretation of a statute is greatest when, as here, there's no substantial reason whatsoever to believe that the Legislature intended the statutory language to cover this particular set of circumstances and in which an award to one side would be manifestly -- and uniformly -- viewed as unjust.

There's profound wisdom in a contrary view, of course, both in general and as applied to the facts of this case. But I'd still have come out the other way on this one.

See what you think.