Friday, January 10, 2020

Villarreal v. DMV (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 10, 2020)

What the DMV did here was a crock.  But I agree with the trial court and the Court of Appeal that it doesn't justify an award of fees.

Villarreal gets a DUI in California in 2013, and in 2014, his commercial driver's license (!) is suspended for a year as a result.  Turns out that Villarreal also got a "DUI/DRUG" conviction in Arizona previously, so when he gets his California license back in 2015, Arizona reports the prior conviction, and pursuant to the automated system in California, that out-of-state conviction resulted in the computer spitting out an additional two-year suspension.

Villarreal doesn't like that, so challenges the new suspension.  The DMV agrees with him, so it reduces the new suspension to six months and purges the Arizona conviction from the computer records.

Then, in 2016, after the new (reduced) suspension is over, Villarreal renews his license.  But when you renew your license, the DMV's computer automatically checks for out-of-state convictions.  And since the old Arizona conviction has now been purged from the DMV's system, the computer sees that conviction and . . . spits out another automated two-year suspension.

Villarreal tells the DMV:  "WTF?"  And the DMV understands that this is a problem, so sets aside the new two-year suspension entirely.  But it also tells Villarreal:

“When we purged the Arizona DUI and the suspension order last September, we did not anticipate that a renewal application would result in the conviction being re-reported and another suspension action being generated. We can remove the Arizona DUI conviction and this recent two year suspension again; however, this same issue could arise when Mr. Villarreal renews his license in 2020. We cannot prevent other states from reporting their DUI convictions to California, which automatically update the DMV database and triggers the mandatory actions. The other option would be to leave the 2005 Arizona conviction and the two year suspension which has been set aside on [Villarreal’s] driving record, which would prevent Arizona from reporting the same offense in the future.”

So Villarreal files a petition for writ of mandate.  Which the trial court grants, ordering the DMV not to suspend Villarreal's license (again) based on the old Arizona conviction.

Makes sense.  Justice.  Too bad Villarreal had to endure all of this instead of the DMV just fixing some coding lines (or inputs) in some DMV computer somewhere.

Villarreal then moves for an award of his attorney's fees.  There's no special fee-shifting statute for things like this.  But he says that the lawsuit has resulted in a "significant benefit" to the public, so he's entitled to fees under Section 1021.5 of the CCP.

The trial court and the Court of Appeal disagree, as do I.

There's no good proof about how many people (if any) were in the same situation as Villarreal.  Sure, millions of California drivers could at some point face a similar conundrum, particularly if they (like Villarreal) are commercial drivers with multiple DUI convictions from different states (!).  But that many people "could" be affected doesn't create a public benefit if there's no showing the many people actually are affected.  And that's the big failure of proof here.

If there was substantial evidence that a lot of people (or even a fairly non-trivial number) had to go through what Villarreal went through, yeah, maybe I'd award fees.  And I'll admit that maybe if the requested fees here had been a fair piece smaller -- rather than asking for nearly a quarter million dollars for a case that was not hard at all (the facts largely speak for themselves) -- I might have been more sympathetic to the fee request.

But, in the end, Villarreal gets what he needs, his lawyer asks for a ton, and the Court of Appeal ends the case the way it should.

A decent way to end the week.