A Superior Court judge has struck down a Santa Monica Housing Council (SMHC) request for attorney’s fees in the amount of $218,000.
The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office defended the case on behalf of the City.
In November, 2002, SMHC, represented by attorney Christopher Harding, filed a lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica, challenging the city’s application of an ambiguous state law.
The law requires cities to make certain findings before denying certain types of housing projects. However, it was not clear whether the law should be applied to market rate housing, as well as affordable housing units.
Though the state law’s applicability to market rate housing was questionable, in the opinion of the City Attorney, the City applied the law to all housing projects.
After the lawsuit was filed, another court ruled that the state law applied to both market rate and affordable housing projects. Thereafter, the City Attorney advised the City Council in writing that it should continue its practice of applying the state law to market rate housing, which, according to the City Attorney, mooted the lawsuit.
However, despite the City’s prior practice of applying the law to all housing, the City Attorney’s advice that the City continue to apply the law, and the fact that SMHC could not identify any instances in which the City had violated the law, SMHC chose to go forward with its lawsuit.
In denying SMHC and Chris Harding’s request for fees, Judge Linda Lefkowitz found on February 15 that the lawsuit had resulted in no benefit to either the public or the property developers to warrant recovery of attorney fees.
Specifically, the Court found that “plaintiffs have shown no evidence whatsoever that any developer or any property was ever affected by the City’s position that the [State law] did not apply to the City or to market rate housing.”
The Court also found that the record in evidence showed that the City “consistently applied the statute” in compliance with the law.
Santa Monica leads the Westside in housing production. From 1998 to 2005, the City has issued permits for 2,547 housing units, exceeding its housing allocation of 2,208 units as determined by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), and it has issued more building permits for multi-family housing than any other Westside city.Reacting to the decision, Cara Silver, Deputy City Attorney, said, “It is unfortunate that private lawyers’ requests for attorney’s fees continue to drive lawsuits in this city. By opposing SMHC’s fee demand, the City Council has sent a strong message that it will not waste taxpayers’ dollars by paying unwarranted fee demands to lawyers.”