Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Union Ordered to Pay Attorney's Fees to Expelled Members

In CDF Firefighters v. Maldonado (October 26, 2011, F061183) 2011 WL 5079589, the Court of Appeal held CDFF had to pay attorneys fees after losing a breach of contract case against former members, even though it voluntarily dismissed a related claim. The case turned on the interpretation of Civil Code section 1717. The section entitles some prevailing parties in breach of contract cases to attorney’s fees. However, there is an exception when “an action has been voluntarily dismissed.”

CDF Firefighters sued two former members for breach of contract after they failed to pay fines levied against them by the union. CDFF fined two members $22,000 to cover expenses for a trusteeship and $743 to reimburse another member for expenses. The two members were ultimately expelled from the union. The former members challenged their expulsion and sought to overturn the $22,000 fine in court. The trial court found the $22,000 fine improper. CDFF then dismissed the claim for $743 and the expelled members moved to recover the attorney’s fees they incurred.

CDFF argued that since it voluntarily dismissed the claim for $743, the expelled members were not “prevailing parties” and could not recover attorneys fees under Civil Code section 1717. They emphasized that their claim for the $22,000 and $743 were brought as one cause of action and argued that by dismissing the cause of action, they triggered the exception to Civil Code section 1717. The court, however, determined the claims for $22,000 and $743 arose from “two separate and distinct obligations,” regardless of how they were plead. As a result, the court concluded, voluntarily dismissing with regard to the $743 fine did not trigger the exception with regard to the $22,000 fine and ordered CDFF to pay attorneys fees.