This morning the California Supreme Court issued an opinion that examined the limits on its attorney fee opinion in Graham v. DaimlerChrysler Corp. (2004) 34 Cal.4th 553, 560 (Graham). " In Vasquez v. State of California (November 20, 2008), the Supreme Court was asked to extend Graham, a catalyst theory case, to all Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 requests for fees resulting from a public benefit. The summary of the holding neatly encapsulates the Supreme Court's "no, and yes" answer to that invitation:
“Today we revisit one of the “limitations on the catalyst theory” adopted in Graham, supra, 34 Cal.4th 553, 575 — specifically, the rule that the plaintiff in a “catalyst case,” to recover attorney fees under section 1021.5, “must have engaged in a reasonable attempt to settle its dispute with the defendant prior to litigation” (Graham, at p. 561). While this is not a catalyst case (see post, at p. 19), defendant argues the rule just mentioned should apply whenever fees are sought under section 1021.5. We hold that no such categorical rule applies in noncatalyst cases. In all cases, however, section 1021.5 requires the court to determine that “the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement . . . are such as to make the award appropriate . . . .” (Ibid., italics added.) In making this determination, one that implicates the court’s equitable discretion concerning attorney fees, the court properly considers all circumstances bearing on the question whether private enforcement was necessary, including whether the party seeking fees attempted to resolve the matter before resorting to litigation.
(Slip op., at pp. 2-3.) So you don't have to attempt to resolve a matter before litigation to claim sectin 1021.5 fees, but the Court can consider whether you did as a factor when deciding if it will award fees under section 1021.5. I suppose this means that the reasonability of the defendant and its counsel and the inclinations of the particular judge hearing the case will now have a lot more to do with whether a plaintiff is successful in recovering fees under 1021.5. An intractable defendant with obstructive counsel will have a hard time convincing a court that it would have cooperated without the need for litigation had the plaintiff but asked. On the other hand, a very cooperative defendant could save itself fees under this section by demonstrating its willingness to change practices and correct problems.
I wonder if this mixed set of incentives will change any behaviors on either side of the bar.