December 2009 • Vol. 29 No. 11 | An E-Publication of the Los Angeles County Bar Association

Trustees Support Plaintiffs’ Appeal to Not Pay Attorney Fees Due to Likely Financial Ruin

The Board of Trustees voted unanimously to file an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in Turner v. American Association of Medical Colleges in the California Court of Appeal, as recommended by LACBA’s Amicus Briefs Committee.

Excerpts from a memo by Richard A. Rothschild, committee chair, summarize the issues involved:

LACBA has been asked to participate in Turner v. American Association of Medical Colleges, in which AAMC, now on appeal, continues to seek $1.6 million in attorney fees against plaintiffs, who were four medical students and two non-profit disability rights advocacy groups.

Background of Case and Fee Motion

The plaintiffs won a judgment in the trial court, which held that under the Disabled Persons Act, Civil Code Sec. 54 et seq., AAMC was required to accommodate medical board test-takers with disabilities. The California Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the Disabled Persons Act did not require accommodations independently of the federal ADA, which at the time was construed more narrowly than California law.

AAMC’s motion for attorney fees did not claim that the underlying suit was frivolous. Rather, AAMC relies on the language of Civil Code Sec. 55, which states that in a suit for injunctive relief under the statute, the “prevailing party in the action shall be entitled to recover reasonable attorney’s fees.”

Previous Amicus Brief and Trial Court Decision Agreeing with That Brief

An earlier amicus brief supporting plaintiffs submitted to the trial court by other organizations argued if the court holds that AAMC is entitled to fees, where payment of fees would be financially ruinous to plaintiffs, a reasonable amount would be zero. The trial court ordered plaintiffs to submit extensive documentation on plaintiffs’ ability to pay, which satisfied the court that a fee award would indeed ruin the plaintiffs. The court then denied fees both because it accepted the amicus argument and because it held that the overall statutory scheme governing disability discrimination claims did not permit fee awards against plaintiffs in nonfrivolous cases. At the same time, the court ordered the plaintiffs to pay court costs.

Appeal and Current Request

AAMC has filed a notice of appeal, and plaintiffs’ attorneys request that LACBA file a supporting amicus brief. 

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