HEATHER FARMS HOA v. ROBINSON
(1994) 21 Cal.App.4th 1568
Smith, Merrill & Peffer, Charles E. Merrill and Karl R. Molineux for Defendant and Appellant.
Abend, Lepper, Jacobson, Schaefer & Hughes and Gary M. Lepper for Plaintiff and Respondent.
PETERSON, P. J.
In this case, we hold that a trial court has the authority to determine
the identity of the "prevailing party" in litigation, within the meaning
of Civil Code fn. 1
section 1354, for purposes of awarding attorney fees; and that a
defendant dismissed without prejudice in an action to enforce equitable
servitudes thereunder is not, ipso facto, such prevailing party.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
This is a dispute over attorney fees incurred in an action to enforce
the covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&R's) which govern a
residential planned unit development in Walnut Creek. Appellant in this
action, Wayne Robinson, owned two units in the development. In January
1988, Heather Farms Homeowners Association, Inc. (association), the
entity charged with enforcing the CC&R's, sued Robinson alleging he
had made unauthorized modifications to his units. As so frequently
happens in modern litigation, the complaint spawned a complex series of
cross-complaints and subsidiary actions which eventually entangled the
association itself, the association's attorneys, appellant's
corporation, various real estate agents, and the persons who purchased
appellant's units while the litigation was pending.
After several years of litigation, the actions were assigned to a trial
judge (the Honorable Peter L. Spinetta) who, recognizing the complexity
of the dispute, referred the matter to a second judge (the Honorable
James J. Marchiano) for a special settlement conference. After two days
of discussion, Judge Marchiano negotiated a settlement which resolved
the litigation completely.
Only one aspect of that settlement is relevant to this appeal. While
Robinson expressly declined to participate in any agreement with the
association, the settlement nonetheless required the association to
dismiss its suit against Robinson "without prejudice." However, Judge
[21 Cal.App.4th 1571] that this should not be
interpreted as meaning that Robinson had prevailed: "The Court is
making a specific finding that there are no prevailing parties with
respect to that issue [the dismissal without prejudice] and that the
Court and the law [favor the] resolution of disputes. This dismissal is
part of an overall complex piece of litigation ... that's been resolved
by a negotiated settlement. There are no winners. There are no favorable
parties in this case."
At the conclusion of the settlement, Robinson filed a memorandum seeking
to recover his costs from the association. He claimed that since the
object of the association's suit was to enforce the development's
CC&R's, the "prevailing party" in the litigation was entitled to
recover attorney fees and costs under section 1354. Robinson maintained
that since he had received a dismissal, he was the "prevailing party"
and the association was obligated to pay his attorney fees of over
$479,000, and his litigation costs of approximately $20,000.
The association conceded that section 1354 was applicable, but argued
Robinson was not the "prevailing party" within the meaning of that
The trial court ruled that Robinson was the prevailing party for
purposes of his general litigation expenses (filing fees, deposition
costs, jury fees, etc.) and, thus, was entitled to recover those costs
from the association, but that Robinson was not entitled to recover his
attorney fees under section 1354. As to the latter issue, the court
agreed with the settlement judge and concluded there was no "prevailing
party" in the litigation within the meaning of section 1354. This appeal
The issue in this case is whether the trial court properly ruled that
Robinson was not the "prevailing party" in the litigation within the
meaning of section 1354. Section 1354 states that CC&R's may be
enforced as "equitable servitudes" by "any owner of a separate interest
or by the association, or by both," and that the "prevailing party" in
any enforcement action "shall be awarded reasonable attorney's fees and
costs." fn. 2
[1a] The pivotal question here is how does a court determine who is the
"prevailing party" for purposes of section 1354
. The section itself
provides no guidance and the issue has apparently not been decided by
[21 Cal.App.4th 1572]
Robinson claims the court was obligated to adopt the definition found in
the general cost statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 1032,
subdivision (a)(4), which states a " '[p]revailing party' " includes "a
defendant in whose favor a dismissal is entered ...." Robinson argues
that, since he was the recipient of a dismissal and was awarded his
general litigation costs, he must also be deemed the prevailing party
for purposes of section 1354.
However, the premise for this argument, that a litigant who prevails
under the cost statute is necessarily the prevailing party for purposes
of attorney fees, has been uniformly rejected by the courts of this
state. (See McLarand, Vasquez & Partners, Inc. v. Downey Savings
& Loan Assn. (1991) 231 Cal.App.3d 1450,
1456 [282 Cal.Rptr. 828] ["We emphatically reject the contention that
the prevailing party for the award of costs under [Code of Civil
Procedure] section 1032 is necessarily the prevailing party for the
award of attorneys' fees."].) Furthermore, Code of Civil Procedure
section 1032, subdivision (a) only defines " '[p]revailing party' " as
the term is used "in [that] section." It does not purport to define the
term for purposes of other statutes.
The association, for its part, claims the trial court was required to
adopt the definition found in section 1717, subdivision (b)(2) which
states, "Where an action has been voluntarily dismissed or dismissed
pursuant to a settlement of the case, there shall be no prevailing party
for purposes of this section." However, section 1717 only applies "In
any action ... where the contract specifically provides that attorney's
fees and costs ... shall be awarded ...." (Subd. (a), italics added.)
Here, both sides agree there was no contract upon which attorney fees
might be based. Instead, fees were sought pursuant to statute. fn. 3
While the definition of "prevailing party" found in section 1717,
subdivision (b) or in Code of Civil Procedure section 1032 might
otherwise be persuasive as to the meaning intended in section 1354,
under the principle that similar language used in statutes "in pari
materia" should be given similar effect (see, e.g., Isobe v.
Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd. (1974) 12
[21 Cal.App.4th 1573] Cal.3d 584, 590-591 [116 Cal.Rptr. 376, 526 P.2d 528]; Housing Authority v. Van de Kamp (1990) 223 Cal.App.3d 109,
116 [272 Cal.Rptr. 584]), that rule of construction is of little help
here. Section 1717, subdivision (b) and Code of Civil Procedure section
1032 are both "in pari materia" with section 1354 in a broad sense, yet
they provide conflicting definitions of the critical term. Neither party
to this appeal has supplied a principled reason why we should select
one definition over the other.
Faced with this lack of authority, we examine how the courts have dealt
with similar statutes. In Winick Corp. v. Safeco Insurance Co. (1986) 187 Cal.App.3d 1502
[232 Cal.Rptr. 479], the issue was whether a defendant, who obtained a
dismissal with prejudice because the plaintiff failed to timely serve
the summons, was a prevailing party within the meaning of section 3250
and entitled to attorney fees. The court observed that the term
"prevailing party" as used in section 3250 had not been definitively
interpreted, so it analogized the problem to a Supreme Court case in
which the issue was whether a party had prevailed for purposes of
awarding attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, the
private attorney general statute. Noting the court in that case
conducted a " 'pragmatic inquiry' " into whether a party prevailed, the
Winick court conducted a similar pragmatic inquiry and concluded a
defendant, who obtains a dismissal with prejudice because the plaintiff
fails to timely serve the complaint, has also prevailed and is entitled
to attorney fees. (187 Cal.App.3d at pp. 1506-1508.)
In Donald v. Cafe Royale, Inc. (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 168
[266 Cal.Rptr. 804], the plaintiff, a physically disabled man, filed
suit against a restaurant alleging it had violated the Civil Code by
failing to provide him adequate access. Among other things, the
plaintiff sought an injunction under section 55 barring the restaurant
from continuing its violation in the future. While the suit was pending,
the restaurant became insolvent and closed. The trial court ruled the
restaurant was the prevailing party on the injunction and awarded it
attorney fees. The plaintiff appealed the award and the appellate court
reversed: "In the instant case [the plaintiff] filed his section 55
cause of action in order to enjoin [the restaurant's] operation in
violation of the pertinent statutes and administrative code provisions.
The cessation of ... operation of the restaurant achieved that result.
Under these circumstances, it was an abuse of discretion for the court
to determine that by going out of business and rendering the issue moot,
[the restaurant] 'prevailed' for purposes of attorney fees. Neither
party prevailed for purposes of an award of attorney fees on the cause
of action for injunctive relief." (218 Cal.App.3d at p. 185.)
In Elster v. Friedman (1989) 211 Cal.App.3d 1439 [260 Cal.Rptr. 148], the residents of a duplex sued their noisy neighbors and sought an injunction [21 Cal.App.4th 1574]
barring harassment under Code of Civil Procedure section 527.6. When
the matter came to trial, the parties entered into a stipulated judgment
wherein each side agreed not to harass the other. The trial court ruled
that the plaintiffs had prevailed in the suit and awarded them attorney
fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 527.6. The defendants then
challenged this award and the appellate court affirmed. After noting the
term "prevailing party" as used in that section had not been defined,
the Elster court analyzed who had "prevailed" as a practical matter: "At
bench, respondents wanted appellants to stop playing their music too
loudly, to stop telephoning them in the middle of the night, and
generally to leave them alone. Respondents got precisely that from the
settlement. It is irrelevant that they were symmetrically bound by the
injunction, since nothing in the record even hints that they were
anything but the victims in this case. The injunction forbade
respondents from doing what they apparently had never done and had no
apparent desire to do. To consider this significant would be to elevate
form over substance. [¶] We hold that the trial court did not abuse its
discretion in concluding that respondents prevailed." (211 Cal.App.3d at
 Winick, Donald, and Elster all share a common theme. In each case,
the court declined to adopt a rigid interpretation of the term
"prevailing party" and, instead, analyzed which party had prevailed on a
Donald and Elster further clarify that the trial court
must determine who is the prevailing party, and that the court's ruling
should be affirmed on appeal absent an abuse of discretion.
similar rules should apply when determining who the "prevailing party"
is under section 1354.
[1b] Applying those rules here, we note that both the judge who
conducted the special settlement conference, and the judge who ruled on
the attorney fee request concluded there was no prevailing party in this
litigation. We see no reason to doubt those rulings.
voluntarily dismissed its complaint against Robinson as part of a global
settlement agreement, not because he succeeded on some procedural issue
or otherwise received what he wanted.
That dismissal apparently was
more the result of Robinson's obdurate behavior rather than any
successful legal strategy. While it might be possible to conjure a
scenario where a litigant who refuses to participate in a settlement and
then receives a voluntary dismissal without prejudice could be deemed
the prevailing party, that is certainly not the case here.
Furthermore, the record before us is inadequate to seriously challenge
the trial court's rulings. While we have copies of the complaint and
some of the cross-complaints, and are generally aware of the parties
involved, we have no way of measuring the truth of the allegations which
[21 Cal.App.4th 1575]  Robinson, as appellant, has
the obligation to prove error through an adequate record. (9 Witkin,
Cal. Procedure (3d ed. 1985) Appeal, § 418, pp. 415-416.) He has not
The order is affirmed.
King, J., and Haning, J., concurred.
A petition for a rehearing was denied February 15, 1994, and appellant's
petition for review by the Supreme Court was denied April 13, 1994.
Mosk, J., and Kennard, J., were of the opinion that the petition should
FN 1. Unless otherwise indicated, all subsequent statutory references are to the Civil Code.
Section 1354 was recently amended. (See Stats. 1993, ch. 303, § 1.) The
language quoted above is now contained in subdivisions (a) and (f).
This fact distinguishes the present case from the cases cited by the
association. The question in Mackinder v. OSCA Development Co. (1984) 151 Cal.App.3d 728 [198 Cal.Rptr. 864], and in Huntington Landmark Adult Community Assn. v. Ross (1989) 213 Cal.App.3d 1012
[261 Cal.Rptr. 875], was whether attorney fees could be awarded under a
fee clause contained in a development's declaration of restrictions. In
both cases, the court concluded that the declarations were contracts
within the meaning of section 1717 and applied the rules for awarding
attorney fees set forth in that section. (Mackinder v. OSCA Development
Co., supra, 151 Cal.App.3d at pp. 738-739; Huntington Landmark Adult
Community Assn. v. Ross, supra, 213 Cal.App.3d at pp. 1023-1024.) Here,
by contrast, the CC&R's do not include an attorney fees clause so
fees were sought under a statute, section 1354.