By Katherine J. Hart

The Riverwatch, et al. v. County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health, et al. (1989) 214 Cal.App.3d 1438 case involves the battle over attorney fees awarded to Petitioners by the trial court pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, and proves that the courts are continuing the trend in awarding fees even for partially prevailing parties.

The Underlying Dispute

In November 1994, voters approved Proposition C, which amended the County’s general plan and zoning ordinance to designate Gregory Canyon for use as a landfill and recycling center. In February 2003, the County’s Department of Environmental Health (“DEH”) certified an FEIR for the landfill project. In June 2004, the DEH issued a solid waste facilities permit (“SWFP”) approving the landfill project.

Petitioners Riverwatch, the Pala Band of Indians, and the City of Oceanside sued the County and Real Parties in Interest for declaratory and injunctive relief on the grounds that the County violated CEQA, Proposition C, and its general plan and regulations pertaining to solid waste facilities in approving the landfill project. (See Riverwatch v. Olivenhain Municipal Water District for further details on the underlying substantive issues on CEQA.)

In June 2006, the real party in interest, Gregory Canyon, Ltd., challenged the judgment awarding Riverwatch and the Pala Band attorney fees in the amount of $239,620.00 under CCP section 1021.5. (Originally, Petitioners had requested $27,340.90 in costs and $455,138.12 in attorney fees.)

The Current Dispute

Section 1021.5 of the Code of Civil Procedure codifies the private attorney general doctrine. The thrust of the doctrine is that private actions brought to enforce public policy should be encouraged with the reward of attorney fees. A party seeking attorney fees under the doctrine must prove the following elements:

  1. The litigation served to vindicate an important public right;
  2. The litigation conferred a significant benefit on the general public or a large class of persons; and 
  3. The litigation was necessary and imposed a financial burden on plaintiffs which was out of proportion to their individual stake in the matter.

A trial court’s decision to award fees is reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard, and will not be disturbed “absent a showing that there is no reasonable basis in the record for the award.” It is the trial court’s actual ruling, not its rationale for the ruling that is reviewed.

First, the appellate court looked at whether the trial court abused its discretion in ruling the costs of litigation transcended the tribe’s individual interests or stake in the matter. The appellate court noted that “nothing in the language of section 1021.5 confines the consideration of the necessity and financial burden clause to just financial interests.” Citing the Bowman v. City of Berkeley case, the Court said when evaluating the tribe’s interest, the critical question is whether advancement of the public interest is coincidental to the attainment of personal goals or is self-serving. The appellate court found the trial court properly relied on a declaration submitted by the tribe’s chairman which stated that the tribe did not foresee the landfill economically impacting the adjacent casino. The declaration was thus evidence that “there was no monetary value to pursuing the litigation.” The appellate court further indicated that once the tribe had shown it had no financial interest in the outcome of the case, the burden shifted to Respondents to provide counter-evidence. The trial court looked at the only evidence offered by Respondents – a Yahoo website listing out the room rates and number of rooms at the casino and found the evidence insufficient. As a result, the court of appeals found the trial court did not abuse its discretion.

Second, the appellate court addressed whether the trial court abused its discretion in determining the litigation conferred a significant benefit on the public. The appellate court said that the “significant benefit that will justify an attorney fee award need not represent a tangible asset or a concrete gain, but in some cases, may be recognized simply from the effectuation of a fundamental constitutional or statutory policy.” Because the trial court found that the petitioners’ actions would ensure that traffic, water and other impacts would be more properly assessed; it properly found that attorney’s fees should be awarded.

Finally, the appeals court addressed whether the trial court awarded the proper amount of attorneys fees. Respondent County and Real Party in Interest argued that because Petitioners did not win on all issues, the fees should be reduced by at least 50 percent. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s determination that because Petitioners prevailed on three significant issues in the litigation, Petitioners should be considered “successful” under the statute and that reduction, based upon degree of success, was not mandatory.  Besides, the appellate court noted the trial court had previously reduced Petitioners’ requested fees by 50 percent on other grounds.

This case illustrates the difficulty of overturning, on appeal awards of attorney fees by lower courts. 

Katherine J. Hart is a senior associate at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.