By Cori M. Badgley

Attorneys’ fees under the private attorney general doctrine codified in Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 are treated as a birthright by petitioners after prevailing in a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuit. Two decisions in 2010 explore the limits of attorneys’ fees in CEQA cases, and the rulings illustrate both what it means to be a successful party for purposes of Section 1021.5 and the significant discretion given to the trial court in determining the amount awarded.

In Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch v. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (2010, Case No. F058062), the Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District faced the question of whether a petitioner that had lost its suit could still claim successful party status for purposes of attorneys’ fees under Section 1021.5. Petitioners argued that although the court held that the timber harvest plans at issue were sufficient, the court’s opinion “clarified the law regarding California Department Forestry (CDF) authority and duty to analyze herbicide use.” (Id. at 4.) (For a discussion of the Supreme Court’s opinion on the merits see “California Supreme Court Upholds THPs; Discusses Cumulative Impacts and Foreseeable Actions.”) Thus, under petitioners’ logic, they were successful parties under Section 1021.5. Refusing to extend the definition of “successful party” to the limits urged by petitioners, the court held that petitioners were not entitled to attorneys’ fees. According to the court, the petitioners in this case failed to win on any of their primary contentions regarding the timber harvest plans, even if the court’s opinion on the merits resulted in clarification of the law.

In Center for Biological Diversity v. County of San Bernardino (2010) 185 Cal.App.4th 866, there was no argument that the petitioners were successful parties. Instead, the focus was on the other factors required under Section 1021.5 and the amount of the fees. In the opinion relating to the merits, the court held that an environmental impact’s discussion of alternatives and water supply for an open-air compost facility was inadequate. (See“Put a Lid on It: EIR for Open Air Human Waste Composting Facility Held Invalid.”) These were only two of several claims asserted by petitioners, but the trial court held the other claims unfounded. The trial court nonetheless granted attorneys’ fees to the petitioners.

On appeal, respondent challenged the grant of attorneys’ fees on three grounds: 1) an important right was not enforced; 2) the decision did not confer a significant benefit; and 3) the amount awarded was too high. Before discussing the merits of respondent’s arguments, the court first emphasized the broad discretion afforded to a trial court when determining the amount of attorneys’ fees. The trial court’s decision will only be overturned if it is an abuse of discretion.

Next, the court addressed the arguments regarding an important right and significant benefit. Not surprisingly, the court quickly dismissed these arguments citing several prior cases holding that enforcement of the procedural requirements under CEQA satisfies Section 1021.5. The majority of the appellate court’s discussion focused on the amount of the attorneys’ fees, which the appellate court also upheld. Respondent’s main argument in relation to fee amounts was that the fee amount covered the litigation of all issues, although petitioners were only successful on two of the claims. The appellate court ruled that although a court “has discretion to reduce fees in a CEQA case based on degree of success… it is, of course, not required to do so.” (Id. at 897.) Ultimately, the court held that the trial court had not abused its discretion and the fees were upheld. Additionally, the appellate court held that petitioners were also entitled to their attorneys’ fees for the appeal and remanded that issue back to the trial court.

The saying goes that being close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. It looks like the same can be said for 1021.5 claims as well.

Cori M. Badgley is an 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.