By Cori Badgley

The long legal battle over Pacific Lumber Company’s logging of timberland in Humboldt County continues as the parties now fight over attorney’s fees. In Environmental Protection Information Center v. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (2008) 44 Cal.4th 459, the Supreme Court finally resolved all of the substantive issues on the merits. In summary, the Supreme Court set aside the department’s approval of a sustained yield plan based on two of petitioner’s arguments, invalidated a portion of the incidental take permit, and upheld the department’s streambed alteration agreement and certification of the environmental impact report/environmental impact statement. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the matter was remanded back to the appellate court, and the appellate court heard arguments on whether petitioner was entitled to attorney’s fees and in what amount. (Environmental Protection Information Center v. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 217.)

Instead of deciding the amount of attorney’s fees owed to petitioner, the appellate court remanded many of the issues back to the trial court because the factual determination of the amount of attorney’s fees fell within the sole purview of the lower court. Although the appellate court did not decide the ultimate amount of attorney’s fees, it did enunciate significant rulings and principles to guide the lower court. Those significant rulings and principles include the following:

(1) The litigation resulted in a significant benefit to the general public, which satisfies one of the elements of section 1021.5 of the Code of Civil Procedure. Although petitioner lost on several of its environmental arguments, the lawsuit resulted in the invalidation of both the sustained yield plan as well as a portion of the incidental take permit (which presented a novel issue of law). Thus, a significant benefit was conferred by the litigation.

(2) Under the element of “necessity of private enforcement,” exhaustion of administrative remedies does not satisfy any pre-litigation settlement requirement. Additionally, attempts at pre-litigation settlement must be considered when evaluating whether private enforcement was necessary, but it is not dispositive.

(3) In evaluating whether a petitioner had limited success warranting a reduction in attorney’s fees, the fact that all of the causes of action are based on the same administrative record does not mean that all of the claims are necessarily related. The same factual analysis applied in all other types of cases applies to writs of mandate. In this case, the court found that because all of the documents at issue incorporated and relied on one another, all of the claims were related for purposes of Section 1021.5.

What this case lacks in factual application, it makes up for in its clear and thorough review of this area of law. It provides a good overview of the principles that courts rely on in making an attorney’s fees determination and how those principles apply in the writ context.

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.