By: Brian Russell

Save Our Uniquely Rural Community Environment v. County of San Bernardino (March 18, 2015, E059524) ___Cal.App.4th ___.

Plaintiff and appellant Save Our Uniquely Rural Community Environment (SOURCE) appealed an award of attorney fees in a case arising under CEQA. It contended that the trial court abused its discretion when it awarded $19,176, despite SOURCE’s request for $231,098.

SOURCE challenged Al-Nur Islamic Center’s project to erect an Islamic community center and mosque in a residential neighborhood in an unincorporated area of San Bernardino County. The San Bernardino County Planning Commission adopted a mitigated negative declaration and SOURCE appealed the project to the Board of Supervisors. The Board denied the appealed, and SOURCE filed a combined petition for writ of mandate and complaint for injunctive relief. Although, multiple violations of CEQA were alleged in the initial petition, the court granted the petition on a single ground: that there is not a factual basis in the administrative record to support the county’s determination that the project would have a less than significant impact on the environment from construction of a new wastewater treatment facility, because a new facility was never analyzed. The trial court overturned the approval of the mitigated negative declaration and the conditional use permit.

SOURCE then filed a motion for attorney fees. SOURCE sought $110,599 with a multiplier of two, for a total of $221,198 for its work on the administrative proceedings and the writ petition, plus $9,900 for its work on the attorney fees motion. SOURCE soughtpayment based on $550 and $450 an hour, respectively, for the two partners who worked on the case, $250 an hour for an associate, and $110 an hour for a law clerk.

The trial court granted the motion, finding that SOURCE conferred a public benefit sufficient to warrant an award of attorney fees. However, at the hearing on the motion, the court stated that the amount requested was “outrageous.”  SOURCE filed a timely notice of appeal.

Under the abuse of discretion standard, a trial court’s ruling will not be disturbed unless the trial court exercised its discretion in an arbitrary, capricious, or patently absurd manner that resulted in a manifest miscarriage of justice. (Ketchum v. Moses (2001) 24 Cal.4th 1122.)

In this case the trial court ruling was upheld because SOURCE had limited success with the appeal, the firm overcharged for a fairly simple matter, plus the firm billed at rates that were uncommon for the area. Finally, and possibly most importantly, the trial court is not required to explain how they settled on the amount awarded, they just need to provide a legitimate reason that justifies their actions. It is not an abuse of discretion just because the court failed to show the mathematical calculation.

Brian Russell 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.