Delta Stewardship Council Cases (Cal.Ct.App., April 10, 2020, cases nos. C082944, C086199) 2020 Cal.App.Unpub.LEXIS 2279.

In an unpublished decision, the Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District affirmed the trial court’s ruling that reduced the amount in attorney’s fees a plaintiff could collect under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 after prevailing on only 1 out of 13 issues presented by the plaintiff to the trial court. The unpublished case is instructive in that it addresses an issue that frequently occurs in writ of mandamus cases: How does a court consider and resolve the attorney’s fees request of a plaintiff that prevails on only a portion of the claims presented and argued?

The case concerned the management and resource availability of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (“Delta”). As part of the case on the merits, the trial court rejected 12 of the 13 causes of action Plaintiff C-WIN alleged against Defendant The Delta Stewardship Council (“Council”) claiming that the Delta Plan was deficient. The only argument not rejected by the Court was that the Delta Plan failed to promote options for new and improved infrastructure relating to the water conveyance in the Delta, storage systems, and for the operation of both. The trial court stated that the Council could satisfy the requirements of Water Code section 85304 by either adopting regulations or recommendations.

After judgment was entered, C-WIN filed a motion under section 1021.5, seeking $1,440,713.00 in fees and costs, which included a request to apply a 2.0 multiplier to the lodestar. Council opposed the motion on the ground that C-WIN did not achieve its litigation objectives, as it was unsuccessful on 12 of its 13 arguments claiming the Delta Plan was deficient and only won a de minimis victory on its water conveyance claim. The Council also argued that a multiplier was not warranted, that C-WIN requested an unreasonable hourly rate of $600 per hour for two attorneys, that C-WIN was not entitled to recover fees for time spent on CEQA issues, and that C-WIN was improperly attempting to “qualify for fees” by claiming credit for work performed by other petitioners on a certain issue (the Council argued that C-WIN incorporated by reference the arguments made by other petitioners and did not contribute anything of substance to that issue). The trial court held that C-WIN was entitled to recovery under 1021.5, but that recovery was reduced to only those claims/arguments that C-WIN was successful on. The trial court agreed with the Council that the requested fee award should be reduced by 12/13ths to reflect that C-WIN was unsuccessful on the majority of its “arguments/claims.” The trial court further found that $600 an hour for two of C-WIN’s attorneys was unreasonable and because the court did not reach the merits of a single CEQA cause of action. Lastly, the trial court held that the multiplier was too excessive and reasoned that a 1.5 multiplier to the lodestar was more appropriate. In total, the trial court awarded C-WIN $94,698.33.

On appeal, C-WIN argued that the trial court erred in the fee award as several of its arguments were so “intertwined and intimately related” that it achieved “full success” on its objective to invalidate the Delta Plan. In counter to C-WIN’s argument, the Council argued that C-WIN achieved only a “technical win” since the ultimate objective for C-WIN was to require the Council to adopt a new plan and this objective was not met. The Council cross-appealed on the ground that the trial court erred in applying a 1.5 multiplier to the lodestar in calculating the fee award. The Court of Appeal found no error in the trial court’s ruling on the attorneys’ fees.

Under §1021.5, a party may be awarded attorney’s fees on claims of “public interest if: (a) a significant benefit, whether pecuniary or nonpecuniary, has been conferred on the general public or a large class of persons, (b) the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement . . . are such as to make the award appropriate, and (c) such fees should not in the interest of justice be paid out of the recovery, if any.” The lodestar and multiplier are reflective of the reasonable value of the representation and results obtained. The party seeking fees has the burden of proving what is a reasonable value.

On appeal, C-WIN argued that the trial court’s reduction of the award by 12/13ths was inconsistent with the substantive law of section 1021.5, and an abuse of discretion. The Court of Appeal disagreed. The appellate court recognized that the degree or extent of the prevailing party’s success in obtaining the results sought by that party “must be taken into consideration” in determining the extent of attorney’s fees which it would be reasonable for that party to recover.  The Court of Appeal applied a two-part analysis to assess whether a partial victory was reasonably consistent with the trial court’s recovery award. The first step includes evaluating what claims relate to party’s success and if there is “a common core of facts or are based on related legal theories.” If successful and unsuccessful claims are related, the court proceeds to the second step, which requires the trial court to evaluate the degree of significance of the overall relief obtained by the plaintiff in relation to the hours reasonably expended on the litigation. A court may identify specific hours that should be eliminated or simply reduce the award to account for the limited success of a claimant.

In applying this two-part process, the Court of Appeal determined that C-WIN failed to prove that the trial court erred in reducing the requested fee award based on limited success. The appellate court rejected C-WIN’s contention that its unsuccessful arguments for setting aside the Delta Plan were related to its successful argument. “The unsuccessful arguments were not merely different legal theories attempting to achieve the same result as the successful argument. Rather, the unsuccessful arguments intended to remedy alleged deficiencies in the Delta Plan entirely distinct and separate from the deficiency on which its successful argument was premised.” The Court also noted how C-WIN shifted in what it considered to be the “central objective” of its lawsuit. Also, the Court pointed out that “C-WIN devoted 34 pages of its merits brief to arguing that the Delta Plan was deficient,” and “[f]our of those pages discuss the issue of water conveyance, and nothing in the brief suggests that this issue was more important than any of the other 12 arguments claiming the Delta Plan was deficient. The Court was not persuaded by C-WIN’s contention that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to consider the litigation objectives disclosed in C-WIN’s petition.

The Council requested the Court of Appeal reject the multiplier to the lodestar since the trial court failed to “state a rational basis” for it. The Court rejected this argument since the Council did not raise the issue when the trial court released its tentative opinion. The court stated that the record established that the parties were aware of the factors the trial court used to justify the 1.5 multiplier and failed to object to the tentative opinion.

William Abbott is Of Counsel and Glen Hansen is Senior Counsel at Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, Inc. at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, Inc., or 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.