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Attorney’s Fee Award Reduced Based on Limited CEQA Victory

In Save Our Uniquely Rural Community Environment v. County of San Bernardino (SOURCE), the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s award of only $19,176 in attorney’s fees on petitioner’s motion for an award of over $231,000.  The court ruled that a greatly reduced fee award was justified because the plaintiff prevailed on limited grounds on an uncomplicated CEQA issue. 

In the underlying case, petitioner had prevailed on one issue regarding wastewater treatment capacity in their challenge to the County’s approvals under CEQA – an issue that was quickly resolved by the applicant’s agreement to install a septic tank.  Petitioner then moved for attorney’s fees under the private attorney general statute, Code of Civil Procedure Section 1021.5.

The Court concluded that the trial court was within its discretion to reduce the award based on the limited success on the merits.  The trial court was also within its discretion to reduce the award based on the “outrageous” and “unjustly inflated” amount of the fees requested and the fact that the issues in the case were not “particularly difficult for experienced CEQA specialists.”  Finally, the trial court correctly discounted the contingent nature of the fees because the fees were only partially contingent and because the total hours for the case did not show that the law firm had to turn down other fee-generating work to take the case. 

SOURCE shows that setbacks on relatively minor CEQA issues need not always result in major awards of attorney’s fees and provides a warning to all parties to attorney’s fees litigation that the Court of Appeal will give substantial deference to the factual findings of the trial court.  Parties defending against a motion for attorney’s fees can look to SOURCE for guidance regarding the types of factual arguments that may partially, or completely, defeat such a motion.