Victory on Permit Conditions Does Not Justify Fee Award

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In Norberg v. California Coastal Commission the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District decided a unique case arising from a permit dispute with the California Coastal Commission (“the Commission”).

After a lengthy trial court record, the court granted the request of the plaintiff for a writ of mandate directing the Commission to set aside certain conditions imposed on the plaintiff’s application for a building permit. In particular, the court ruled that the Commission should not have imposed a condition that restricted the future use of erosion control measures. 

After winning, the plaintiff moved for an award of “private attorney general fees” under Code of Civil Procedure Section 1021.5. The court awarded the plaintiff $35,870. The Commission appealed, asserting that the plaintiff only invalidated a permit condition that affected his parcel of private property, arguing this was not sufficient to allow a Section 1021.5 award.

The court of appeal reversed, noting that Section 1021.5 allows courts to award attorney fees to any party, who wins a lawsuit enforcing an “important right affecting the public interest.” However, the plaintiff’s case sought to invalidate permit conditions affecting improvements to his private property only. 

Because the invalidation of the permit condition only affected the plaintiff’s parcel of property, he was not entitled to an attorney fees award.