Attorney Fees Award May Be Reevaluated When Claims Are Partially Reversed On Appeal


Environmental Protection Information Center, et al. v. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, et al., A108410 (1st Dist. Div. 5, November 19, 2010)

In Environmental Protection Information Center, et al. v. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, et al., the Court of Appeal considered whether an attorneys' fees award issued by the trial court must be reevaluated in light of the final outcome of the underlying litigation in the California Supreme Court. The Court of Appeal concluded that the attorney fee awards may be warranted even if some of the environmental protections attained at trial are reversed on appeal if the plaintiff still prevailed on some key issues. The court also concluded that attorney fee awards may also depend on whether a reasonable settlement offer might have prevented a lawsuit. Finally, the appellate court held that the amount of fees may be reduced where plaintiffs are only partially successful, depending in part on whether the claims are related.


After prevailing in the underlying litigation at the trial court level, Plaintiffs and Respondents Environmental Protection Information Center ("EPIC") and United Steel Workers of America ("Steelworkers") (collectively "Respondents") moved for awards of attorney fees pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 ("Section 1021.5"). Defendants and Appellants California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection ("CDF") and the Department of Fish and Game ("DFG") (collectively, the "Agencies") opposed both motions but the trial court ultimately awarded attorney fees to EPIC ($4,279,915.74) and the Steelworkers ($1,787,806.21). In its orders, the trial court found that EPIC and the Steelworkers had satisfied all of Section 121.5's conditions for entitlement to an award of attorney fees. Specifically, it found Respondents were successful parties and determined their actions had vindicated important rights affecting the public interest. The trial court further found Respondents' actions had conferred a significant benefit on the general public and that private enforcement of the rights vindicated in the actions was necessary.

On appeal from the attorney fees awards, the Agencies argued that Respondents cannot demonstrate that their litigation conferred a "significant benefit . . . on the general public or a large class of persons" or that the "necessity . . . of private enforcement . . . [is] such as to make the award appropriate . . . ." Alternatively, the Agencies claimed that even if Respondents were entitled to an award, the amount of fees granted was excessive because: (1) the Respondents achieved only limited success on the merits after the Supreme Court's ruling; (2) the Respondents duplicated efforts; and (3) the trial court had abused its discretion in awarding certain categories of fees.

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