First Division, Division 2 Overturns Fee Award Under CCP § 1021.5.
Do not think for a moment that appellate courts do not realistically assess fee awards, both from legal and pragmatic angles. The next case shows that a fee award under CCP § 1021.5 will not be sustained where it was, at best, a procedural win of small proportions.
After three appeals in which a state court judgment sustained the defense perspective that the sole relief belonged to the federal government under a federal statute, several plaintiffs did obtain a judicial remand to the California Regional Water Quality Control Board for purposes of making some further findings on whether state law regulating water quality can be applied to dams licensed by the federal government. These further findings came to the same conclusion: the state was powerless to act by virtue of federal statutory directives. Nevertheless, the trial court awarded plaintiffs $138,250 in attorney's fees under California's private attorney general statute, half to be paid by the Board and half by the dams' owner.
On appeal, the fee award was reversed in Karuk Tribe of Northern California v. California Regional Water Quality Control Board, Case Nos. A124351, A124369, A124370 (1st Dist., Div. 2 Mar. 30, 2010) (certified for publication).
The Court of Appeal did not believe that plaintiffs prevailed on a significant issue, enforced an important public right, or conferred a significant benefit for section 1021.5 purposes.
Plaintiffs did not obtain a ruling in its favor, because the trial court found that federal law did reign supreme. Rather, plaintiffs really lost—only gaining a "paper victory" by which the Water Quality Control Board had to "cross a few more t's and dot a few extra i's" in its federal supremacy argument. This procedural correction of a minute blemish did not justify a fee award of over $138,000.