In an unpublished opinion in Save Our Uniquely Rural Community Environment (SOURCE) v. County of San Bernardino, 2015 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1976, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court decision and reduced petitioner’s attorney fees by 80 percent in a challenge under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to a proposed Islamic community center and mosque (project). Petitioner sought $231,098 in attorney fees, but the trial court awarded $19,176.
A key issue on appeal was petitioner’s degree of success at trial and whether the final judgment merited recovery of full attorney fees. Petitioner initially sought to vacate the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) and all related project approvals and enjoin further work on the project until an environmental impact report was completed. At trial, petitioner’s narrow relief was limited to setting aside the MND for the sole purpose of analyzing the project’s impact on wastewater treatment.
The court held petitioner failed to satisfy its burden of proving the trial court abused its discretion. Although compelling an analysis of waste water treatment was “not insignificant,” it was still reasonable for the trial to reduce the awarded fees because of the rejection of the majority of petitioner’s other contentions. As the court stated, “That a court might have exercised its discretion in the manner [petitioner] asserts, is not . . . sufficient to demonstrate that it was an abuse of discretion not to award the fees [petitioner] sought.”
The court also upheld the trial court’s reduction in the number of hours and hourly rates charged by petitioner’s attorney. The Los Angeles-based law firm for petitioner improperly billed at partner rates for clerical tasks and failed to provide evidence that experienced CEQA attorneys were not available in the San Bernardino market.
Finally, the court rejected petitioner’s argument that the trial court did not adequately explain how it arrived at the amount awarded. The trial court expressed its legitimate reasons for reducing the fee award, even if it “failed to make its arithmetic transparent.” Therefore, the trial court’s calculation was not an abuse of discretion