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In an unpublished decision in Washoe Meadows Community v. California Department of Parks & Recreation, 2014 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 9256, the First District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order granting petitioner’s attorney fees and held Washoe Meadows Community (Washoe) did not achieve its primary relief sought through the litigation.

In November 2011, Washoe filed a petition for a writ of mandate challenging the State Park and Recreation Commission’s (Commission) approval of a land swap between Washoe Meadows State Park and the Lake Valley State Recreation area. Washoe alleged several violations of the California Environmental Quality Act including the failure to adopt a statement of overriding considerations (SOC) and mitigation, monitoring, and reporting program (MMRP). Washoe sought an order requiring the Commission to set aside the certification of the environmental impact report (EIR) and suspend any activities on the project.

Following the lawsuit, in January 2012 the Commission corrected several procedural defects in the approval process including the adoption of an SOC and approval on an MMRP. Washoe filed a second suit challenging the January 2012 approval and adequacy of the EIR. Washoe and the Commission stipulated to the dismissal of the November 2011 lawsuit, but among other conditions, allowed Washoe to still seek attorney fees for that lawsuit.

On Washoe’s motion for attorney fees from the first lawsuit, the trial court held Washoe was a “successful party” under California Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. The trial court reasoned that even though Washoe did not obtain judicial relief, Washoe’s lawsuit was the catalyst that motivated the Commission to provide relief on a “significant issue.”

In reversing the trial court, the court held the trial court erred by only requiring Washoe to succeed on a “significant issue.” Instead, under the catalyst theory, the court stated Washoe must succeed on the primary relief it sought in the November 2011 litigation. Washoe did not succeed in setting aside the certification of the EIR or suspending the project and Washoe could not establish the November lawsuit influenced the content of the SOC or MMRP in any way. Washoe merely effectuated a “limited do-over” of the project’s approval.

In concluding Washoe was not entitled to attorney fees for its November 2011 lawsuit, the court clarified that Washoe’s case for the primary relief is still pending in the January 2012 lawsuit. As a result, Washoe would still be entitled to seek attorney fees in that case.

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