The Fourth District Court of Appeal has overturned an award of nearly $300,000 in attorneys fees to groups that lost a case based on the California Environmental Quality Act. The Fourth District ruled that even though the groups felt obliged to pursue the lawsuit, which followed an earlier successful suit, they were not entitled to fees in the second lawsuit. The case stems from Riverside County's approval of the giant Eagle Mountain landfill at a former iron-ore mine only 1.5 miles from Joshua Tree National Park. Environmentalists led by the National Parks and Conservation Association sued the county over the EIR during the mid-90s. A trial court and the Fourth District both ruled that the EIR for the proposed 2,200-acre garbage dump was inadequate. National Parks & Conservation Assn. v. County of Riverside, (1996) 42 CalApp.4th; see CP&DR Legal Digest, April 1996. After losing the appellate court ruling, Riverside County prepared a new EIR — and environmentalists sued for a second time. San Diego County Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell again found the EIR deficient, but the Fourth District overturned that ruling and said the document was acceptable. National Parks & Conservation Assn. v. County of Riverside (1999), 71 Cal.App.4th, 1341 (National Parks II); see CP&DR Legal District, June 1999. The California Integrated Waste Management Board has since issued permits to Kaiser Ventures, which is trying to sell the project. However, neighboring landowners have sued the Department of the Interior in federal district court over steps the Bureau of Land Management took to accommodate the landfill. The latest issue in state court concerned attorneys' fees. Although the Fourth District, Division One, upheld the county's EIR last year, it postponed the issue of legal costs. Judge McConnell had ordered the county to pay $294,000 of environmentalists' attorneys' fees, an order that the green groups tried valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to defend on appeal. Code of Civil Procedure §1021.5 allows a court to award attorneys' fees to a successful party when its private enforcement of laws upholds an important public right, and a significant benefit was conferred. Most of CEQA case law is built on such cases. The National Parks and Conservation Association argued that §1021.5 gave trial courts broad discretion to award fees. The association also contended that the appellate panel should look at the litigation as a whole, rather than at success or failure of one particular stage. And the group argued that it had a continuing obligation to review the second EIR and "raise reasonable grounds for objection." The unanimous three-judge appellate panel rejected all three arguments. First, the court noted, the trial court never handled the case after it was overturned on appeal. "The obvious failure of this argument is that the trial court was never given the opportunity to exercise is discretion to determine whether the Association was a prevailing party after we reversed the court's order in its entirety," Justice Judith Haller wrote. Because the association lost the case, the award of attorneys fees must be reversed, he court ruled. As for looking at the litigation as a whole, the court said such an approach was inapplicable because the association recovered fees for prevailing in the lawsuit over the first EIR. Challenging the second EIR was "a substantively discreet action." Finally, Haller wrote, "There is no statutory authority or case law requiring an opponent in environmental litigation to bring a challenge to a revised EIR filed on a return. While the Association had a right to commence proceedings challenging the adequacy of the Return, it was not ‘required' or compelled to do so." In one small victory for the landfill opponents, the court found that the Association might be eligible for $13,902 in fees "reflecting work performed during the administrative process leading to the certification of the Return EIR." It is arguable that this work ensured the second EIR addressed the deficiencies found in the first study, the court ruled. It remanded this issue back to Judge McConnell. The Case: National Parks and Conservation Association v. County of Riverside, No. D032228, 00 C.D.O.S. 4426, 2000 Daily Journal D.A.R. 5927, filed June 5, 2000. The Lawyers: For the association: Jeffrey Dintzer, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, (213) 229-7000. For the county: Steven Weston, Weston Benshoof Rochefort, Rubalcava & MacCuish, (213) 623-2322.