In Mejia v. City of Los Angeles, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2007 WL 3016529, Cal.App. 2 Dist., Oct. 17, 2007), the court awarded attorney’s fee in a California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) challenge to the adjacent property owner. The case is notable because under CEQA, attorney’s fees are not automatically awarded to the prevailing party, because the trial court must first balance various factors. Mejia stands for the proposition that an adjacent property owner’s personal interest in the outcome of the litigation does not necessarily preclude the owner from recovering attorney’s fees.
Mejia is also significant because it affirmed that a developer can be liable for attorney’s fees, even if the developer was not responsible for the CEQA errors committed by the lead agency.
The project in dispute was a single-family housing development on 17 acres in the Sunland area of Los Angeles. California Home Development LLC was the developer. The City approved the project in 2003 and adopted a mitigated negative declaration.
Mejia, a resident who lived next to the project, filed a CEQA action, asserting that an EIR should have been prepared. The trial court ruled against her.
The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the project required an EIR. The trial court entered judgment for Mejia in accordance with the Court of Appeal’s directive, and awarded Mejia $50,000 in attorney’s fees, half of which was payable by the developer, the other half by the City.
CEQA does not provide direct authority for awarding attorney’s fees. But the courts have nevertheless found authority for awarding attorney’s fees under the so-called private attorney general doctrine (Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5). Under this doctrine, the courts must balance various factors. One of the factors requires that the project opponent have a financial burden out of proportion to his or her personal stake in the litigation.
In Mejia, the court held that a project opponent in a CEQA case who lives next door to a project may have a financial burden out of proportion to his or her personal stake in the suit. The court determined that Mejia’s personal interest in opposing the project, as a homeowner and resident, was substantial. The financial burden on Petitioner also was substantial; she was forced to deplete her retirement account and refinance her home in order to pay for the litigation, the court noted.
Next, the court held that a developer in CEQA litigation can be subject to an attorney’s fees award if the developer had a direct interest in the litigation and actively participated in the litigation. Here, the fact that the City of Los Angeles, not the developer, was responsible for CEQA compliance did not relieve the developer of liability for attorney’s fees because a developer’s wrongdoing is not a factor which must be weighed, explained the court.