Administrative Hearings Are “Actions” Subject to an Award of Attorneys Fees

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In Edna Valley Watch v. County of San Luis Obispo, the Court of Appeal determined that the trial court could make a Section 1021.5 award of attorneys’ fees that the plaintiffs incurred in preparing for an administrative hearing. 

As a prerequisite to filing their CEQA lawsuit, the plaintiffs had appealed San Luis Obispo County’s grant of a conditional use permit to a church for its planned church complex.  The court held that these administrative proceedings were useful and necessary to the litigation essentially because the plaintiffs could not have brought their lawsuit without first exhausting their administrative remedies, and that “[i]n fact, there can be no public interest litigation without first filing an administrative proceeding.” 

Previous case law established that an administrative proceeding is an “action” that could justify an award of attorneys’ fees under Section 1021.5 when it is “useful and necessary” to the litigation.  After Edna Valley Watch, the “useful and necessary” test will always be met when administrative proceedings are a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit, making it easier for plaintiffs to recover larger awards of attorneys’ fees under the state’s private attorney general statute.

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