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Feds Oppose Environmental Groups Fee Request in Fracking Case

September 4, 2019 | Posted in : Billing Practices, Billing Record / Entries, Challenging Fees, Expenses / Costs, Fee Award, Fee Dispute, Fee Entitlement, Fee Reduction / Fee Denial, Fee Request, Fee Shifting, Hourly Rates / Hourly Billing, Prevailing Party Issues

A recent Law 360 story by Michael Philliis, “Feds Slam Enviros’ Atty Fees Bid in Offshore Permit Case,” reports that the Environmental Defense Center and another group that successfully blocked fracking permits for offshore California are prematurely seeking attorney fees, inflating their billing, and seeking reimbursement for matters on which they lost, the federal government told a California federal court.  Not only did the EDC and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper ask for attorney fees before a slew of complicated issues can be hashed out on appeal, but their request also represented an inflated bid to recover money that should never be the taxpayers' obligation to pay, the government said in a brief opposing the groups' fee request.

The environmental groups' hourly rate was allegedly puffed up; they billed some duplicated hours; they wanted reimbursement on claims that had been dropped or where they had lost; and they asked for costs that weren't allowed, including more than 10,000 pages of copying that the federal government painted as outlandish, according to the brief.  And no, talking to the media isn't something the groups can charge the government for, the response said.

"It makes little sense at this time to invest more of the court's or the parties' time and effort into briefing and deciding whether an award of fees under the [Endangered Species Act] is appropriate and, if so, what the amount of any award should be," the government said, asking the court to stay the fees request.  "The myriad potential outcomes on appeal counsel against the duplication of effort inherent in addressing the issue of fees now."

In November, U.S. District Judge Philip Gutierrez blocked the federal government from approving any offshore fracking permits in the state in a consolidated case brought by environmental groups and California.  He said the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement violated the Endangered Species Act and another law in crafting an environmental assessment of a plan to allow offshore well-stimulation treatments, also known as fracking or acidizing, in the state.  The BOEM and BSEE violated the ESA by failing to consult with other parts of the government, the judge said.

The Ninth Circuit will now hear appeals and cross-appeals in the case.  Any number of decisions in that venue could impact a fee award, and the EDC and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper moved too soon in their request for money, according to the government.  The move "risks putting the court in the awkward position of having to supervise plaintiffs' repayment in the event that federal defendants prevail on appeal," the government's brief said.

The environmental groups asked for $360,263.  The government, while noting that not all the environmental groups had requested attorney fees, said if the court does decide to award fees, it should provide a maximum of $229,814.  While the environmental groups won on their ESA claims, they lost on their National Environmental Policy Act claims and should not be paid for that part of their work.  The government also said that nearly 25 of the hours requested were duplicative and represented hours when multiple attorneys conferred.

The EDC and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper submitted their request in early August.  After winning the case, they argued the ESA provides them an opportunity to collect fees and costs.  "Plaintiffs achieved the requisite degree of success on their ESA claims" to make a fee award appropriate, they argued.  They added that the request was correct and that they had reduced the amount of hours in their request to make sure it was reasonable and did a line-by-line review to ensure that the time billed wasn't inflated.

Margaret Morgan Hall, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, called the government's framing of the fee request "overstated and incorrect."  "We are only seeking recovery of reasonable hours spent on the litigation, after taking significant reductions of our time to avoid any potential duplication of hours.  We likewise only seek to recover reasonable costs that we are entitled to under the Endangered Species Act citizen suit provision," Hall said in an email to Law360.