Ninth Circuit Rules (Preliminarily) in Favor of Black Mesa Water Coalition in Attorney Fees Dispute

Here is the opinion in Black Mesa Water Coalition v. Jewell. From the court’s summary:

The panel reversed in part, and vacated in part, the district court’s judgment in an action for costs and expenses brought by a plaintiff group of environmental and community organizations against the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement after plaintiff participated in a successful challenge to OSM’s grant of a coal mining permit revision.

Plaintiff petitioned the agency under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act’s administrative fee-award provision to recover costs and expenses from OSM. The administrative law judge dismissed the fee petition based on the conclusion that plaintiff was not “eligible,” and was not “entitled” to costs and expenses, under 43 C.F.R. § 4.1294(b).

The panel held that its review of the agency’s “eligibility” determination was de novo, and its review of the “entitlement” determination was for substantial evidence. The panel concluded that plaintiff was “eligible” for fees because it showed some degree of success on the merits, and the agency’s contrary conclusion was error as a matter of law. The panel vacated the portion of the district court’s decision as related to the question of entitlement. The panel declined to reach the issue whether plaintiff was “entitled” to fees, and remanded for the agency to consider the issue. Finally, the panel rejected plaintiff’s argument that the Secretary of the Interior had waived a challenge to the reasonableness of any award amount that the agency might grant on remand for costs and expenses reasonably incurred for plaintiff’s participation in the proceedings at the agency level.

And the briefs:

Black Mesa Opening Brief

Interior Appellee Brief

Black Mesa Reply

Black Mesa Supplemental Brief

Interior Supplemental Brief

Black Mesa Supplemental Reply Brief

Oral argument audio here.