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No Fees in Fight Between Trucks and Trees on 101

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge denied a request for $125,000 in attorney fees by environmentalists fighting the widening of Highway 101 through a redwood grove, finding that federal law prohibits recovering fees from a state agency when the United States isn't involved in the case.

Environmentalists sued to stop the California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans, from widening the historic Highway 101 in Richardson Grove State Park - home to thousands-year-old redwood trees that soar to heights over 300 feet.

Built through the park in 1915, Highway 101 threads for a mile through the park as a narrow two-lane road flanked by trees that come right up to the gravel. The roadway narrows to just 22 feet in some places, prohibiting use by most semi-trucks.

To reach Eureka at the northern tip of California from San Francisco, big rigs must take a 446-mile detour around the highway. Caltrans started a widening project, bypassing an environmental impact report despite the reality that - by the agency's own estimate - at least 54 redwoods would be dug up and another 68 would suffer excavation cuts and road base put down in their root zones.

Attempts at mediation proved unsuccessful, with the environmental groups objecting to Caltrans' use of maps they said were inaccurate. A magistrate judge visited the site with both parties and concluded that Caltrans had indeed relied on inaccurate maps and tree dimensions for the project.

In 2012, U.S. District Judge William Alsup ordered Caltrans to come up with accurate maps that identify, number and calculate the root zones of each ancient redwood and set forth environmental issues for each one. If the revisions uncovered significant environmental impact, the agency had to commission an environmental impact statement for the project.

That case ended, and the parties resolved the issue of attorney fees through mediation. But the environmentalists sued again after concluding that Caltrans had not complied with Alsup's order.

In the meantime, a state court judge ordered the agency to halt the widening project until completing further environmental analysis and the Federal Highway Administration decertified the project. In light of these developments, the parties agreed to voluntarily dismiss the latest suit - leading to the environmentalists' request for attorney fees and costs totaling nearly $127,000.

But in an order issued March 31 Alsup denied the request, finding that the federal Equal Access to Justice Act prohibits fee awards against state agencies when the United States isn't involved in the case.

"No federal court has ever held that the EAJA authorizes an award of fees in an action against a state, state agency, or its officials," Alsup wrote. "The undersigned judge requested that the parties provide on-point authority on just this issue. In response, plaintiffs filed a six-page brief and supporting declarations and exhibits - in disregard of a request limiting supplemental briefing to five pages and disallowing attachments - in which plaintiffs cited neither binding precedent nor on-point authority."

What the environmentalists did cite, Alsup said, was a decision from a Kentucky court - in a case that involved a federal agency. So the judge took it upon himself to review more than 600 EAJA decisions.

"No federal court (or state court) has ever awarded EAJA fees against a state agency," he wrote. "In these circumstances, there is simply no authority to order the relief sought." [Parentheses in original.]

Additionally, the environmentalists missed the filing deadline for attorney fees by 60 days and never did the required meet-and-confer with Caltrans before filing their demand, Alsup said.

"This is an additional reason that counsels against awarding fees in this matter," he concluded.

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