Saturday, September 30, 2023
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Uncle Sam Owes Less for Bad Grazing Decisions

(CN) - The 9th Circuit on Wednesday reduced the amount of attorneys' fees that the U.S. government owes conservationists who have spent the last 15 years fighting Idaho grazing allotments.

Western Watersheds Project initiated the case in 1997 with a federal complaint over grazing permits that the Bureau of Land Management granted to cattle ranchers for 68 public land allotments in southwestern Idaho.

After a federal judge found a violation the National Environmental Policy Act, the bureau promulgated a final decision that provided for 10-year grazing permits that would incorporate a grazing rotation schedule and voluntary management guidelines to improve rangeland health.

Western Watersheds challenged this rule in an administrative appeal in the Department of Interior, going before an administrative law judge (ALJ) and the Interior Board of Land Appeals.

Though the appeals board sided with the government, the District Court again sided with Western Watersheds. This led the nonprofit to seek attorneys' fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA).

Chief U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise ultimately ordered the government to pay $183,160 for the administrative proceedings. The decision relied on the fact that that the administrative proceedings were "intimately tied" to the District Court action, which relied on the record compiled by Western Watersheds before the ALJ.

On Wednesday, the federal appeals court in Seattle said this holding improperly expanded the scope of the act.

"Under its reasoning, fees would be recoverable for most administrative proceedings in which the District Court relies on the administrative record," Judge Mary Schroeder wrote for the unanimous three-member panel.

The U.S. Supreme Court has "stated consistently that fees for administrative proceedings can only be awarded under § 2412(d)(1)(A) if the District Court ordered the further proceedings, and the District Court action remained pending until the conclusion of the administrative proceedings," Schroeder added.

Here the "administrative proceedings were not tied to any then-pending District Court litigation," according to the ruling.

"We therefore must vacate the fee award and remand for the district court to reduce the award by the amount that represents fees incurred in the administrative proceedings," Schroeder wrote.

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