The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the City of Seward, Alaska, must pay attorney’s fees to two environmental groups that filed a lawsuit against the city seeking $76 million for allegedly discharging pollutants without proper permits. Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance v. City of Seward, No. 10-35446 (9th Cir. 5/19/11). In so ruling, the appeals court reversed a district court decision holding that special circumstances precluded the award even though plaintiffs were the prevailing parties.

Plaintiffs filed their CWA citizen suit in September 2006, alleging that the city violated the Clean Water Act by discharging pollutants from a small boat harbor and a boat repair yard without obtaining NPDES permits. The district court ordered the city to apply for an NPDES permit for both locations, but denied the request for attorney’s fees and imposed a civil penalty of $1. Later, EPA determined that no industrial activity was taking place at the boat harbor and, as a result, the district court vacated part of its order requiring a permit for the site, although the order requiring a permit for the repair yard remained effective.

The appeals court reversed the district court’s denial of plaintiff’s request for attorney’s fees, ruling that the lower court failed to perceive the importance of the CWA’s permit requirements and the relief obtained by plaintiffs. According to the court, the district court failed to identify any basis in law for the notion that a special circumstances determination could trump the rule awarding attorney’s fees to the prevailing party.