The Idaho Supreme Court’s decisions in Jayo Development, Inc. v. Ada County Board of Equalization, 2015 Opinion No. 25 (Feb. 26, 2015) and Arnold v. City of Stanley, 2015 Opinion No. 23 (Feb. 26, 2015), add something for appellate attorneys to consider when involved in proceedings where a person is adverse to a state agency or political subdivision. Jayo Development concerned the decision of the Idaho Board of Tax Appeals (the “Board”) to deny Jayo Development’s application for a property tax exemption. Arnold concerned the dismissal of Thomas and Rebecca Arnold’s complaint, which sought to have a meeting held by the City of Stanley (the “City”) declared null and void for violating Idaho’s open meeting law. Both cases turned on the interpretation of a statute. The interpretation of the statute in Arnold was a matter of first impression.
In Jay Development, the Court affirmed the district court, finding Jayo Development was not entitled to the tax exemption based on the plain language of the statute. In Arnold, the Court also affirmed the district court, finding the Arnolds had no standing to bring their challenge based on the clear language of the statute. The Court then considered whether the Board (in Jayo Development) and the City (in Arnold) were entitled to attorney fees on appeal under Idaho Code § 12-117. Idaho Code § 12-117(1) provides:
Unless otherwise provided by statute, in any proceeding involving as adverse parties a state agency or a political subdivision and a person, the state agency, political subdivision or the court hearing the proceeding, including on appeal, shall award the prevailing party reasonable attorney’s fees …, if it finds that the nonprevailing party acted without a reasonable basis in fact or law.
(Emphasis added.) According to the Court, parties to appeals act without a reasonable basis in law when they advance arguments based on a disregard for the plain language of a statute. Because the statutes in both cases were found unambiguous and Jayo Development and the Arnolds’ interpretations did not conform to the statutes’ plain language, the Court awarded the Board and the City attorney fees on appeal.
The Court’s awards of attorney fees adds an element of risk (or reward) for appeals where a person is adverse to a state agency or political subdivision. If the case turns on the interpretation of a statute—even if the interpretation is a matter of first impression—and the statute is found unambiguous, it appears likely that the losing party will face an award of attorney fees on appeal under Section 12-117(1). Something for practitioners and their clients to consider when they are involved in such proceedings.