Citizens for Open Government v. City of Lodi
(2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 296
The Third Appellate District upheld the trial court’s judgment discharging a writ after the City of Lodi demonstrated full compliance with CEQA for a revised, recirculated EIR prepared for a use permit to develop a 35-acre shopping center. In 2005, the trial court granted a petition for writ of mandate in a proceeding challenging the City’s environmental review (Lodi First I). The city council rescinded approval of the project and decertified the original EIR. In 2007, the city circulated revisions to the EIR for public review and comment. The city concluded some of the comments it had received on the revised draft EIR were beyond the scope of the revisions and barred by res judicata. The city declined to provide substantive responses to these comments. In 2009, the city council conditionally approved the project entitlements and adopted findings of fact and a statement of overriding considerations for the project.
In order to proceed with the project, the city filed a petition to discharge the writ in the original proceeding. As part of this process, the city lodged a supplemental administrative record. Petitioner groups Citizens for Open Government (COG) and Lodi First filed separate lawsuits challenging the final revised EIR. Both groups contended the supplemental administrative record excluded documents, including internal agency communications and communications with city consultants. COG filed a motion to augment the supplemental administrative record. The court granted the motion in part and denied the motion in part based on the attorney-client, attorney-work-product and deliberative process privileges. In 2010, following a hearing on the merits, the trial court granted the City’s request to discharge the 2005 writ in Lodi First I and deny the petitions challenging the revised EIR.
On appeal, Lodi First and COG argued the trial court erred in applying the deliberative process privilege to exclude some emails from the administrative record. Appellants also challenged the sufficiency of the revised EIR on numerous grounds and disputed the trial court’s ruling precluding them from challenging certain issues based on res judicata.
Under the deliberative process privilege, senior officials in government enjoy a qualified, limited privilege not to disclose certain materials or communications. These include the mental processes by which a given decision was reached and other discussions, deliberations, etc., by which government policy is processed and formulated. The deliberative process showing must be made by the one claiming the privilege. Not every deliberative process communication is protected by the privilege. Instead, the privilege is implicated only if the public interest in nondisclosure clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.
In the trial court, the city argued the deliberative process privilege applied because the city manager, city attorney, community development director, and other consultants engaged in various deliberative discussions and document exchanges concerning revisions to the EIR. The privilege was required, the city argued, “to foster candid dialogue and a testing and challenging of the approaches to be taken…” On appeal, Lodi First claimed this assertion was insufficient to support nondisclosure through the deliberative process privilege. The appellate court agreed, finding the city offered a correct statement of policy, but that invoking policy was not sufficient to explain the public’s specific interest in nondisclosure of the documents at issue. As a result, the city failed to carry its burden, and the trial court erred in excluding 22 e-mails from the administrative record based on the deliberative process privilege.
While the trial court erred in excluding these documents, this error was not necessarily prejudicial. Under the standard for prejudicial error established by the California Constitution, the appellant bears the burden to show it is reasonably probable he or she would have received a more favorable result at trial had the error not occurred.
Lodi First acknowledged it could not satisfy its burden to prove prejudice on appeal because it had not seen the documents that were erroneously withheld. Lodi First claimed the improper withholding of the documents itself was prejudicial because it was impossible for Lodi First to acquire them. The appellate court disagreed and noted Lodi First should have sought writ review of the trial court’s ruling on the motion to augment the administrative record. In addition, the appellate court, citing Madera Oversight Coalition Inc. v. County of Madera (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 48, disagreed with Lodi First’s contention that the incomplete record itself was a prejudicial error requiring reversal regardless of the actual contents of the withheld documents.
The appellate court upheld the revised EIR’s discussion of alternatives and cumulative urban decay impacts, the city’s selection of a baseline for urban decay impacts, cumulative impacts to agriculture, and a 1:1 conservation easement mitigation ratio.
Lodi First also attempted to argue the revised EIR failed to disclose cumulative water supply impacts. The trial court held that res judicata barred Lodi Frist from raising this claim. The appellate court agreed.
Res Judicata (claim preclusion) bars relitigation of a cause of action that was previously adjudicated in another proceeding between the same parties or parties in privity with them and that adjudication resulted in a final decision on the merits. In this case, a writ was issued in Lodi First I and was final on the merits. The trial court granted Lodi First’s petition and held the 2005 EIR was inadequate under CEQA. The city chose not to appeal, and the ruling was final because the time to appeal passed.
Lodi first attempted to argue res judicata did not preclude its water supply challenge because it was based on new information and the city’s 2009 findings regarding the project’s water supply impacts differed from its 2005 findings. For the purposes of res judicata, causes of action are considered the same if based on the same primary right. A claim is based on the same primary right if based on the same conditions and facts in existence when the original action was filed.
The appellate court determined the problem of overdraft cited by Lodi First was not new evidence. The city’s own 1990 general plan identified overdraft in the aquifer. While Lodi First claimed new evidence established more information than the 1990 EIR, the critical fact was that the city’s water supply was inadequate to serve new development. This was known at the time of the 2004 EIR. In addition, the court determined the findings were consistent in that both findings were that the project would have no significant impact on water supply and therefore, no mitigation was necessary
Finally, the appellate court disagreed with Lodi First that res judicata should not be applied to the water supply issue due to public policy. When the issue is a question of law rather than of fact, res judicata may not apply if injustice would result or if the public interest requires that relitigation be allowed. Lodi First’s water supply issue did not present a question of law, so the public interest exception did not apply.
This case demonstrates the limitations of the deliberative process privilege for public agencies. Agencies attempting to rely on this privilege must be prepared to support their assertion of the privilege with a specific showing that the nondisclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure; broad policy statements are not enough to support application of the privilege. In addition, the case offers an important reminder of the consequences of failing to raise all potential arguments in original CEQA proceedings, and indeed, most regular civil proceedings.
RMM partners Andrea Leisy and Howard Wilkins and associate Laura Harris represented real party in in interest Browman Development in this litigation.