In Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods v. Regents of the University of California (2021) 70 Cal.App.5th 705, the First District Court of Appeal upheld a trial court’s determination that the developer and operator of a proposed campus expansion project were not indispensable parties to a lawsuit challenging the Regents of the University of California’s (Regent’s) approval of that project. In doing so, the court held that Assembly Bill No. 320 (AB 320) (2011–2012 Reg. Sess.)—which amended CEQA to require agencies to identify the recipients of project approvals on a project’s notice of determination (NOD) and to require CEQA petitioners to name and serve those persons or entities listed on the NOD—did not alter the court’s analysis of whether a party is “indispensable” to the lawsuit under Code of Civil Procedure section 389, subdivision (b) (CCP section 389(b)).
The Regents approved a project to demolish an existing parking structure, construct student housing above a new parking structure, and develop a new academic building adjacent to the new residential building (project). The Regents prepared and certified a supplemental environmental impact report (SEIR) for the project. On May 17, 2019, the Regents filed an NOD, which identified American Campus Communities (ACC) and Collegiate Housing Foundation (CHF) as the parties undertaking the project. ACC is the developer for the project, and CHF is the ground lessee and borrower for the housing component of the project.
On June 13, 2019, petitioner Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking to vacate the Regents’ certification of the SEIR on the ground that the Regents violated CEQA. The petition named the Regents as a respondent, but did not name ACC or CHF as parties. Nor did petitioner serve ACC and CHF. On September 18, 2019, petitioner filed a first amended petition, which added ACC and CHF as real parties in interest. The amended petition acknowledged that ACC and CHF were listed as parties undertaking the project in the NOD, and thus were being named pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21167.6.5, subdivision (a), which requires the entities identified as recipients of project approvals on an NOD to be named as real parties in interest.
ACC and CHF filed demurrers to the first amended petition, asserting that petitioner failed to name them as parties within the applicable statute of limitations and that they are necessary and indispensable parties to the litigation, so the entire action should be dismissed. The trial court sustained the demurrers without leave to amend, but did not dismiss the lawsuit. The court held that ACC and CHF should have been named as real parties because they were listed on the NOD as the parties undertaking the project. Because petitioner had failed to amend its petition to name them as parties within 30 days after the Regents filed the NOD, petitioner’s challenge against ACC and CHF was time-barred under Public Resources Code section 21167. The court held, however, that the failure to timely name ACC and CHF as real parties did not justify dismissing the case because ACC and CHF were not indispensable parties under CCP 389(b).
ACC and CHF appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in concluding they were not indispensable parties. Petitioner filed a cross-appeal, arguing that the trial court erred in applying CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations to the lawsuit because, according to petitioner, the Regents’ NOD for the project – the filing of which triggered the 30-day statute of limitations – was defective. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s order sustaining the demurrer.
As a threshold matter, the appellate court considered whether the trial court’s order sustaining the demurrer was appealable. Petitioner argued that it was not because the appeal arose from an interlocutory (non-final) order and thus violated the “one final judgment” rule. Furthermore, petitioner argued, the issue of whether AOC and CHF are indispensable parties remained in the underlying action because that issue was also raised by the Regents, who remained a party to the action, so the court should not consider that issue yet. The court rejected these arguments. The court explained that in actions involving multiple parties, an order fully disposing all of the issues as to one party is appealable, even if those same issues remain as to the other parties. Accordingly, the appeal was proper.
Necessary and Indispensable Parties
The court next considered whether the trial court erred in determining that CHF and ACC were not indispensable parties. If CHF and ACC were indispensable parties, the lawsuit must be dismissed in full. If they were not indispensable, then petitioner’s lawsuit against the Regents could move forward. The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that CHF and ACC were not indispensable parties.
Assembly Bill 320 Did Not Alter a Court’s Analysis of Whether a Real Party is “Indispensable”
CEQA currently requires petitioners to name, as a real party in interest, any person or entity identified on an NOD as a recipient of the project’s approval. Prior to 2012, however, CEQA did not require the recipients of the project approvals to be identified on the NOD. CEQA did, however, require any recipient of a project approval to be named as a real party in interest. The phrase “any recipient of an approval” was not defined by the statute, leading to confusion in the courts.
In 2011, the Legislature passed AB 320, which amended CEQA to require agencies to identify the recipient of a project’s approval on the project’s NOD. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21108.) It also amended CEQA to require petitioners to name the entities identified on the NOD as real parties in interest and to serve the petition on those entities. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21167.6.5, subd. (a)). The AB 320 amendments also provided that the “failure to name potential persons, other than those real parties in interest described in Public Resources Code, § 21167.6.5, subdivision (a), is not a ground for dismissal pursuant to Section 389 of the Code of Civil Procedure.” (Pub. Resources Code, § 21167.6.5, subd. (d).)
ACC and CHF argued that AB 320 was intended to provide “finality and certainty” as to who must be joined in a CEQA action and, therefore, CCP 389(b), which provides an equitable balancing test for determining who constitutes an indispensable party, does not apply. The court rejected this argument, holding that the AB 320 did not alter judicial analysis of whether a party is indispensable.
ACC and CHF argued that the express language of Public Resources Code section 21167.6.5, as amended by AB 320, demonstrates that CCP 389(b) does not apply. Specially, subdivision (d) of that statute states: “Failure to name potential persons, other than those real parties in interests described in subdivision (a), is not grounds for dismissal pursuant to Section 389 of the Code of Civil Procedure.” (Italics added.) The court disagreed that this language indicates that CCP 389(b)’s equitable balancing test does not apply when the petition fails to name a real party. As the court explained, the statute does not explicitly state that CCP 389(b) cannot be applied in CEQA actions in which the real party has not been properly named and served. Rather, that statute only suggests that the failure to name a real party in interest may be grounds for dismissal, depending on the equitable factors set forth in CCP 389(b).
Turning to the Legislative intent, the court found that in enacting AB 320, the Legislature did not intend to prevent application of CCP 389(b). Rather, the bill was only meant to clarify who constitutes a real party in interest, as there had been confusion on that issue in the courts. Moreover, AB 320’s Legislative history suggests that rather than intending to limit CEQA actions, AB 320 was intended to “prevent the dismissal of important and meritorious CEQA cases.” Applying a blanket rule that the failure to timely name a real party in interest constitutes a ground for mandatory dismissal of a CEQA case would frustrate that intent.
Application of CCP 389(b)’s Equitable Factors
The court next considered whether the trial court erred in holding that ACC and HCF were not indispensable parties. Under CCP 389(b), if a necessary party cannot be joined, “the court shall determine whether in equity and good conscious the action should proceed among the parties before it, or should be dismissed without prejudice, the absent person being thus regarded as indispensable. The factors to be considered by the court include: (1) to what extent a judgment rendered in the person’s absence might be prejudicial to him or those already parties; (2) the extent to which, by protective provisions in the judgment, by the shaping of relief, or other measures, the prejudice can be lessened or avoided; (3) whether a judgment rendered in the person’s absence will be adequate; (4) whether the plaintiff or cross-complainant will have an adequate remedy if the action is dismissed for nonjoinder.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 389, subd. (b).)
Applying these factors, the trial court held that ACC and CHF were not indispensable parties. Among other things, ACC and CHF’s interests were closely aligned to that of Regents because ACC and CHF were undertaking the project for the Regents’ own use and benefit. Moreover, petitioner would have no way of challenging the SEIR if the case was dismissed. On the other hand, ACC and CHF were parties in a related case challenging the same SEIR and were thus unlikely to be harmed by a settlement.
On appeal, ACC and CHF argued that they had fundamentally different interests in the project than the Regents. The Regents’ interest was to add housing and academic space to the campus, whereas ACC and CHF’s interest was to develop and operate the project. The court disagreed, explaining that the Regents, like ACC and CHF, had a strong interest in moving forward with the project; the fact that the Regents might have different motivations for doing so was immaterial. Further, contrary to ACC and CHF’s assertion, the Regents had a strong economic interest in the project because the Regents would manage and operate the new parking structure and the new academic building and the Regents would regain ownerships of the project once the project’s debt was repaid. ACC and CHF had failed to cite any evidence that they had unique financial interests or would be more harmed by an adverse judgment than the Regents. Accordingly, the trial court properly concluded that ACC and CHF were not indispensable parties.
Petitioner’s Cross Appeal – Did the Trial Court Err in Applying CEQA’s 30-Day Statute of Limitations?
Turning to the cross appeal, the court held that the trial court properly applied CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations to the first amended petition. Petitioner argued that the statute of limitations should not apply because the Regents’ NOD for the project failed to accurately describe the project. In particular, the NOD did not explain that the project would result in an increase in student enrollment. The court disagreed that such information was required, holding that an increase in student enrollment was not a material component of the project. To the contrary, the NOD and SEIR indicated that the project was intended to accommodate the existing student body and planned growth, not necessarily to increase enrollment. Although it is possible that the project could result in an increase in enrollment, the record did not suggest that increasing enrollment was a component of project. Therefore, the trial court correctly held that the Regents’ filing of the NOD triggered CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations.
The Court of Appeal was unwilling to interpret AB 320’s amendments to CEQA as modifying judicial analysis of whether a party is indispensable in a CEQA case. Although Public Resources Code 21167.6.5, as amended, could be interpreted as implying that the failure to name a real party in interest is a ground for dismissal under CCP 389(b), as the court noted, the statute does not explicitly require such a result. Thus, where a CEQA petitioner fails to name all parties listed as approval recipients on an NOD (or a notice of exemption (NOE)), case law decided under the former statute is still relevant to the question of whether a party is indispensable. The case also clarifies that although a project might result in changes to the existing baseline (e.g., an increase in student enrollment), that change need not be described as a component of the proposed project in the NOD or NOE.