Archives: June 2022


In Department of Water Resources Environmental Impact Cases (2022) 79 Cal.App.5th 556, the Third District Court of Appeal found that the trial court did not apply the correct legal standard in rejecting plaintiffs’ motions for attorney fees following litigation challenging California’s WaterFix project under CEQA and other laws. Plaintiffs relied on the state’s private attorney general statute (Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5), asserting that they were successful parties under a “catalyst” theory because the litigation motivated the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to rescind the project approvals and decertify the EIR. The trial court denied the motions, finding that although plaintiffs achieved the primary objectives of their litigation, this was caused by a directive from Governor Newsom, not their lawsuits. The appellate court, however, found that it was error to treat the Governor’s directive as an “external, superseding cause” of DWR’s decision. Instead, the trial court should have considered whether plaintiffs’ lawsuit was a substantial factor in the Governor’s decision to change course regarding the WaterFix project. The court therefore reversed and remanded the matter for redetermination.


In 2013, DWR issued a draft EIR for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan project under CEQA. The plan aimed to improve California’s water supply infrastructure by constructing two 35-mile-long tunnels that would convey fresh water from the Sacramento River to pumping stations in the southern Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. In 2015, DWR replaced that plan with the WaterFix project, which differed from the original in that it decoupled the habitat conservation component from the water conveyance elements. On July 21, 2017, DWR certified a final EIR, adopted findings, a statement of overriding considerations, and a mitigation monitoring and reporting plan, and approved the WaterFix project.

Numerous plaintiffs filed petitions for writ of mandates challenging the WaterFix project and EIR. The lawsuits sought to compel DWR to rescind the WaterFix approvals, decertify the EIR, and suspend development pending compliance with applicable laws. Plaintiffs alleged a variety of violations under CEQA, as well as under the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta Reform Act of 2009, the public trust doctrine, and the California Endangered Species Act. Plaintiffs’ lawsuits were coordinated for trial.

In November 2018, Governor-elect Newsom expressed doubt over whether the WaterFix project could overcome its various legal challenges, and officially voiced his opposition to the project (as Governor) three months later. On April 29, 2019, he issued Executive Order No. N-10-19, which established his new “water resilience portfolio” policy and encouraged DWR to “inventory and assess” the “[c]urrent planning to modernize conveyance through the Bay Delta with a new single tunnel project.” Less than one week later, as litigation was ongoing, DWR decertified the WaterFix EIR, vacated its findings, and rescinded the project’s approvals. Consequently, the coordinated cases were voluntarily dismissed.

After the cases were dismissed, plaintiffs filed motions for attorneys’ fees, asserting that they were “successful” parties under the catalyst theory because the litigation motivated DWR to voluntarily provide the relief sought (namely, rescission of the project approvals, decertification of the EIR, and dismissal of the validation action). DWR opposed the motions, arguing that the decision to rescind project approval was based on the Governor’s Executive Order, not the litigation.

The trial court denied plaintiffs’ motions, agreeing that the relief was caused by the Governor’s directive rather than the lawsuits. Plaintiffs appealed.


The court of appeal agreed with plaintiffs that the trial court erred in treating Governor Newsom’s policy directive as an external, superseding cause of DWR’s actions. Although, as an agency within the executive branch, DWR was required to implement the Governor’s decision to shift from two tunnels to one, that did not mean that there was no connection between the lawsuits and the rescission of the WaterFix approvals and decertification of the EIR. Instead, the trial court should have asked whether the litigation was “a substantial factor” in the Governor’s decision.

The court suggested plaintiffs had presented evidence that the Governor’s decision was at least in part influenced by their lawsuits, such as his November 2018 statement that “‘I think if we walk down the path of two tunnels, we’re in litigation and no project.’” Plaintiffs also presented statements made by DWR’s director that the previous proposal might not have fully acknowledged and mitigated for impacts. The court of appeal held that, regardless of whether this evidence was sufficient to establish a causal relationship between the litigation and the Governor’s opposition to the WaterFix project, the trial court erred in refusing to consider this evidence.

The court of appeal also found error in the trial court’s refusal to consider plaintiffs’ argument that the chronology of events could raise an inference of causation, which it had rejected because EIR decertification was “expected.” The appellate court explained that even if the underlying project is abandoned or withdrawn, nothing in CEQA requires the lead agency to decertify that project’s EIR. Only when the previous environmental document is “wholly irrelevant” must the agency start anew. Further, nothing in the Governor’s Executive Order compelled DWR’s decertification and rescission, as it merely directed the agency to “inventory and assess”  the current plan “to modernize conveyance through the Bay Delta with a new single tunnel project.” Finally, in the wake of the Governor’s announced opposition, DWR’s attorneys advised the court that DWR could still proceed under CEQA using a supplemental or subsequent EIR—obviously contrary to the contention of inevitable decertification. Thus, because DWR’s decision to abandon the project was independently made, there was “a legitimate question as to why it made that choice.” And because the plaintiffs had properly relied on the chronology of events to raise an inference that the lawsuits had substantially motivated DWR’s decision, the burden had shifted to DWR to rebut that inference. The trial court’s refusal to consider plaintiff’s evidence was thus a prejudicial abuse of discretion.

—Griffin Williams


In Committee for Sound Water and Land Development v. City of Seaside (2022) 79 Cal.App.5th 389, certified for publication on June 1, 2022, the Sixth District Court of Appeal held that a nonprofit group’s CEQA claims were time-barred by the statute of limitations, even with the extended period afforded by Emergency rule 9, which the Judicial Council adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


This case involves the City of Seaside’s certification of an EIR for the Campus Town 122-acre development project located on the former Ford Ord military base.

On March 6, 2020, the City issued a notice of determination for the Project. On April 5, the Committee for Sound Water and Land Development (the Committee), a nonprofit organization, submitted a request to the Fort Ord Reuse Authority (FORA) to receive written notice of (1) the City’s request of FORA to determine the Project’s consistency with the Fort Ord Reuse Plan (Reuse Plan), and (2) FORA’s consistency determination hearing. On June 6, FORA held a hearing at which it determined the Project was consistent with the Reuse Plan. It did not notify the Committee.

On April 6, 2020, the Committee filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the City’s approval of the Project and FORA’s consistency determination under CEQA. The trial court subsequently granted its request to dismiss the petition without prejudice. On September 1, 2020, the Committee filed a second petition, alleging that the City violated CEQA and that FORA violated its constitutional due process rights.

The trial court sustained the City’s and Real Party’s demurrers on the grounds that (1) the CEQA claims were time-barred, (2) the due process causes were moot because FORA ceased existing as of June 30, 2020, and (3) the second writ petition was a sham pleading because it was only filed to cure the Committee’s failure to request a hearing within 90 days of filing the original petition, as required by Public Resources Code section 21167.4. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s dismissal.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Statute of Limitations

First, the court held that the petition was time-barred under the deadlines established by Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (c), as extended by Emergency Rule 9, subdivision (b).

The original Emergency rule, adopted by the Judicial Council on April 6, 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, tolled the statute of limitations in civil cases for 90 days until Governor Gavin Newsom lifts the state of emergency order that the Governor had declared on March 4, 2020. In response to requests from the CEQA bar, the rule was subsequently amended to end the tolling period on August 3, 2020 for 30-day statute of limitations applicable to CEQA causes of action. Thus, the last day for the Committee to file its CEQA petition was August 4, 2020. The Committee relied on the original version of Emergency rule 9 and claimed that its counsel was unaware of the amendment. The petition, filed on September 1, 2020, was therefore untimely.

The court was unpersuaded by the Committee’s argument that the amendment of the rule resulted in impermissible “truncation” of the limitations period. It explained that the rule was not unreasonable because the 30-day period would have ended on April 6, 2020—several months earlier—but for Emergency rule 9, as amended.

The court, consequently, did not address the sham pleading doctrine issue.


The court also held that no effectual relief could be provided to the Committee for the alleged due process violation because the relief requested—that the City re-notice and conduct a new consistency determination hearing regarding the Project—could not be granted because the law requiring the consistency determination was repealed. By law, former Government Code sections 67650–67700 were repealed, dissolving FORA and eliminating the statutory requirement for FORA to determine whether projects at the base are consistent with the Reuse Plan.

The court rejected the Committee’s arguments that the City is a “successor in interest” to FORA’s obligations under the Reuse Plan and should be charged with correcting the improperly unnoticed hearing. It explained that the repeal of the law means that there is currently no requirement for a Reuse Plan consistency determination. Therefore, the Committee’s due process cause of action is moot.

Because the matter was moot, declaratory relief was also not available, and the court accordingly held that it was appropriate for the trial court to sustain the demurrers without leave to amend.

Third District Holds Bumble Bees are “fish” under the California Endangered Species Act, Can Be Listed as Endangered or Threatened Species

In Almond Alliance of California v. Fish and Game Commission (2022) 79 Cal.App.5th 337, the Third District Court of Appeal held that bumble bees fall under the general definition of “fish,” as the term is defined in the California Fish and Game Code, because the definition includes terrestrial, as well as aquatic, invertebrates. Accordingly, bumble bees, which are terrestrial invertebrates, may receive protected status as endangered or threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act (“CESA”).


In October 2018, several public interest groups petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission (“Commission”) to list four species of bumble bees as endangered. Soon after, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (“Department”) issued a report declaring sufficient evidence for the Commission to accept the petition to list the species. The Commission acted accordingly, declaring the bee species as “candidate” species for further review by the Department.

In September 2019, Petitioners challenged the Commission’s decision to list the bumble bees as candidate species. They alleged the Commission violated its legal duty and abused its discretion because bumble bees are terrestrial invertebrates not included in CESA’s protections for “bird[s], mammal[s], fish, amphibian[s], reptile[s], or plant[s].” Furthermore, they asserted that section 45’s definition of “fish,” which includes invertebrates, refers only to aquatic invertebrates.

The trial court ruled for petitioners. The Commission, the Department, and several public interest groups appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Section 45 Definition of “Fish” as Applied to Sections 2062, 2067, and 2068 of CESA

“Fish” as defined in section 45 of the California Fish and Game Code means “a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals.”  The Commission contended that this definition applies to the provisions of CESA which define endangered, threatened, and candidate species—sections 2062, 2067 and, 2068, respectively.

The Court agreed with the Commission, citing legal precedent and CESA’s legislative history. Specifically, the Court reaffirmed the holding in California Forestry Association v. California Fish & Game Commission (2007) 156 Cal.App.4th 1535 that section 45 defines “fish” as the term is used in sections 2062 and 2067 of CESA. Additionally, the Court identified several instances in which the Legislature used or acquiesced to the use of the section 45 definition. For example, the Court highlighted that the Legislature expressly used the section 45 definition of “fish” when it enacted CESA, though it was within the purview the Legislature to create its own definition. Relatedly, the Legislature amended section 45 after the California Forestry Association decision, but stopped short of signaling its contrary intent from the holding in that case. Based on this evidence, the Court concluded that the Legislature intended for the word “fish” in sections 2062, 2067, and 2068 of CESA to take on the meaning as defined in section 45.

“Fish” Is a Term of Art Not Limited to Aquatic Species 

Petitioners asserted that even if section 45 applies to sections 2062, 2067, and 2068, the term invertebrates in the definition of “fish” should be read as being limited to aquatic invertebrates. However, the Court espoused the more technical definition of “fish” that encompasses all terrestrial and aquatic species that fall under the categories of “mollusks, invertebrates, amphibians, and crustaceans.”

The Court described how legislative history supports this definition. It explained that at the time CESA was enacted, several bill analysis reports noted that the Commission had the authority to designate insects as endangered or threatened. Additionally, the Court highlighted that the Commission previously approved a terrestrial mollusk and invertebrate, the Trinity Bristle Snail, as an endangered species and expressly reaffirmed its status upon CESA’s enaction. The Trinity Bristle Snail’s endangered status is an explicit example of the Commission using its authority to protect terrestrial invertebrates under the section 45 definition of “fish.”

Additionally, the Court noted that previous caselaw directs it to construe laws providing for the conservation of natural resources liberally.

Construing CESA liberally, and considering the legislative intent behind CESA, the Court concluded that “a terrestrial invertebrate, like each of the four bumble bee species, may be listed as an endangered or threatened species under [CESA].”

— Jordan Wright