Author Archives: Casey Shorrock

Supreme Court of the U.S. Holds that Draft Biological Opinions that are Pre-decisional and Deliberative Are Protected from Disclosure Under FOIA By the Deliberative Process Privilege

On March 4, 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States in United States Fish and Wildlife Service v. Sierra Club, Inc. (2021) 141 S.Ct. 777, in an opinion written by newly appointed Justice Barrett and joined by Justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, reversed in part the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in holding that the deliberative process privilege protects Draft Biological Opinions (B.O.s) from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) if the Draft B.O.s are pre-decisional and deliberative, even if they represent an agency’s last views on a proposed action.

BACKGROUND

In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a rule on the design and operation of cooling water intake structures intended for use in industrial facilities, to make use of technology to minimize adverse environmental impacts. (See 79 Fe. Reg. 22174 (2001).) Even still, these cooling structures would kill a certain amount of fish and other aquatic species, some of which might be federally protected (threatened or endangered). Accordingly, under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the EPA consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), both of which began preparation of Draft B.O.s in order to make their jeopardy determinations, i.e., whether or not the EPA’s proposal would jeopardize the continued existence of a protected species. Informal consultation with these agencies began in 2012 and formal consultation began in 2013. Multiple documents were exchanged between agencies during this time.

In November 2013, the EPA revised its proposed rule in response to consultation, and USFWS/NMFS tentatively agreed to provide the EPA with their Draft B.O.s by December 6th and Final documents by December 20th. Both Draft B.O.s concluded that the proposed rule likely would jeopardize protected species. Neither agency formally approved their Draft B.O. or presented them to the EPA by the deadline and, instead, both agencies concluded that more work needed to be done. As well, the EPA was still internally debating its rule, therefore all parties agreed to extend the period of consultation.

By March 2014, the EPA had revised its proposed rule again from the 2013 version, in a manner that allowed USFWS/NMFS to issue a joint no-jeopardy determination, after which the EPA issued its final rule that same day. Sierra Club made FOIA requests to USFWS/NMFS regarding their consultation on this rule, and both agencies invoked the deliberative process privilege for the Draft B.O.s of EPA’s 2013 proposed rule. Sierra Club sued in the Northern District of California, and won on this issue. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision on this issue. The Supreme Court grant certiorari.

ANALYSIS

FOIA mandates the disclosure of documents held by federal agencies upon request unless one of nine exemptions apply. One such exemption is the deliberative process privilege, which protects documents from FOIA requests if they reflect an agency’s preliminary thinking about an issue, as opposed to its final opinion. The deliberative process privilege exists to encourage agency candor so as to improve decisionmaking and avoid the “chilling effect” that can occur when an agency believes its internal discussion may be made public. Pre-decisional, deliberative documents are exempt from disclosure under this privilege, whereas documents indicating final agency opinion must be disclosed. This does not mean, however, that the last document prepared by the agency is necessarily a final document.  As Justice Barrett put it, sometimes a document does not present a final opinion upon which an agency has settled and is only considered final at all because nothing else follows it, because the proposed action upon which it is based “dies on the vine.” Further, whether or not the agency producing the document treats it as final is a primary determining factor.

Here, the Sierra Club contended that the 2013 Draft B.O.s, with their jeopardy determinations, must be considered final under prior precedent because they forced the EPA to change its rule in response. According to Justice Barrett, however,  the precedent cited by Sierra Club was inapposite and the Draft B.O.s prepared in response to the EPA’s 2013 proposed rule were simply draft documents that “died on the vine” when the EPA changed its rule in 2014, and did not represent final agency opinions. She reasoned that, because the 2013 Draft B.O.s were not made available to the EPA, they were still “subject to change.” Even if they had been made available to the EPA, existing regulations would still allow them to be revised. Justice Barrett further found that the gap in time between due dates for the 2013 Draft B.O.s and their Final counterparts indicated their deliberative nature, for why would there be a two-week gap between draft and final unless revisions were anticipated? Mostly though, the court relied on the fact that neither the USFWS nor NMFS had finalized their 2013 Draft B.O.s—they were unapproved by agency decisionmakers and not forwarded to the EPA—as evidence showing that the agencies did not view them as final and thereby proving their lack of finality. These documents then were not really Draft B.O.s but instead were “drafts of draft[s].” They may have contained the last words on the 2013 proposed rule but were not intended to be final.

DISSENT

Justice Breyer penned a dissent, joined by Justice Sotomayor, in which he questioned the majority’s position that the documents were “drafts of drafts,” and asserted that Draft B.O.s do not normally “enjoy” the deliberative process privilege. The dissent preferred a more in-depth factual analysis to determine finality of the documents, and would have liked the question remanded to allow the Ninth Circuit to determine exactly how much more work needed to be done on the draft documents to establish whether they were closer to draft or final documents. Justice Breyer also noted the long agency history of disclosing Draft B.O.s to the public.

– Casey Shorrock

Third District Court of Appeal Holds that the County Relied on the Incorrect Prior EIR in Subsequent Review for a Partial Road Abandonment

On August 17, 2020, the Third Appellate District in Martis Camp Community Association v. County of Placer (2020) 53 Cal.App.5th 569 reversed the trial court’s decision in part and found that Placer County abused its discretion when it approved a partial road abandonment because it relied on the incorrect prior EIR for its addendum and therefore could not accurately determine whether a supplemental or subsequent EIR was required. The court, however, affirmed the lower court’s rejection of the petitioners’ claim that baseline conditions should include the existing but disallowed use of the road along with other non-CEQA claims.

Background

In early 2005, the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved two residential developments and certified their final EIRs—the Martis Camp and the Retreat projects. Martis Camp consists of 650 homes on 2,200 acres just south of State Route (SR) 267 and west of Northstar ski resort. The Retreat consists of 18 homes on 31 acres just east of Martis Camp and within the larger Northstar development. The main roadway connecting Martis Camp to SR 267 is Schaffer Mill Road, a private street that dead-ends at Martis Camp’s southeastern shared boundary with the Retreat. On the other side of that boundary is Mill Site Road, a public road that ultimately connects to Northstar Drive and Northstar ski resort. As initially planned in the 2003 Martis Valley Community Plan, an emergency access roadway with gated access was constructed between Schafer Mill Road and Mill Site Road. The Martis Camp conditions of approval required the developer to construct  this emergency access roadway, provide the County with access for emergency and transit vehicle use, and place signage notifying traffic coming from Schafer Mill Road that the roadway and gate were for “Emergency Access Only.” The Retreat conditions of approval included construction of Mill Site Road and required Retreat property owners to fund road maintenance and snow removal services because such services represented a “‘special benefit’” to them as the sole approved users of the road. At some point around 2010, Martis Camp residents began regularly using Mill Site Road as a more direct route to Northstar in an effort to bypass SR 267. This use coincided with the Martis Camp developer replacing the manual gate with an automatic one that operated by transponder, issuing transponders to Martis Camp property owners, and removing emergency access signage. Retreat residents quickly complained to the County about this use, and in response the Director of the Community Development Resources Agency issued letters in 2011 and 2012 stating that Martis Camp residents have the right to use this road as “owners of property abutting a pubic roadway.” In 2013, Retreat property owners filed a lawsuit to enforce the prohibition on the use of Mill Site Road by Martis Camp residents. That litigation, separate from this case, resulted in the trial court sustaining the County’s demurrers, but on appeal, the court reversed and remanded for the trial court to consider the CEQA claims.

In 2014, Retreat residents petitioned the County to abandon its public road easement rights in Mill Site Road (and a nearby cul-de-sac) and dissolve the associated maintenance benefits. In 2015, the Board approved the petition requests by partially abandoning the road but reserving an easement for public transit and utility services as well as for emergency access and a multipurpose public trail. In approving the road abandonment, the County prepared, and the Board relied on, an addendum to the Martis Camp EIR. The County initially considered relying on the Retreat EIR, but concluded that the Martis Camp EIR was the appropriate environmental document for its subsequent CEQA review because road abandonment would, in effect, “restore traffic patterns to those that were envisioned by the Martis Camp project and analyzed in its EIR.” .

Martis Camp property owners and the Martis Camp Community Association (MCCA) filed petitions for writ of mandate challenging the County’s actions and alleged that the County violated CEQA when it improperly: (1) relied on an addendum to the Martis Camp EIR instead of the Retreat EIR; (2) prepared an addendum instead of a supplemental EIR; and (3) used a baseline that omitted existing use of the road by Martis Camp residents. Other non-CEQA claims alleged that the County violated statutory standards for abandoning Mill Site Road and violated the Brown Act by improperly modifying project conditions of approval without proper notice. Amended petitions asserted “causes of action for inverse condemnation.” After consolidating the two petitions, the trial court sustained without leave to amend a demurrer on the inverse condemnation claim for Martis Camp property owners, but overruled the demurer with respect to MCCA and bifurcated it from other claims. The trial court then denied all other claims. Petitioners appealed.

CEQA Claims

Discussed below, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court as to the first and second CEQA claims and affirmed the third and remanded to the County for additional consideration.

Addendum Prepared for Wrong EIR: The court held that the County’s decision to prepare an addendum for the Martis Camp EIR was “not supported by substantial evidence” and that its failure to consider whether the abandonment of Mill Site Road would require major revisions to the Retreat EIR was a prejudicial abuse of discretion, largely because the road “was not part of the Martis Camp project; it was part of the Retreat project.” The County had argued that road abandonment was a change in circumstances surrounding the Martis Camp project such that further environmental review for that project was appropriately triggered. But, the court pointed out that only “a further discretionary decision” on a project triggers subsequent CEQA review and because Mill Site Road is not a part of the Martis Camp project, there was no related discretionary action. As further support, the court cited to the finding that conditions of approval “prohibited” Martis Camp residents from regularly using the road. The court did concede, however, that the County’s approach was “reasonable from the perspective of informed decisionmaking.” Nevertheless, the County “should have looked to the Retreat EIR” when assessing the need for further environmental review.

Supplement or Subsequent EIR May Be Required: The petitioners argued that the County should have prepared a supplemental or subsequent EIR for the Mill Site Road abandonment instead of just an addendum because of “more and severe environmental impacts by forcing Martis Camp residents to use SR 267 to reach Northstar.” The court agreed with the petitioners, but did not address the substance of this claim because of the County’s improper reliance on the Martis Camp EIR. Instead, it generally found that the County had “prejudicially abused its discretion” when it relied on the wrong EIR to conclude that no subsequent or supplemental EIR was required.

In Supplemental Review, “Baseline” is the Approved Project: The court rejected the petitioners’ claim that the baseline should have included the existing use of Mill Site Road by Martis Camp residents. Agreeing with respondents, the court found that the petitioners “are conflating” CEQA rules for initial project review under Public Resources Code section 21151 with rules for supplemental review under section 21166. To that end, the court ordered the matter remanded so that the County may first decide whether the applicable EIR “retains relevance despite changes to the project or its surrounding circumstances,” and then consider whether project changes “require major revisions” to the EIR due to “new significant environmental effects or a substantial increase in the severity of previously identified significant effects,” per Public Resource Code section 21166. If it is found that the road abandonment has “rendered the Retreat EIR irrelevant to the decisionmaking process,” then the County must “start from the beginning” under section 21151 and determine whether a new EIR is required.

Other Claims

As a threshold issue, the court concluded that MCCA’s pending, bifurcated inverse condemnation claim did not preclude it from appealing the denial of other claims because the “‘one final judgement’ rule” does not definitively apply when there are multiple parties in a lawsuit. The court then upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the Martis Camp property owners’ inverse condemnation claim and its denial of the remaining non-CEQA claims, discussed below.

No Inverse Condemnation: The crux of the petitioners’ argument was that they have “abutter’s rights to access Mill Site Road” and “by approving the abandonment…the market value of their properties” is reduced, thereby impairing their property rights and effectuating inverse condemnation. However, as noted by the court, Martis Camp property owners do not own property that physically abuts Mill Site Road from whence an inverse condemnation claim can be made. Moreover, any theoretical “nonexclusive easement” granted to Martis Camp residents in 2011/2012 by the Director of the Community Development Resources Agency “does not alter this result.” Therefore, the court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of this claim.

Abandonment of Road Was Proper: The court started its analysis by noting that two standards of mandate review—ordinary (legislative) mandate and administrative mandate—have been used by courts to decide issue arising from road abandonment. Ordinary mandate is governed by Code of Civil Procedure section 1085 and applies to ministerial acts and quasi-judicial acts and decisions. Administrative mandate is governed by section 1094.5 and applies only to quasi-judicial decisions resulting from a proceeding where there was a hearing, evidence, and agency discretion “in the determination of facts.” Because “the outcome of this appeal would be the same under either standard, the court declined to “enter [the] debate” as to which standard applied. Thus, “for simplicity” it applied the “less deferential” administrative mandate standard that results in an abuse of discretion determination if an agency’s findings are not supported by “substantial evidence in light of the whole record.”

The petitioners argued that the County violated the California Streets and Highways Code when it abandoned Mill Site Road because it did not possess substantial evidence showing that the road was both unnecessary for public use and that abandonment is in the public interest, as is statutorily required. The petitioners then attempted to evidence the road’s public necessity with the fact that it was used regularly by Martis Camp residents and by the County’s choice to reserve emergency and public transit easements as a condition of abandonment. However, the court pointed out the mere “‘convenient’” use of a road does not make it necessary, and that Mill Site Road was “not planned, designed, or approved to accommodate that use.” Further, the court found no authority to support the notion that emergency and public transit easements denote the public necessity of a roadway. To the contrary, the court noted that the statute expressly authorizes “a legislative body to place conditions on abandonment” or to only partially abandon a roadway. The court also found that abandonment was in the public interest because, per the Board of Supervisors’ findings, it conformed with existing planning and environmental documents, protected “the integrity of the traffic management system,” and alleviated the County of the burden of road maintenance—all of which benefited the public.

No Brown Act Violation: The petitioners argued that the County violated the Brown Act when it approved the abandonment of the Mill Site Road because such abandonment altered conditions of approval established by the 2011/2012 letters from the Director of the Community Development Resources Agency and, therefore, should have been included on the agenda for the Board of Supervisor’s meeting per the Act’s noticing requirements. The trial court rejected this argument, and the Court of Appeal agreed, on grounds that the 2011/2012 letters do not override language in the conditions of approval for Martis Camp or the Retreat, which “did not contemplate Martis Camp residents using the emergency access road as a means of ingress and egress from the community.” Also, the court found that the Board was not bound by the Director’s prior enforcement decisions; therefore, the Board’s overruling of those enforcement decisions was not a “‘distinct item of business’” that required separate notice under the Brown Act.

Casey Shorrock

First District Court of Appeal Holds U.C. Regents Not Exempt from Analyzing Impacts of Student Enrollment Increases that Exceed Projections in Long Range Development Plan EIRs

In a partially published opinion issued on June 25, 2020, the First District Court of Appeal in Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods v. Regents of the University of California (2020) 51 Cal.App.5th 226 reversed a trial court judgment on a demurrer and held that Public Resources Code section 21080.09 does not exempt the U.C. Regents from analyzing the environmental impacts of decisions to increase student enrollment at U.C. Berkeley in exceedance of projected enrollment numbers in their long range development plan EIRs.

Background

In 2005, the U.C. Regents adopted a long range development plan to guide the growth and development of the U.C. Berkeley campus through the year 2020. As is required under Public Resources Code section 21080.09, which pertains specifically to long range development plans at public higher education campuses, the Regents certified a program EIR for the plan. The 2005 development plan projected that, by the year 2020, U.C. Berkeley’s enrollment would increase by 1,650 students and that the university would add 2,500 new beds for students, and the EIR analyzed the potential environmental impacts based on these figures.

In 2018, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, a California non-profit formed “to improve Berkeley’s quality of life and protect its environment,” filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging that, beginning in 2007, the U.C. regents made a series of discretionary decisions that would increase the university’s enrollment well beyond the projections in the 2005 EIR. Under CEQA, Save Berkeley argued, student enrollment projections were part of the project description, and the U.C. Regents changed the project when they approved enrollment increases beyond the 2005 projections. Furthermore, Save Berkeley argued, such increases in student enrollment caused and will continue to cause new significant environmental impacts, including increased use of off-campus housing, displacement of tenants, traffic impacts, noise, and increased reliance on public services. As a result, Save Berkeley argued that CEQA requires the preparation of a new or subsequent EIR. Notably, Save Berkeley alleged it did not learn of the decisions to increase enrollment until October 2017.

In the trial court, the U.C. Regents demurred on grounds that under section 21080.09 enrollment increases are not the “project” or a change in the project that might trigger subsequent environmental review. The Regents also argued the claims were time barred by the statute of limitations or were moot because a Notice of Preparation had recently been issued for a new project that would include analyze impacts from current and foreseeable campus population levels. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend on grounds that the petition was time barred and that the “project” for purposes of CEQA is the development and land use plan, thus, changes in enrollment are not project changes requiring subsequent CEQA review. Save Berkeley appealed.

Appellate Decision

The First District Court of Appeal reversed, finding the petition sufficient to state a cause of action and survive a demurrer. While the court began by noting that nobody disputes that the 2005 EIR could no longer be challenged because the statute of limitations expired, it then framed the issue as whether changes to the project—i.e., decisions to increase enrollment—required some form of CEQA review.

The U.C. Regents primarily argued that section 21080.09 effectively exempts analysis of increases in enrollment until a plan or physical development project is approved because there is no mention of the word “enrollment” in section 21080.09’s  definition of a “long range development plan.”. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument and pointed to CEQA’s broad definition of a “project” in Public Resources Code section 21065.. As the court explained, while section 21080.9 instructs that the effects of enrollment increases are to be considered in an EIR for a long range development plan, the statute does not state that enrollment changes need only be analyzed in the context of an EIR for a development plan or physical development. In short, section 21080.09 “does not address subsequent enrollment decisions, much less exempt them from CEQA,” and “a public university’s decision to increase enrollment levels can be a ‘project’ subject to CEQA whether or not it is related to a development plan.”

The court had no trouble concluding that Save Berkeley had stated a valid cause of action under CEQA. Accepting the allegations in the petition as true, as is required for a demurrer, Save Berkeley had plead that discretionary decisions since the 2005 EIR to increase enrollment have caused and continue to cause significant environmental impacts not analyzed in the 2005 EIR, which is sufficient to trigger the need for subsequent review under CEQA. The court’s opinion left open how such review could be accomplished, such as through the use of tiering from the 2005 EIR or the preparation of a subsequent or supplement EIR depending on the magnitude of the revisions necessary.

Collin McCarthy

EPA Releases Navigable Waters Protection Rule that Redefines Waters of the U.S.

On January 23, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its Navigable Waters Protection Rule to replace the 2015 Clean Water Rule, promulgated by the Obama administration and repealed by the current administration in 2019. The new rule purports to clarify federal regulation of waters within the U.S. by differentiating “waters of the U.S.,” which are subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act, and non-jurisdictional waters. It identifies four categories of protected waters—the territorial seas and traditional navigable waters; perennial and intermittent tributaries; certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments; and wetlands that are adjacent to jurisdictional waters. The new rule also identifies waters not subject to federal control, including groundwater; ephemeral features; ditches; prior converted cropland; farm and stock watering ponds; waste treatment systems; and rainfall collection features.

The new rule is moored to late Justice Antonin Scalia’s plurality opinion in the landmark Supreme Court case Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006), that offers a more restrictive view of jurisdictional waters. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurrence in the same case offers a more expansive view and spawned what became known and implemented as the “significant nexus” test—which placed all waters that bear a significant nexus to traditional navigable waterways within federal jurisdiction. For nearly a decade, Kennedy’s significant nexus test, imprecise as it may be, supplemented the 1986 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) definition of jurisdiction waters in a majority of regions—later serving as the basis for the 2015 Rule.

Implications of the new Trump administration rule vary state by state but mark a clear reduction in federal protection for waters that were formerly classified as jurisdictional, notably wetlands and ephemeral waterways. California is especially affected because of its unique climate and abundance of wetlands and seasonal streams. A primary stated goal of the current administration with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule was to increase state responsibility for managing their waters, which is the exact outcome in California where the State Water Board will soon regulate what are referred to as “Waters of the State.” This new regulatory program becomes effective on May 28, 2020, and closely tracks the 2015 rule in terms of protection and coverage.

The Navigable Waters Protection Rule arrives on the heels of nearly 620,000 public comments on its proposal, fewer than the over one million received on the 2015 rule’s proposal.  The rule will take effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, although a publication date has yet to be released. Until such time, the 1986 USACE definition prevails, along with any adopted Supreme Court clarifications. For Ninth Circuit territory, this means a return, if only temporary, to Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test.

Casey Shorrock

California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin to Retire in August 2020

Justice Ming W. Chin will retire from the Supreme Court of California on August 31, 2020, after 25 years on the State’s highest court. Appointed in 1996 by then Governor Pete Wilson, Justice Chin is the high court’s longest sitting member, having served with three different chief justices. Justice Chin is the high court’s longest sitting member and its first Chinese-American justice.

During his tenure on the Supreme Court, Justice Chin authored more than 350 majority opinions and more than 100 separate opinions, including several on environmental and land use issues. Justice Chin penned the widely cited opinion in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley, (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1086, where he clarified the definition of “unusual circumstances” within the exceptions to CEQA exemptions and articulated a two-part test with a bifurcated standard of review for determining whether the exception applies. Ten years prior, in Sierra Club v. California Coastal Com., (2005) 35 Cal.4th 839, Justice Chin upheld the California Coastal Commission’s reading of the California Coastal Act in approving a development permit. In his ruling, Justice Chin looked to the “statutory framework” and the “evolution of…legislative history” but ultimately relied on a facial reading of the Act to affirm agency discretion. More recently, in Sierra Club v. County of Fresno, (2018) 6 Cal.5th 502, he issued the “Friant Ranch” decision that established a hybrid CEQA standard of review for claims challenging the informational sufficiency of an EIR’s discussion of significant impacts, where a “do novo” review is appropriate for “a mixed question” of fact and law that “requires a determination whether statutory criteria were satisfied” and “a more deferential standard is warranted” for predominantly “factual questions.” Justice Chin also rendered highly impactful opinions on water rights, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Superior Court, (2006) 40 Cal.4th 239 and City of Barstow v. Mojave Water Agency, (2000) 23 Cal.4th 1224; endangered species, Central Coast Forest Assn. v. Fish & Game Com., (2017) 2 Cal.5th 594; and eminent domain, Mt. San Jacinto Community College Dist. v. Superior Court, (2007) 40 Cal.4th 648, to name a few.

Justice Chin is the high court’s longest sitting member and its first Chinese-American justice. He grew up the son of Chinese immigrants who, though unable to attend school themselves, taught he and his seven siblings the importance of education. Justice Chin’s two children both followed his footsteps into the law and became attorneys—Jason Chin, an Alameda County Superior Court judge, and Jennifer Chin, senior counsel for the University of California’s Office of the President.

Casey Shorrock