Claims Raised by Environmental Groups Barred by Res Judicata, Fourth District Rules

In Inland Oversight Committee v. City of San Bernardino (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 771, the Fourth District upheld a lower court’s ruling sustaining the city’s demurrer without leave to amend, finding that the petitioners’ claims under CEQA and the Water Code were barred by the doctrine of res judicata.

This action relates to a proposed development pending in various permutations for decades in the Highland Hills area of San Bernardino. In 1982, the city approved a specific plan and EIR for the project. The EIR was promptly challenged by a homeowners association, one of the same petitioners in this case. The parties resolved the suit through a settlement agreement. A later addendum to the agreement stipulated that if future project modifications met specified criteria (i.e., did not increase the level of development or result in greater impacts), then those changes would be considered “minor modifications.” Minor modifications would not be subject to additional CEQA review.  The project was not built at that time.

In 2014, the original developers’ successors in interest wanted to proceed with the project. The city approved the project, agreeing that proposed modifications were minor, and did not require further environmental review. The HOA sued (the related action). Respondents requested and received a court order confirming that the modifications complied with the terms of the settlement agreement, were minor in nature, and that no further CEQA review was required.

This suit was then brought by the original petitioner, the HOA, and joined by two environmental groups (CREED-21 and Inland Oversight Committee). Petitioners asserted that the project as modified violated CEQA and the Water Code.  Respondents successfully moved for a demurrer without leave to amend. This appeal followed.

The court ruled that the petitioners’ claims were barred by res judicata, because the issue of whether further environmental review was required was resolved in the related action. Under the doctrine of res judicata, a valid, final judgment on the merits is a bar to subsequent action by parties or their privies in the same cause of action. In California, whether causes of action in two suits are the same for the purpose of res judicata depends on whether they involve the same primary right. In the CEQA context, the same primary right is at issue if the actions involve the same general subject matter, provided that they are not distinct episodes of noncompliance.

The allegations of noncompliance with the settlement agreement were the same in both this suit and the prior related matter. In both, the petitioners contended that the city violated CEQA by not conducting further environmental review. As the court held in the related matter, the updated proposal is a minor modification, and no further environmental review is required. That decision was final.

The court rejected the contention by the environmental group petitioners that they were not in privity with the HOA. Privity is found if the party’s interests are so similar that the party in the prior action was the current party’s virtual representative. The court found that standard applied here, because the environmental groups and the HOA both opposed the project and sought to invalidate its approvals. Even accepting the contention that the environmental groups were acting in public interest, and that the HOA acted in its own private interest, the petitioners failed to articulate how those interests were not aligned. The HOA did not, for example, assert any particular private harm that was not shared with the public at large. This holding is consistent with other persuasive authority finding privity between individuals asserting private interests and nonprofit organizations asserting public interests, both on similar grounds.

The court also found that the petitioners’ Water Code claims (alleging that a water supply analysis was required) were similarly barred by res judicata. As with the CEQA claims, the Water Code allegations rested on the petitioners’ key assertion—that the project was not a minor modification of the original project, and that further environmental review was required. That claim was litigated and decided; as such, a water supply analysis could not be required.

The court further briefly noted that petitioner’s claims would also be barred under the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

(Sara F. Dudley)