Court of Appeal Finds Counsel’s Legal Research Lacking, Dismisses Claim

In Protect Agricultural Land v. Stanislaus County Local Agency Formation Commission (Jan. 28, 2014) ___ Cal.App.4th ___, Case No. F066544, the Court of Appeal clarified that counsel may not claim ignorance of proper legal procedures after relying on a single treatise to the exclusion of case law and other secondary materials detailing those procedures.

On January 28, 2014, the Fifth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s dismissal of Protect Agricultural Land’s (PAL) action challenging the annexation of unincorporated land to the City of Ceres. The court found that PAL had failed to comply with certain procedures required by the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Reorganization Act for reverse validation actions. The trial court had not found good cause for failure to comply, and the Court of Appeal found substantial evidence supporting the trial court’s decision.

PAL sought to set aside the city’s annexation of 960 acres located in unincorporated Stanislaus County. The trial court found it could not overturn the completed annexation because PAL had not complied with service requirements applicable to reverse validation actions. While a local agency formation commission’s (LAFCo’s) annexation determination may be challenged before land is annexed, the validity of a completed annexation may only be challenged by an in rem proceeding under the validating statutes. Under those statutes, if a public agency does not pursue a validation action, any interested person may file a reverse validation action, subject to strict publication and form requirements. A failure to abide by these procedures is excusable only upon a showing of good cause.

In this case, PAL erroneously handled the summons, but argued its error should be excused for good cause. The trial court rejected this argument because it found the legal research conducted by PAL’s counsel had been inadequate. On appeal, the court noted that “an honest and reasonable mistake of law on a complex and debatable issue is excusable and constitutes good cause for relief.” However, “ignorance of the law coupled with negligence in ascertaining it will certainly sustain a finding denying relief.” Here, PAL’s counsel claimed ignorance of the publication procedures because those procedures were not mentioned in the treatise counsel consulted. The court conducted its own research and found that case law, the LAFCo website, and other treatises mentioned the procedural requirements. It therefore rejected PAL’s claim of excusable error.

The court did not address PAL’s substantive claims because it found they had to be brought pursuant to the validation statutes. Thus, the court did not decide whether PAL had stated a cause of action under CEQA or the merits of such an action.