In Dunning v. Johnson (2021) 64 Cal.App.5th 156, a project developer (“Cal Coast”) sued defendant Clews Horse Ranch (“the Ranch”) and its attorneys (“attorney defendants”) for malicious prosecution in response to the Ranch’s earlier lawsuit alleging that the City of San Diego violated CEQA by approving and adopting a mitigated negative declaration for Cal Coast’s project. In response, the defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which the trial court denied. The Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the motion’s denial with respect to the Ranch, but reversed the denial with respect to the attorney defendants.
In the underlying action, Clews Land and Livestock, LLC v. City of San Diego (2017) 19 Cal.App.5th 161 (“Clews”), Cal Coast sought approval from the city to build and operate a school on its property, adjacent to Ranch property. Concluding that significant environmental impacts either were not present or would be mitigated, the city did not prepare an EIR. Instead, it adopted a MND and approved the project. The Ranch argued that the project would adversely affect the surrounding environment, that it would interfere with the Ranch’s operations, and that the city’s use of a MND was improper. The attorney defendants, on behalf of Ranch, appealed the approval of the project, but failed to timely appeal the city’s adoption of the MND. The city rejected the appeal.
The Ranch then sought a writ of mandate to compel the city to abandon the project and set aside the MND, arguing that the city’s procedure for preparing and adopting the MND violated CEQA. Additionally, it challenged the city’s appeal process for environmental findings. The trial court denied recovery on both procedural and substantive grounds, and the court of appeal affirmed.
Upon the conclusion of Clews, Cal Coast brought a malicious prosecution action against the Ranch and the Ranch’s attorneys, alleging that the CEQA action had been brought for an improper purpose. Cal Coast alleged that the Ranch simply sought to prevent or delay the project and preserve the Ranch owner’s privacy to enable criminal activity on the premises. (The Ranch owner pled guilty and was sentenced to prison in 2018 for child pornography charges.) Cal Coast also argued that the attorney defendants had maintained the case in an effort to force the Project’s abandonment, hoping to avoid a legal malpractice claim or a complaint to the State Bar for their failure to timely appeal the adoption of the MND. The defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion to strike the malicious prosecution claim. The trial court denied the anti-SLAPP motion and the defendants appealed.
The Court of Appeal’s Opinion
To defeat the anti-SLAPP motion, Cal Coast simply needed to show minimal merit in its malicious prosecution claims that the CEQA action in Clews was brought without probable cause and with malice. This court held that Cal Coast met its burden with respect to the probable cause question. However, it concluded that Cal Coast could only point to evidence of malicious action by the Ranch, and not by the attorney defendants.
The court emphasized evidence in the administrative record showing that the Ranch’s concerns about the project were rooted in its potential impacts on the Ranch specifically, rather than on the environment. The Ranch’s concerns were therefore not within the scope of CEQA. The court additionally noted that the Ranch generally did not point to substantial evidence supporting a fair argument that the project could have a significant environmental impact. Under Preserve Poway v. City of Poway (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 560, this showing is required to establish a MND’s insufficiency. The speculation, arguments, and opinions posited by the Ranch did not constitute substantial evidence. The court therefore concluded that Cal Coast established a probability for prevailing on the question of probable cause.
The court also noted the Ranch’s aggressive and consistent efforts to oppose any use of the proposed project site, including by prior owners of the property. It thus concluded that Cal Coast introduced sufficient evidence of the Ranch’s malice to survive the anti-SLAPP motion with respect to the Ranch. However, the court determined that there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that the attorney defendants acted maliciously, as there was no indication that the attorneys were actually aware of either the Ranch’s improper motives or the untenability of the Ranch’s claim. Cal Coast’s speculation that the attorney defendants were merely acting to avoid a malpractice claim or a State Bar complaint was insufficient to support a finding that the attorney defendants acted maliciously in maintaining the CEQA claims in Clews.
– Louisa I. Rogers