The Sixth District Court of Appeal in Organizacion Comunidad de Alviso v. City of San Jose (Feb. 9, 2021) 60 Cal.App.5th 783, held that the City of San Jose’s failure to send a Notice of Determination to a member of the petitioner organization, in violation of Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (f), did not excuse the petitioner’s failure to name an indispensable party in a CEQA action before the statute of limitations expired.
A light industrial center project was planned for construction on a primarily fallow farmland site in San Jose. Mark Espinoza, a member of the petitioner organization, Organizacion Comunidad de Alviso, requested that the City’s environmental project manager place him on the list to receive the Notice of Determination (NOD) for the Project.
Later that month, Microsoft Corporation purchased land from the original owner and took over as the project applicant. The San Jose City Council initially approved the project and associated EIR at an October 2017 meeting. The meeting agenda incorrectly referenced the previous landowner instead of Microsoft. Microsoft was, however, correctly referred to as the project applicant at the hearing. A second meeting was held to reconsider the project approval and EIR in December 2017. The notice for that hearing correctly identified Microsoft as the property owner, but the resolution approving the project incorrectly referenced the previous owners.
The City filed two NODs for the project. The first NOD, which was sent to Espinoza, listed the wrong project applicant. The City later realized the mistake and issued a second NOD that correctly listed Microsoft as the applicant. The City did not send Espinoza the second NOD.
The petitioner filed a petition for writ of mandate within 30 days of the first NOD, alleging violations of CEQA and the Planning and Zoning Law. The petition named the previous property owners as real party in interest, based on the information in the first NOD. Two weeks after the 30-day statute of limitations for the CEQA cause of action expired, the previous owners’ attorney notified the petitioner’s counsel that Microsoft had acquired the property and was named as the applicant in the second NOD. A month after receiving this notice—and well after the 30-day limitations period had run—the petitioner filed an amended petition naming Microsoft as a real party in interest.
Microsoft and the City demurred to the CEQA action in the amended petition, arguing that it was time-barred because petitioner failed to name Microsoft as the real party in interest before the limitations period expired. The trial court determined that the initial petition was defective for failing to join Microsoft, and consequently dismissed the CEQA cause of action as untimely.
COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION
Failure to Name Applicant in NOD as Real Party in Interest
Under Public Resources Code section 21167.6.5, subdivision (a), in addition to naming as a defendant the agency that approved the project, a petitioner must name as a real party in interest the “person or persons identified by the public agency” in the NOD. Here, the petitioner did not dispute that Microsoft was a necessary and indispensable party under CEQA because it was named as the applicant in the NOD. Instead, the petitioner argued that its failure to name Microsoft should be excused because the NOD sent by the City named the wrong party and the City did not resend the new NOD after the error was corrected. The court disagreed.
Although the court acknowledged the City violated Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (f), by failing to send the second, corrected NOD to Espinoza, it concluded that CEQA contains no relief for the City’s violation. The court ruled that the City’s violation could not excuse or cure the amended petition’s untimeliness because Public Resources Code section 21167, subdivision (f), itself provides that the “date upon which [the NOD] is mailed shall not affect” the statute of limitations. The court also cited the Supreme Court’s emphasis that potential CEQA litigants must pay close attention to NOD filings before initiating litigation.
Additionally, the court reasoned that the second NOD was properly filed with the county clerk, posted at the county clerk’s office, and made available for review by all potential litigants—thereby providing constructive notice of the correct parties to name in a potential action. The court further noted that petitioner had actual notice of Microsoft’s status as the applicant because it had participated in the public hearings at which Microsoft was identified and the public notice for the City’s re-approval hearing listed Microsoft as the owner.
Because the petitioner failed to name Microsoft within the 30-day statute of limitation period after the corrected NOD was filed, the court held that the trial court’s dismissal was appropriate.
The petitioner also argued that the 30-day statute of limitations was not triggered because the NOD was materially defective, and therefore, the 180-day limitations period should apply. The court easily rejected this argument because the petitioner did not claim that the second NOD was insufficient or incorrect. The petitioner only claimed that the posting of two contradictory NODs essentially amounted to an NOD defect. The court disagreed, determining that the second NOD contained all required information and was therefore not defective.
The court also disagreed with the petitioner’s argument that the relation back doctrine under Code of Civil Procedure section 474 should apply. The court determined the petitioner’s ignorance of Microsoft’s status as the project applicant was unreasonable because the second NOD was correct and provided constructive notice of Microsoft’s identity. Additionally, the petitioner had received actual notice of the second NOD from the former owners’ attorney and still proceeded to wait two months to file its amended petition—a delay, which the court pointed out, was longer than even the initial limitations period.
Finally, the court rejected the petitioner’s argument that the City and Microsoft should have been equitably estopped from asserting the statute of limitations defense. It concluded that even if the City’s failure to send Espinoza the second NOD was intentional, the petitioner’s reliance on that failure would be unreasonable. Again, the City’s timely filing of the second NOD with the county clerk’s office gave all potential litigants constructive notice of the correct parties to name in a CEQA action.
– Veronika Morrison