In AIDS Healthcare Foundation v. City of Los Angeles (2022) 86 Cal.App.5th 322, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the 90-day statute of limitations in Government Code section 65009, for actions to “attack, review, set aside, void, or annul” certain land use decisions, barred challenges to land use decisions made by City officials alleged to be involved in an extensive bribery scheme.
The Los Angeles City Council planning and land use management (PLUM) committee has various roles, including reviewing and recommending proposed real estate development projects. In 2020, one former member of the PLUM committee was arrested, and another was indicted, for allegedly accepting bribes and engaging in other corrupt behaviors in relation to PLUM committee work. Both members left the PLUM committee in the fall of 2018.
In August 2020, AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) filed suit against the City, alleging that an “ongoing corruption scandal regarding the approval of real estate projects” violated the Political Reform Act of 1974 (PRA or Act). AHF sought an order restraining all building permits granted by the City while the corrupt former members served on the PLUM committee, as well as an order restraining the City from supporting any of the affected projects with taxpayer money.
The City demurred to AHF’s complaint, arguing that the claims were time-barred. The superior court sustained the demurrer, concluding that the action had not been brought within the applicable 90-day statute of limitations. AHF appealed.
Court of Appeal’s Decision
Applicable Statute of Limitations
In the trial court, AHF argued that the PRA provided the applicable statute of limitations. The PRA permits suits for injunctive relief where public officials are alleged to have used their official position to influence government actions for their own personal financial interests. Relevant here, the PRA permits courts to set aside official actions tainted by violations of the Act. The PRA includes a four-year statute of limitations for civil actions brought under the Act.
On appeal, AHF argued instead that the three-year “catch-all” statute of limitations for statutorily-created liability in Code of Civil Procedure section 338, subdivision (a) applied to the action. The City consistently argued that the 90-day limitations period provided by Government Code section 65009 for actions “to attack, review, set aside, void, or annul” various land use and zoning decisions applied to the action.
The Second District agreed with the City that the 90-day statute of limitations barred the action. Citing Ching v. San Francisco Bd. of Permit Appeals (1998) 60 Cal.App.4th 888 (Ching), which addressed a similar question, the court reasoned that the plain language of section 65009 encompassed AHF’s action. The Ching court noted that section 65009 had no exceptions for actions brought under the PRA. Additionally, the Ching court explained that “specific statutes control general ones” and thus held that the more specific 90-day statute of limitations in section 65009 applied to the type of challenge at issue, rather than the general limitations period provided by the PRA. After reviewing Ching and other similar opinions, the court concluded that section 65009 provided the applicable limitations period for AHF’s action.
Gravamen of the Complaint
Seeking to avoid the 90-day limitations period, AHF argued that the gravamen of its action was a challenge to corruption by City officials, even if the ultimate relief sought was the invalidation of improperly-issued permits.
The court rejected AHF’s argument, explaining that AHF could not escape the short limitations period by characterizing its claim as “necessarily dependent on a finding of a violation of the PRA,” rather than a challenge of project approvals by the PLUM committee.
Acknowledging that the California Constitution generally limits the Legislature’s power to amend or repeal initiative statutes, the court nevertheless rejected AHF’s argument that applying the limitations period in section 65009 to the action constituted “an unconstitutional legislative amendment to a duly-enacted voter initiative” for several reasons.
First, the court noted that the PRA contained express provisions allowing amendments to the Act by the Legislature, and that AHF failed to address these provisions in its briefing. Second, recognizing that the limitations period in section 65009 pre-dated the PRA by almost 10 years, the court remarked that the Legislature could not have intended to limit or amend the PRA in enacting section 65009. Third, the court explained that the four-year limitations period in the PRA was added by a later legislative amendment, not by voter initiative. Thus, the limitations period in the PRA was not enacted by voter initiative, as AHF claimed. Finally, even if the electorate had enacted the PRA’s four-year limitations period through an initiative, the court reasoned that the electorate did nothing to expressly abrogate other existing and potentially applicable statutes of limitations when it passed the PRA. For these reasons, the court held that the application of the pre-existing 90-day limitations period provided in section 65009 to the PRA action did not conflict with or amend the original PRA.
While AHF urged that important policy reasons justified the application of a longer limitations period to “discover and ferret out corruption,” the court declined to consider the policy goals underlying both the PRA and section 65009. The court explained that the statutory language of 65009 contained no ambiguity, and thus, it was required to apply the 90-day limitations period contained therein to AHF’s action.
— Louisa Rogers