Tag: Statutory Interpretation

In a Procedurally-Dense Opinion, First District Court of Appeal Clarifies that Real Parties in CEQA Cases Are Not Always Indispensable Parties

In Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods v. Regents of the University of California (2021) 70 Cal.App.5th 705, the First District Court of Appeal upheld a trial court’s determination that the developer and operator of a proposed campus expansion project were not indispensable parties to a lawsuit challenging the Regents of the University of California’s (Regent’s) approval of that project. In doing so, the court held that Assembly Bill No. 320 (AB 320) (2011–2012 Reg. Sess.)—which amended CEQA to require agencies to identify the recipients of project approvals on a project’s notice of determination (NOD) and to require CEQA petitioners to name and serve those persons or entities listed on the NOD—did not alter the court’s analysis of whether a party is “indispensable” to the lawsuit under Code of Civil Procedure section 389, subdivision (b) (CCP section 389(b)).

Background

The Regents approved a project to demolish an existing parking structure, construct student housing above a new parking structure, and develop a new academic building adjacent to the new residential building (project). The Regents prepared and certified a supplemental environmental impact report (SEIR) for the project. On May 17, 2019, the Regents filed an NOD, which identified American Campus Communities (ACC) and Collegiate Housing Foundation (CHF) as the parties undertaking the project. ACC is the developer for the project, and CHF is the ground lessee and borrower for the housing component of the project.

On June 13, 2019, petitioner Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking to vacate the Regents’ certification of the SEIR on the ground that the Regents violated CEQA. The petition named the Regents as a respondent, but did not name ACC or CHF as parties. Nor did petitioner serve ACC and CHF. On September 18, 2019, petitioner filed a first amended petition, which added ACC and CHF as real parties in interest. The amended petition acknowledged that ACC and CHF were listed as parties undertaking the project in the NOD, and thus were being named pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21167.6.5, subdivision (a), which requires the entities identified as recipients of project approvals on an NOD to be named as real parties in interest.

ACC and CHF filed demurrers to the first amended petition, asserting that petitioner failed to name them as parties within the applicable statute of limitations and that they are necessary and indispensable parties to the litigation, so the entire action should be dismissed. The trial court sustained the demurrers without leave to amend, but did not dismiss the lawsuit. The court held that ACC and CHF should have been named as real parties because they were listed on the NOD as the parties undertaking the project. Because petitioner had failed to amend its petition to name them as parties within 30 days after the Regents filed the NOD, petitioner’s challenge against ACC and CHF was time-barred under Public Resources Code section 21167. The court held, however, that the failure to timely name ACC and CHF as real parties did not justify dismissing the case because ACC and CHF were not indispensable parties under CCP 389(b).

ACC and CHF appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in concluding they were not indispensable parties. Petitioner filed a cross-appeal, arguing that the trial court erred in applying CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations to the lawsuit because, according to petitioner, the Regents’ NOD for the project – the filing of which triggered the 30-day statute of limitations – was defective. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s order sustaining the demurrer.

Discussion

Appealability

As a threshold matter, the appellate court considered whether the trial court’s order sustaining the demurrer was appealable. Petitioner argued that it was not because the appeal arose from an interlocutory (non-final) order and thus violated the “one final judgment” rule. Furthermore, petitioner argued, the issue of whether AOC and CHF are indispensable parties remained in the underlying action because that issue was also raised by the Regents, who remained a party to the action, so the court should not consider that issue yet. The court rejected these arguments. The court explained that in actions involving multiple parties, an order fully disposing all of the issues as to one party is appealable, even if those same issues remain as to the other parties. Accordingly, the appeal was proper.

Necessary and Indispensable Parties

The court next considered whether the trial court erred in determining that CHF and ACC were not indispensable parties. If CHF and ACC were indispensable parties, the lawsuit must be dismissed in full. If they were not indispensable, then petitioner’s lawsuit against the Regents could move forward. The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that CHF and ACC were not indispensable parties.

Assembly Bill 320 Did Not Alter a Court’s Analysis of Whether a Real Party is “Indispensable”

CEQA currently requires petitioners to name, as a real party in interest, any person or entity identified on an NOD as a recipient of the project’s approval. Prior to 2012, however, CEQA did not require the recipients of the project approvals to be identified on the NOD. CEQA did, however, require any recipient of a project approval to be named as a real party in interest. The phrase “any recipient of an approval” was not defined by the statute, leading to confusion in the courts.

In 2011, the Legislature passed AB 320, which amended CEQA to require agencies to identify the recipient of a project’s approval on the project’s NOD. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21108.) It also amended CEQA to require petitioners to name the entities identified on the NOD as real parties in interest and to serve the petition on those entities. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21167.6.5, subd. (a)). The AB 320 amendments also provided that the “failure to name potential persons, other than those real parties in interest described in Public Resources Code, § 21167.6.5, subdivision (a), is not a ground for dismissal pursuant to Section 389 of the Code of Civil Procedure.” (Pub. Resources Code, § 21167.6.5, subd. (d).)

ACC and CHF argued that AB 320 was intended to provide “finality and certainty” as to who must be joined in a CEQA action and, therefore, CCP 389(b), which provides an equitable balancing test for determining who constitutes an indispensable party, does not apply. The court rejected this argument, holding that the AB 320 did not alter judicial analysis of whether a party is indispensable.

ACC and CHF argued that the express language of Public Resources Code section 21167.6.5, as amended by AB 320, demonstrates that CCP 389(b) does not apply. Specially, subdivision (d) of that statute states: “Failure to name potential persons, other than those real parties in interests described in subdivision (a), is not grounds for dismissal pursuant to Section 389 of the Code of Civil Procedure.” (Italics added.) The court disagreed that this language indicates that CCP 389(b)’s equitable balancing test does not apply when the petition fails to name a real party. As the court explained, the statute does not explicitly state that CCP 389(b) cannot be applied in CEQA actions in which the real party has not been properly named and served. Rather, that statute only suggests that the failure to name a real party in interest may be grounds for dismissal, depending on the equitable factors set forth in CCP 389(b).

Turning to the Legislative intent, the court found that in enacting AB 320, the Legislature did not intend to prevent application of CCP 389(b). Rather, the bill was only meant to clarify who constitutes a real party in interest, as there had been confusion on that issue in the courts. Moreover, AB 320’s Legislative history suggests that rather than intending to limit CEQA actions, AB 320 was intended to “prevent the dismissal of important and meritorious CEQA cases.” Applying a blanket rule that the failure to timely name a real party in interest constitutes a ground for mandatory dismissal of a CEQA case would frustrate that intent.

Application of CCP 389(b)’s Equitable Factors

The court next considered whether the trial court erred in holding that ACC and HCF were not indispensable parties. Under CCP 389(b), if a necessary party cannot be joined, “the court shall determine whether in equity and good conscious the action should proceed among the parties before it, or should be dismissed without prejudice, the absent person being thus regarded as indispensable. The factors to be considered by the court include: (1) to what extent a judgment rendered in the person’s absence might be prejudicial to him or those already parties; (2) the extent to which, by protective provisions in the judgment, by the shaping of relief, or other measures, the prejudice can be lessened or avoided; (3) whether a judgment rendered in the person’s absence will be adequate; (4) whether the plaintiff or cross-complainant will have an adequate remedy if the action is dismissed for nonjoinder.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 389, subd. (b).)

Applying these factors, the trial court held that ACC and CHF were not indispensable parties. Among other things, ACC and CHF’s interests were closely aligned to that of Regents because ACC and CHF were undertaking the project for the Regents’ own use and benefit. Moreover, petitioner would have no way of challenging the SEIR if the case was dismissed. On the other hand, ACC and CHF were parties in a related case challenging the same SEIR and were thus unlikely to be harmed by a settlement.

On appeal, ACC and CHF argued that they had fundamentally different interests in the project than the Regents. The Regents’ interest was to add housing and academic space to the campus, whereas ACC and CHF’s interest was to develop and operate the project. The court disagreed, explaining that the Regents, like ACC and CHF, had a strong interest in moving forward with the project; the fact that the Regents might have different motivations for doing so was immaterial. Further, contrary to ACC and CHF’s assertion, the Regents had a strong economic interest in the project because the Regents would manage and operate the new parking structure and the new academic building and the Regents would regain ownerships of the project once the project’s debt was repaid. ACC and CHF had failed to cite any evidence that they had unique financial interests or would be more harmed by an adverse judgment than the Regents. Accordingly, the trial court properly concluded that ACC and CHF were not indispensable parties.

Petitioner’s Cross Appeal – Did the Trial Court Err in Applying CEQA’s 30-Day Statute of Limitations?

Turning to the cross appeal, the court held that the trial court properly applied CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations to the first amended petition. Petitioner argued that the statute of limitations should not apply because the Regents’ NOD for the project failed to accurately describe the project. In particular, the NOD did not explain that the project would result in an increase in student enrollment. The court disagreed that such information was required, holding that an increase in student enrollment was not a material component of the project. To the contrary, the NOD and SEIR indicated that the project was intended to accommodate the existing student body and planned growth, not necessarily to increase enrollment. Although it is possible that the project could result in an increase in enrollment, the record did not suggest that increasing enrollment was a component of project. Therefore, the trial court correctly held that the Regents’ filing of the NOD triggered CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations.

Implications

The Court of Appeal was unwilling to interpret AB 320’s amendments to CEQA as modifying judicial analysis of whether a party is indispensable in a CEQA case. Although Public Resources Code 21167.6.5, as amended, could be interpreted as implying that the failure to name a real party in interest is a ground for dismissal under CCP 389(b), as the court noted, the statute does not explicitly require such a result. Thus, where a CEQA petitioner fails to name all parties listed as approval recipients on an NOD (or a notice of exemption (NOE)), case law decided under the former statute is still relevant to the question of whether a party is indispensable. The case also clarifies that although a project might result in changes to the existing baseline (e.g., an increase in student enrollment), that change need not be described as a component of the proposed project in the NOD or NOE.

First District Court of Appeal Holds That Governor Newsom’s Certification of Oakland Howard Terminal Project Under AB 734 Was Timely

In Pacific Merchant Shipping Association v. Newsom (2021) 67 Cal.App.5th 711, the First District Court of Appeal held that there was no deadline for the Governor to certify the Howard Terminal Project as qualifying for expedited judicial review under Assembly Bill (AB) 734, and specifically, that the Howard Terminal Project was not subject to the certification deadline in the Jobs and Economic Improvement Through Environmental Leadership Act of 2011 (AB 900).

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The Howard Terminal Project is a proposed development located at Oakland’s Howard Terminal. It includes a new baseball stadium for the Oakland A’s, as well as residential, retail, commercial, and other uses.

In 2018, the Legislature passed AB 734, which provided that, if the Governor certified that the Howard Terminal project met specific environmental standards, then litigation challenging the project’s environmental review would be subject to expedited judicial review. AB 734 was a stand-alone bill applicable solely to the Howard Terminal project. In many respects, AB 734 was modeled after separate legislation, generally referred to as AB 900, providing for expedited judicial review of “Environmental Leadership Development Projects” (ELDP projects).

First enacted in 2011, the Legislature has amended AB 900 several times, in part to extend various deadlines embedded in the statute. In September 2018, when the Legislature enacted AB 734, AB 900 provided that the Governor had to certify a project by January 1, 2020, and the lead agency had to approve the project by January 1, 2021, when AB 900 would sunset. AB 900 also authorized the Governor to adopt guidelines to implement the statute. The Governor’s AB 900 guidelines reflected AB 900’s deadlines.

AB 734 provided that the Governor’s AB 900 guidelines apply to the “implementation” of AB 734 “to the extent the guidelines are applicable and do not conflict with specific requirements” of AB 734. Unlike AB 900, AB 734 did not specify any deadlines in the text of the statute.

Shortly after the Legislature adopted AB 734, Governor Newsom amended his AB 900 guidelines to reference AB 734 and the Howard Terminal project, along with a different project – the Los Angeles Clippers’ proposed basketball arena in Inglewood – subject to its own, stand-alone, fast-track legislation (AB 987) that contained a similar reference to the Governor’s AB 900 guidelines.

In March 2019, the A’s submitted an application to the Governor for certification under AB 734. As a precursor to Governor certification, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) had to find that the Howard Terminal project would meet strict greenhouse gas emission reduction targets mandated by AB 734. In August 2020 – 16 months after the A’s submitted their application, and eight months after AB 900’s January 1, 2020, certification deadline – CARB made this finding. Governor Newsom certified the Howard Terminal project in February 2021.

A coalition of businesses operating at the Port of Oakland, led by the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association (PMSA), sued the Governor, challenging his authority to certify the project. PMSA alleged that the Governor’s authority to certify the project under AB 734 had expired as of January 1, 2020—the deadline for certification in AB 900. Specifically, PMSA argued that, by incorporating the AB 900 guidelines into AB 734 “to the extent the guidelines are applicable and not in conflict with the specific requirements” of AB 734, the legislature had incorporated AB 900’s deadline for certification. The trial court rejected PMSA’s arguments. PMSA appealed.

THE COURT OF APPEAL’S DECISION

After discussing the general rules of statutory interpretation, the Court of Appeal concluded that the text of AB 734 was ambiguous as to whether the January 1, 2020, deadline for certification of ELDP projects under AB 900 also applied to the Howard Terminal project under AB 734.

Turning to the legislative history for insight, the court noted that the author of AB 734 proposed a standalone bill for the Howard Terminal project, in part, because the project could not meet AB 900’s deadlines. Thus, one option the legislature considered was whether to simply extend AB 900’s deadlines and have the project proceed under AB 900. The court reasoned that the legislature was aware of this option but chose to adopt AB 734—with no deadlines—instead. Based on its review of the legislative history as a whole, the court concluded that the legislature had not intended to incorporate AB 900’s certification deadline into AB 734.

The court also determined that its construction of AB 734 was supported by the legislative purpose of the statute. As the court noted, the purposes served by enactment of AB 734 are made clear in the legislation: to assist the City of Oakland in retaining the Oakland A’s by streamlining environmental review for a “state-of-the-art baseball park” project; to generate thousands of high-wage, highly skilled jobs during construction and operation of the project; to support the City’s and region’s goals for sustainable, transit-oriented housing, including affordable housing; to provide an opportunity for investment “in new and improved transit and transportation infrastructure”; and to “implement sustainability measures designed to improve air quality and mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases resulting from the project.” For all these reasons, the special legislation was deemed necessary so that the Howard Terminal Project could be developed in an “expeditious manner.” In light of the significant environmental, economic, and cultural benefits which prompted the adoption of AB 734, the court concluded that PMSA’s reading of the statute would undermine rather than promote the general purposes of the statute and the objectives to be achieved.

Lastly, the court concluded that a practical reading of AB 734, including its lack of deadlines, supported the respondents’ argument that the legislature did not intend to incorporate AB 900’s certification deadline into AB 734. Among other practical reasons for rejecting PMSA’s reading of the statute, the court noted that CARB’s step in the process alone exceeded PMSA’s alleged one-year deadline for certification.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court and affirmed the judgment.

RMM attorneys Whit Manley and Chris Stiles represented Real Party in Interest Oakland Athletics Investment Group LLC in the litigation.

– Nathan O. George

Fourth District Court of Appeal Holds City’s Scenic View Ordinance Is Considered a Zoning Ordinance under Gov. Code Section 65901 and Therefore Subject to 90-Day Service Deadline for Petition in Section 65009

In a unanimous opinion, the court in Weiss v. City of Del Mar (2019) 39 Cal.App. 5th 609, upheld the trial court and found that the 90-day service deadline in Government Code section 65009 applied to a planning commission action on a municipal scenic view ordinance. As a result, the court held that a petition for writ of mandate that was served on the City three months after the deadline was time barred.

Background

In August 2016, Petitioner Shirli Weiss submitted an application to the City of Del Mar under its Scenic View Ordinance requesting that Torrey Pacific Corporation, her neighboring property owner, trim its “‘wildly overgrown’” vegetation and trees to restore the ocean view from her property. The Planning Commission held a hearing on the application and, though divided, denied her request. The City Council issued a 2-2 split decision on her appeal in July 2017 which, under the City’s rules, reinstated the Planning Commission’s decision to deny her request.

Weiss filed a petition for writ of mandate against the City and Torrey Pacific in September 2017, but did not serve the City with the petition until December 2017. The respondents jointly moved to dismiss under the 90-day service requirement in Government Code section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(E). The trial court granted the motion and found it was “‘undisputed’” that this statutory deadline was not met. Weiss appealed. In her appeal, she acknowledged that she served the City more than 90 days after the City Council denied her appeal but contended that section 65009’s deadline did not govern her action.

Time Barred by Section 65009

The Court of Appeal considered the “‘usual and ordinary meanings’” of the plain language in section 65009 within the context of the entire statute. Section 65009, subdivision c, plainly states that a “challenger must file and serve the public entity within 90 days of the challenged decision.” This statute of limitations, the court explained, applies to adoption or amendments of specific plans, general plans, zoning ordinances, development agreements, and regulations attached to specific plans, and all actions “‘done or made prior to any of these decisions.’” (Gov. Code, § 65009, subd. (c)(1).) The service requirement also applies to “‘any decision on the matters listed in Sections 65901 and 65903.’” (Id.) Sections 65901 and 65903 primarily apply to actions related to a zoning ordinance, such as a conditional use permit, variance, or “‘any other powers granted by local ordinance’” to the board of zoning adjustment or zoning administrator. (Id. at § 65901, subd. (a).) The court noted that section 65903 includes zoning board of appeals decisions.

Weiss argued that the City’s Scenic View Ordinance is not a zoning ordinance because it is not within the Municipal Code zoning rules and regulations. The court disagreed, and determined that the Planning Commission was “functionally acting in a zoning board capacity” when it ruled on Weiss’s application. The court explained that the substance of the Scenic View Ordinance required the City to “undertake[] zoning and planning responsibilities,” and therefore it did not matter whether the ordinance was within the City’s Municipal Code. The court cited to Save Lafayette Trees v. City of Lafayette (2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 148, where the court held that a tree ordinance was a zoning ordinance. The court noted that any decision made under the Scenic View Ordinance is “quintessentially a public entity decision involving…a land use and zoning determination.” But, the court said, even if it were not a zoning/land use determination, the “‘any other powers’” clause in section 65901 is broad and includes decisions on “a range of issues outside” the categories listed in sections 65901 and 65903.

Weiss also argued that sections 65009 and 65901 only apply to planning or zoning decisions on a project or development, but do not apply to enforcement of an ordinance. Weiss cited section 65009’s stated purpose—to provide “’certainty regarding decisions’” so that owners and governments can “‘proceed with projects.’” The court disagreed with this argument because, particularly where statutory language is “clear and unambiguous,” general statements of statutory purpose “do[] not override the substantive portion” of a statute.  Weiss also argued that the 90-day deadline in section 65009 had only ever been applied to projects or development and never in circumstances like those at issue here. The court agreed with Weiss, but explained that there was no authority stating that section 65009 is triggered only for challenges to projects or developments.

The court also rejected several final arguments from Weiss. First, she argued that the court’s decision to apply the 90-day service rule here would render the statute applicable to all of the Planning Commission’s actions. The court disagreed, pointing back to statutory language that limits 65009 to “zoning and similar land use determinations.” Next, Weiss claimed that the lack of urgency of the current dispute, unlike the expedience necessary for development, precluded applicability of section 65009. The court rejected this argument as an attempt to add language that does not exist in the statute. Additionally, the court explained that tree removal and maintenance issues do need to be resolved promptly. Lastly, Weiss argued that the Scenic View Ordinance specifically mentions Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.6, but does not mention section 65009, so that section must not apply. The court explained that Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.6 addresses filing deadlines but is silent on service of a petition. Both regulations, the court said, can therefore apply simultaneously.