Citizens for Open Government v. City of Lodi, (3rd Dist. March 28, 2012 [modified April 25th, 2012]) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. C065463, C065719)
Factual and Procedural Background
In 2002, Browman Company applied to the City of Lodi for a use permit to develop a 35-acre shopping center. In 2003, the city issued a NOP for a draft EIR for the proposed project. The city approved the project in 2004. Lodi First and Citizens for Open Government (COG) filed separate lawsuits (Lodi First I and Citizens I) challenging the project.
In December 2005, the trial court granted the petition for writ of mandate in Lodi First I. The city council rescinded approval of the project and decertified the 2004 EIR. In 2006, the city issued a NOP for the revised EIR. In 2007, COG and the city stipulated to dismiss Citizens I.
In October 2007, the city circulated revisions to the EIR for public review and comment. The city concluded some of the comments it had received on the revised draft EIR were beyond the scope of the revisions and barred by res judicata. The city declined to provide substantive responses to these comments. In May 2009, the city council conditionally approved the project entitlements and adopted findings of fact and a statement of overriding considerations for the project.
In order to proceed with the project, the city filed a petition to discharge the writ in Lodi First I. As part of this process, the city lodged a supplemental administrative record. Both COG and Lodi First filed separate lawsuits challenging the final revised EIR. After filing their lawsuits, both groups contended the supplemental administrative record excluded documents, including internal agency communications and communications with city consultants.
COG filed a motion to augment the supplemental administrative record. The court granted the motion in part and denied the motion in part based on the attorney-client, attorney-work-product and deliberative process privileges. In 2010, following a hearing on the merits, the trial court granted the City’s request to discharge the 2005 writ in Lodi First I and deny the petitions in Citizens II and Lodi First II. Both Lodi First and COG appealed.
The Appellate Court’s Decision
On appeal, Lodi First and COG argued the trial court erred in applying the deliberative process privilege to exclude some emails from the administrative record. Appellants also challenged the sufficiency of the revised EIR on numerous grounds and disputed the trial court’s ruling precluding them from challenging certain issues based on res judicata.
The Deliberative Process Privilege
Under the deliberative process privilege, senior officials in government enjoy a qualified, limited privilege not to disclose certain materials or communications. These include the mental processes by which a given decision was reached and other discussions, deliberations, etc., by which government policy is processed and formulated. The deliberative process showing must be made by the one claiming the privilege. Not every deliberative process communication is protected by the privilege. Instead, the privilege is implicated only if the public interest in nondisclosure clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.
In the trial court, the city argued the deliberative process privilege applied because the city manager, city attorney, community development director, and other consultants engaged in various deliberative discussions and document exchanges concerning revisions to the EIR. The privilege was required, the city argued, “to foster candid dialogue and a testing and challenging of the approaches to be taken…” On appeal, Lodi First claimed this assertion was insufficient to support nondisclosure through the deliberative process privilege. The appellate court agreed, finding the city offered a correct statement of policy, but that invoking policy was not sufficient to explain the public’s specific interest in nondisclosure of the documents at issue. As a result, the city failed to carry its burden, and the trial court erred in excluding 22 e-mails from the administrative record based on the deliberative process privilege.
While the trial court erred in excluding these documents, this error was not necessarily prejudicial. Under the standard for prejudicial error established by the California Constitution, the appellant bears the burden to show it is reasonably probable he or she would have received a more favorable result at trial had the error not occurred.
Lodi First acknowledged it could not satisfy its burden to prove prejudice on appeal because it had not seen the documents that were erroneously withheld. Lodi First claimed the improper withholding of the documents itself was prejudicial because it was impossible for Lodi First to acquire them. The appellate court disagreed and noted Lodi First should have sought writ review of the trial court’s ruling on the motion to augment the administrative record. In addition, the appellate court, citing Madera Oversight Coalition Inc. v. County of Madera (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 48, disagreed with Lodi First’s contention that the incomplete record itself was a prejudicial error requiring reversal regardless of the actual contents of the withheld documents.
The Range of Alternatives Considered
Lodi First argued the revised EIR did not comply with CEQA because the range of alternatives to the project did not both satisfy most of the project objectives and reduce significant effects of the project. Relying on both the CEQA Guidelines and long-standing precedent, the court rejected Lodi First’s argument.
First, the court of appeal cited CEQA Guidelines section 15126.6 for the assertion that “there is no ironclad rule governing the nature or scope of the alternatives to be discussed other than the rule of reason.” In addition the court noted that the California Supreme Court has explained how a “rule of reason” must be applied to the assessment of alternatives to proposed projects.
In this case, the revised project considered five alternatives: (1) no project; (2) alternative land uses; (3) reduced density; (4) reduced project size; and (5) alternative project location. The alternative land use and reduced project density alternatives were not considered for further evaluation because they were infeasible or would not meet the goals of the project. The appellate court found the rejection of these alternatives for further review was reasonable. The three remaining alternatives were discussed in detail in the revised EIR and provided substantial evidence of a reasonable range of alternatives.
Urban Decay Analysis
The trial court granted the petition for writ of mandate in Lodi First I, in part, because the analysis of cumulative urban decay impacts was inadequate for omitting two related projects in the geographic area. An updated economic impact/urban decay analysis was prepared in response to the trial court’s order to decertify the original EIR.
Lodi First argued the revised EIR inaccurately described the project’s environmental setting by failing to discuss existing blight and decay conditions in east Lodi. The appellate court, by de novo review, determined the blight at issue was not necessarily related to the retail environment at all. Further, the revised EIR analyzed the potential for urban decay with consideration of conditions in east Lodi. The revised EIR’s discussion of cumulative urban decay impacts was adequate under CEQA.
The Economic Baseline
COG argued the city erred in the revised EIR by failing to assess urban decay impacts “under radically changed economic conditions.” COG asserted the city should have reassessed urban decay impacts in light of the economic recession that occurred after the 2006/2007 economic analysis performed for the project. The appellate court determined the city’s decision not to update the baseline was supported by substantial evidence. First, the city offered evidence that updating the baseline presented a “moving target” problem, where updates to the analysis would not be able to keep pace with changing events. In addition, the city presented evidence that the changing economic conditions did not affect the urban decay findings based on the 2006/2007 economic analysis. Therefore, the city did not abuse its discretion when it declined to update the baseline.
COG argued the original EIR and revised EIR failed to disclose cumulative impacts to agriculture and that there was no substantial evidence to support the rejection of a heightened mitigation ratio.
The appellate court first determined that the revised EIR satisfied the standards established by the CEQA Guidelines for discussing cumulative impacts. The EIR explained the amount of prime farmland lost due to the project, the amount of land lost due to the project and other proposed projects, and that the cumulative impacts to agricultural resources would be significant and unavoidable. The discussion met the standard for “adequacy, completeness, and a good faith effort at full disclosure.”
After finding the revised EIR’s discussion of cumulative impacts to agricultural resources adequate, the appellate court determined the city did not have to accept a heightened mitigation ratio as asserted by COG. The city required a 1:1 conservation easement ratio for the loss of farmland, but also determined that agricultural easements do not completely mitigate for the loss of farmland. The city adopted a statement of overriding considerations and asserted the 1:1 ratio is appropriate for the project. COG argued the rejection of a 2:1 mitigation ratio was not supported by substantial evidence. The appellate court disagreed and noted that the appropriate standard was whether the finding that there were no feasible mitigation measures to reduce the impacts to prime farmland was supported by substantial evidence.
The Doctrine of Res Judicata
Lodi First attempted to argue the revised EIR failed to disclose cumulative water supply impacts. The trial court held that res judicata barred Lodi Frist from raising this claim. The appellate court agreed.
Res Judicata (claim preclusion) bars relitigation of a cause of action that was previously adjudicated in another proceeding between the same parties or parties in privity with them and that adjudication resulted in a final decision on the merits. In this case, a writ was issued in Lodi First I and was final on the merits. The trial court granted Lodi First’s petition and held the 2005 EIR was inadequate under CEQA. The city chose not to appeal, and the ruling was final because the time to appeal passed.
Lodi first attempted to argue res judicata did not preclude its water supply challenge because it was based on new information and the city’s 2009 findings regarding the project’s water supply impacts differed from its 2005 findings. For the purposes of res judicata, causes of action are considered the same if based on the same primary right. A claim is based on the same primary right if based on the same conditions and facts in existence when the original action was filed.
The appellate court determined the problem of overdraft cited by Lodi First was not new evidence. The city’s own 1990 general plan identified overdraft in the aquifer. While Lodi First claimed new evidence established more information than the 1990 EIR, the critical fact was that the city’s water supply was inadequate to serve new development. This was known at the time of the 2004 EIR. In addition, the court determined the findings were consistent in that both findings were that the project would have no significant impact on water supply and therefore, no mitigation was necessary
Finally, the appellate court disagreed with Lodi First that res judicata should not be applied to the water supply issue due to public policy. When the issue is a question of law rather than of fact, res judicata may not apply if injustice would result or if the public interest requires that relitigation be allowed. Lodi First’s water supply issue did not present a question of law, so the public interest exception did not apply.
This case demonstrates the limitations of the deliberative process privilege for public agencies. Agencies attempting to rely on this privilege must be prepared to support their assertion of the privilege with a specific showing that the nondisclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure; broad policy statements are not enough to support application of the privilege. In addition, the case offers an important reminder of the consequences of failing to raise all potential arguments in original CEQA proceedings, and indeed, most regular civil proceedings.
RMM partners Andrea Leisy and Howard Wilkins and associate Laura Harris represented real party in in interest Browman Development in this litigation.