The Third District Court of Appeal issued its decision in County of Siskiyou v. Superior Court (2013) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. C067252) on June 13, 2013. The court denied Siskiyou’s petition for writ of mandate, which challenged the trial court’s decision on issues of exclusive jurisdiction and change of venue.
In the underlying action, real parties in interest—Environmental Law Foundation, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and Institute for Fisheries Resources—filed a petition for writ of mandate in Sacramento County. Real parties sought to halt the issuance of well-drilling permits, alleging Siskiyou and the State Water Resources Control Board (Board) failed to manage specific groundwater resources interconnected with the Scott River in a manner consistent with the public trust doctrine. They argued that Siskiyou and the Board’s failure to protect and manage public trust resources was harming the Scott River as well as its fish and wildlife populations. Real parties limited their prayer for relief to “groundwater not previously adjudicated within the Scott River sub-basin,” recognizing a 1980 Siskiyou County Superior Court decree that adjudicated water rights in the Scott River and reserved jurisdiction to review and modify the decree in the interests of justice. Real parties asserted that the 1980 decree did not extend to groundwater at least 500 feet from the Scott River. Real parties also argued venue was proper under Code of Civil Procedure section 401, subdivision (a) because the Board, a state agency, may be tried where the Attorney General has an office.
Siskiyou demurred to the petition, claiming that the Siskiyou Superior Court had exclusive jurisdiction to hear the case under the 1980 decree. Siskiyou argued that the 1980 decree “expressly applies to all interconnected groundwater . . . including interconnected groundwater located more than 500 feet from the river.” Siskiyou stated that the Siskiyou Superior Court had exclusive jurisdiction in this case because a public trust claim would require the Board and County to regulate the same groundwater resources that are subject to the 1980 decree.
In the alternative, Siskiyou moved to transfer venue to the Siskiyou Superior Court under section 392. Siskiyou asserted that that under section 392 the superior court where real property is located is the proper venue for issues pertaining to a right or interest in real property. Siskiyou interpreted Civil Code sections 658 and 662 to define groundwater as real property under section 392. Siskiyou therefore argued that section 392 applied to the underlying case because the parties’ petition implicated an interest in groundwater, and thus an interest in real property.
The trial court overruled the demurrer, holding that the real parties’ petition did not seek to adjudicate groundwater rights specifically identified in the 1980 decree. It also denied the change of venue, holding section 392 did not apply because the petition alleged injury to usufructuary water rights, not injury to real property.
Claim of Exclusive Concurrent Jurisdiction
On appeal, Siskiyou argued that exclusive concurrent jurisdiction applies when two actions relate to the same subject matter. It further argued that the real parties’ petition to apply the public trust doctrine to groundwater interconnected to groundwater of the Scott River related to the same subject matter as the 1980 decree. Siskiyou claimed the parties’ petition would affect the rights of groundwater users in the 1980 decree.
The Court of Appeal stated there are two limits to exclusive concurrent jurisdiction. Matters in the latter case must be “necessarily related” to the first, and issues in the cases must be “substantially the same.” The court held that the parties’ claim was not a matter necessarily related to the 1980 decree — there was no evidence that the 1980 decree considered the public trust doctrine. The court likewise stated that the issues were not substantially the same. The parties’ petition argued that the Board and Siskiyou have authority under the public trust doctrine to protect public trust resources, while the 1980 decree determined water rights to groundwater interconnected with the Scott River. Finally, the court noted that “the rule of exclusive concurrent jurisdiction is a rule of policy, and countervailing policies may make the rule inapplicable.” Thus, the court held Siskiyou did not have exclusive jurisdiction.
Request to Transfer Venue
On appeal, Siskiyou argued that the trial court erred in finding water is not real property within the meaning of section 392, but rather a usufructuary right, and it cited several cases holding that water is a part of the land. Siskiyou also reasserted that the parties’ petition implicated an interest in property whereby section 392 controlled proper venue. The court found two problems with Siskiyou’s analysis of section 392. The court noted that under section 401, venue was proper in Sacramento and that Siskiyou failed to cite authority for the proposition that section 392 takes precedence over other venue statutes. Second, the court pointed out that section 392 is limited to specific types of actions involving real property. The court distinguished actions listed under section 392 from the issue of whether the Board had authority to apply the public trust doctrine to the interconnected groundwater. The court clarified that the parties’ petition did not affect the rights of individual water rights holders. Thus, the court denied Siskiyou’s petition for writ of mandate.
The decision is available at http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/C067252.PDF.