Third District Finds Trial Court Erred by Taking Judicial Notice of Documents Outside the Pleadings When Ruling on a Demurrer

Jamulians Against the Casino v. Iwasaki (3rd Dist. March 29, 2012 [modified April 26, 2012]) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. C067138)

Plaintiff association Jamulians Against the Casino (JAC) contested the execution of a 2009 settlement agreement between Caltrans and Jamul Indian Village. The agreement had resolved federal litigation between Caltrans and the Tribe over application of CEQA to the Tribe’s plans to upgrade an interchange.  JAC alleged the agreement itself was subject to CEQA. JAC argued Caltrans had committed itself in the agreement to granting a permit for the interchange upgrade.

JAC filed a petition for mandate, to which Caltrans demurred. The Tribe made a special appearance to quash summons based on sovereign immunity. The Tribe asserted it was an indispensable party. The trial court sustained Caltrans’ demurrer and dismissed the action. The trial court declined to rule on the Tribe’s motions. JAC appealed.

On appeal, the Third District invited supplemental briefing on the issue of whether the trial court exceeded the proper scope of judicial notice in taking provisions of the agreement into account that did not appear on the face of the petition. The appellate court determined that the trial court had erred when ruling on the demurrer.

When it ruled on the demurrer, the trial court took judicial notice of the entire agreement. The trial court determined the agreement “as a whole” defeated JAC’s interpretation of a portion of the agreement upon which JAC based its assertion that Caltrans had committed to approval; however, in its pleadings, JAC had only cited small portions of the agreement.

The appellate court rejected the trial court’s approach, stating that a demurrer tests the pleading alone.  A court cannot sustain a demurrer on the basis of extrinsic material not appearing on the face of the pleading, except for matters subject to judicial notice. While the existence of documents can be judicially noticed, the truth of the contents of documents may only be judicially noticed in limited circumstances, such as for orders, judgments, conclusions of law, or findings of fact. It was therefore inappropriate for the trial court to take judicial notice of the terms of an ordinary document, such as the agreement, submitted in support of the demurrer. Further, it was inappropriate for the trial court to interpret the terms of the agreement. The appellate court was concerned that this use of judicial notice could convert a demurrer into an incomplete evidentiary hearing. The agreement, as a whole, was not properly before the trial court, and a demurrer tests the sufficiency of a pleading alone. Based on these facts and reasoning, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment.

The court also briefly discussed the issue of whether the Tribe was an indispensable party. The court noted that the designation of a party as indispensable is a discretionary determination requiring consideration of four relevant criteria: (1) the extent to which a judgment would prejudice the absent party; (2) the extent to which measures are available to mitigate any prejudice; (3) the ability of the court to address the issues in the absence of the party; and (4) the adequacy of the plaintiff’s alternate remedies if the action is dismissed. The appellate court declined to rule on this issue, stating appellate courts will not review an issue in the first instance that involves a trial court’s discretionary application of the law to the particular facts of a case.

This case may potentially increase the difficulty of prevailing on a demurrer where the contents of documents necessary to support the demurrer are not set forth in the pleadings. Other procedures, such as summary judgment or judgment on the pleadings, may become necessary to place certain documents before a court for review and interpretation and obtain the same result as a demurrer.