Justia California Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
by
Plaintiff-appellant County of Sacramento (County) appealed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant-respondent Department of Water Resources (DWR). In 2019, the County sought injunctive relief alleging that DWR failed to obtain county permits before conducting geotechnical exploration activities related to a state water infrastructure project in the Delta region of Sacramento County. The County noted that its ordinance required all persons, including the state, to obtain county permits before conducting activities including drilling exploratory holes and borings. The County contended that it adopted its ordinance pursuant to division 7, chapter 10 of the California Water Code, and the Legislature had expressly waived the state’s sovereign immunity with respect to the chapter’s provisions. DWR, in moving for summary judgment, asserted that, as a state agency acting within its governmental capacity, it was immune from local regulations except where the Legislature expressly waived that immunity. DWR further contended that its activities did not fall within the scope of chapter 10, which is a limited statute governing “wells,” “water wells,” “cathodic protection wells,” and “geothermal heat exchange wells” as those terms are defined in the chapter. The trial court granted the motion, concluding DWR’s exploration activities did not fall within the scope of chapter 10, and the County was not authorized to expand its regulatory authority over the state beyond that which was expressly authorized by the Legislature. The County appealed the trial court’s ruling, contending the scope of the Legislature’s waiver of sovereign immunity extended beyond activities expressly defined in chapter 10 to include activities governed by an administrative bulletin establishing drilling and boring standards that the Legislature referenced in chapter 10. Alternatively, the County argued various statements made by DWR created a triable issue of fact as to whether DWR’s exploration activities fell within the scope of activities expressly defined by chapter 10. In the published portion of its opinion, the Court of Appeal concluded the scope of the Legislature’s waiver of the state’s immunity extended only to the activities expressly defined in chapter 10. In the unpublished portion of its opinion, the Court agreed with DWR that the County failed to establish a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether DWR’s exploration activities fall within the scope of chapter 10 as the Court construed it, and also concluded that the County failed to demonstrate prejudice from the trial court’s evidentiary rulings. View "Dept. of Water Resources Cases" on Justia Law

by
In 2016, Placer County, California (the County) approved a project to develop a resort on about 94 acres near Lake Tahoe. Sierra Watch challenged the County’s approval in two lawsuits, both of which were appealed. In this case, Sierra Watch challenged the County’s environmental review for the project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In particular, Sierra Watch contended the County: (1) failed to sufficiently consider Lake Tahoe in its analysis; (2) insufficiently evaluated the project’s impacts on fire evacuation plans for the region; (3) inadequately evaluated and mitigated the project’s noise impacts; (4) failed to allow for sufficient public review of the project’s climate change impacts; (5) failed to consider appropriate mitigation for the project’s climate change impacts; (6) overlooked feasible mitigation options for the project’s traffic impacts; and (7) wrongly relied on deferred mitigation to address the project’s impacts on regional transit. The trial court rejected all Sierra Watch’s arguments. But because the Court of Appeal found some of Sierra Watch’s claims had merit, judgment was reversed. View "Sierra Watch v. County of Placer" on Justia Law

by
Three appeals against respondent Department of Water Resources all involved litigation related to changes in long-term water supply contracts brought about by the “Monterey Agreement” and “Monterey Amendment.” In the first case, Central Delta Water Agency, et al. (collectively, Central Delta) appealed the trial court’s decision on a petition for writ of mandate challenging the adequacy of the “Monterey Plus” environmental impact report (Monterey Plus EIR) issued in 2010 and the validity of the Monterey Amendment. In the second, Center for Biological Diversity (Biological Diversity) appealed the trial court’s denial of attorney fees incurred in connection with its writ petition against DWR involving the Monterey Plus EIR and Monterey Amendment. In the third case, Center for Food Safety, et al. (collectively, Food Safety) appealed the trial court’s denial of a petition for writ of mandate challenging DWR’s revised environmental impact report on the Monterey Plus project (Revised EIR). Finding no reversible error in any of the three cases, the Court of Appeal affirmed. View "Central Delta Water Agency v. Dept. of Water Resources" on Justia Law

by
In 2016, Placer County, California (the County) approved a project to develop a resort on about 94 acres near Lake Tahoe. Sierra Watch challenged the County’s approval in two lawsuits, both of which were appealed. In one of its suits, it alleged the County’s environmental review for the project was inadequate. In another, it alleged the County approved the project in violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act (Gov. Code. sec. 54950 et seq.). This appeal centered on Sierra Watch’s Brown Act allegations and involved two of the act’s requirements: (1) section 54957.5 of the Brown Act; and (2) section 54954.2 of the Brown Act. Because the trial court found differently on both of these issues, the Court of Appeal reversed in part. But although the Court found the County’s conduct violated the Brown Act, the Court rejected Sierra Watch’s request that the Court vacate the County’s approvals. View "Sierra Watch v. County of Placer" on Justia Law

by
X.M., a student at Maple Elementary School, sued Hesperia Unified School District (HUSD), claiming he was sexually assaulted on campus by one of their employees. He sought treble damages under Code of Civil Procedure section 340.1, alleging his assault resulted from HUSD’s cover up of a prior sexual assault by the same employee. The trial court granted the school district’s motion to strike the increased damages request on the ground that treble damages under section 340.1 were primarily punitive and therefore barred by Government Code section 818. X.M. filed a petition for writ of mandate asking the Court of Appeal to vacate the trial court’s order and conclude section 818’s immunity did not apply to the treble damages provision at issue here. He argued the primary purpose of the provision is to compensate victims of childhood sexual assault for the additional harm caused by discovering their abuse could have been prevented if those entrusted with their care had responded differently to prior sexual assaults on their watch. In the alternative, he argues the provision’s primary purpose is to incentivize victims to come forward and file lawsuits. The Court concluded the primary purpose of section 340.1’s treble damages provision was punitive because it was designed to deter future cover ups by punishing past ones. "[T]he economic and noneconomic damages available under general tort principles are already designed to make childhood sexual assault victims whole ... It is the rare treble damages provision that isn’t primarily designed to punish and deter misconduct, and nothing in section 340.1 or its legislative history convinces us the Legislature intended the increased award to be more compensatory (or incentivizing) than deterrent." Further, the Court held that section 818’s immunity applied when the defendant was a public agency like HUSD. The Court therefore denied the petition. View "X.M. v. Super. Ct." on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff-appellant Sharon Curcio, formerly a teacher with the Fontana Unified School District (the district), learned her personnel file included derogatory statements about her. When the district refused to allow Curcio to obtain or review those statements, she sought assistance from her union, the Fontana Teachers Association (FTA), and from the California Teachers Association (CTA). When the union didn't help, Curcio initiated proceedings before the Public Employees Relations Board (the board), claiming FTA and CTA breached their duties of fair representation and engaged in unfair practices in violation of the Educational Employment Relations Act (the Act). When the board decided not to issue a complaint, Curcio filed this lawsuit and appealed when the superior court sustained FTA and CTA’s demurrer, without leave to amend, to Curcio’s second amended petition for writ of mandate. The demurrer was grounded on FTA and CTA’s claims that the board had the exclusive jurisdiction to decide whether Curcio had or had not stated an unfair practice and, therefore, the superior court lacked jurisdiction. Finding no reversible error in that judgment, the Court of Appeal affirmed. View "Curcio v. Fontana Teachers Assn. CTA/NEA" on Justia Law

by
This appeal challenged the validity of a possessory interest tax imposed by the County of Riverside, California (the county) upon lessees of federally owned land set aside for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (Agua Caliente tribe) or its members. A subset of the more than 450 plaintiffs in this appeal also challenged the validity of voter-approved taxes funding the Desert Water Agency, Coachella Valley Water District, Palm Springs Unified School District, Palo Verde School District, and Desert Community College District. A small minority of the plaintiffs claimed to hold a possessory interest in land set aside for the Colorado River Indian tribe (CRIT), but they argued the challenged taxes were invalid for the same reasons asserted by the other plaintiffs. A trial court upheld the validity of the challenged taxes and plaintiffs’ appeal, arguing the challenged taxes were preempted by federal law. The question of whether the county could impose a possessory interest tax on lessees of land set aside for the Agua Caliente tribe or its members was the subject of repeated litigation in both federal and state courts, and the validity of the county’s possessory interest tax in this context has been repeatedly upheld. During the pendency of this appeal, the Court of Appeal issued its decision in Herpel v. County of Riverside, 45 Cal.App.5th 96 (2020), again upholding the validity of the county’s possessory interest tax under almost identical circumstances as those presented here. Although plaintiffs claim that the Herpel decision was not controlling because it did not consider many of the arguments presented here, the Court concluded the facts and arguments presented in this case did not materially differ from those already considered in Herpel, and plaintiffs did not present any persuasive reason for the Court to depart from that recent decision. View "Albrecht v. County of Riverside" on Justia Law

by
The Department regulates the use of pesticides, including 1,3-Dichloropropene (1,3-D), which is used in agriculture. Only Dow produces 1,3-D for use in California As a condition of Dow’s continued registration of 1,3-D products, the Department maintains a “township cap program,” which limits the amount of the pesticide that may be used each year to reduce cancer risks to bystanders. Plaintiffs filed a petition for a writ of mandate, claiming that the township cap program was an underground regulation in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act and fails to incorporate recommendations from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment as required under the Food and Agriculture Code.The trial court granted summary judgment, declaring the township cap program void and directing the Department to engage in formal rulemaking to replace it. The court of appeal affirmed, agreeing that the program is an underground regulation. A regulation subject to the APA may exist even if the agency never promulgates a written policy setting forth the rule. The fact that Dow happens to be the only registrant of 1,3-D does not mean the Department can informally regulate the pesticide at will while its rules are implemented as conditions of Dow’s registration; the township cap program is a rule of general application. The program governs how 1,3-D will be used, not how the Department will register pesticides, and clearly implements and makes specific the law the Department administers. View "Vasquez v. Department of Pesticide Regulation" on Justia Law

by
In 2018, a Sacramento Police Department administrative penalty of $137,500 was imposed on plaintiffs Zuhu Wang and Xiaoyan Yue based on the number of marijuana plants that were found on property they owned in excess of what was permitted under Sacramento City Code (City Code) section 8.132.040(B). Plaintiffs filed an administrative appeal with the City of Sacramento. After a hearing, a hearing examiner found the penalty was properly issued. The examiner relied in part on City Code section 8.08.050(A), which stated that “[e]very owner of real property within the city is required to manage the property in a manner so as not to violate the provisions of this code and the owner remains liable for violations thereof regardless of any contract or agreement with any third party regarding the property.” The examiner found “[t]he property owner in good faith entrusted the management of his property to an established property management company that failed to adequately follow through with background research on the tenant, and to conduct adequate inspections of the property.” The examiner reduced the administrative penalty to $35,000 “in consideration of the evidence and testimony presented.” The question presented by this appeal was whether a de novo appeal to a superior court pursuant to Government Code section 53069.4 was unavailable to challenge an administrative penalty that exceeds $25,000. The Court of Appeal determined that because the statute contained no such limitation, it reversed the judgment dismissing the de novo appeal brought by plaintiffs, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Wang v. City of Sacramento Police Dept." on Justia Law

by
A reverse validation action was brought by petitioners Bonnie Wolstoncroft, William Unkel, and Michael Wilkes against the County of Yolo (County) to challenge the County’s plan to continue water service to 95 residences within the North Davis Meadows County Service Area (County Service Area) by replacing two aging groundwater wells with the City of Davis’s (City) water supply. Under this plan, North Davis Meadows residents would pay substantially higher water rates to pay for the project. The County considered the increased water rates to be property-related fees and noticed a Proposition 218 (as approved by voters, Gen. Elec. (Nov. 5, 1996)) hearing. More than five months after the County adopted its resolution, but before the deadline contemplated by the parties’ tolling agreement, petitioners filed their action in superior court. The trial court rejected petitioners’ argument that the increased levy constituted an assessment for which majority approval was required by Proposition 218. The trial court also rejected petitioners’ contentions that the County wrongfully rejected protest votes it claimed not to have received or received in an untimely manner. After review of petitioners' arguments on appeal, the Court of Appeal concluded the trial court correctly determined that the levy constituted a property-related fee under Proposition 218. "The fact that maintaining adequate water supply requires switching water sources does not turn the fee into an assessment. Thus, the County properly employed the majority protest procedure under article XIII D, section 6." Further, the Court concluded that even if the trial court erred in denying petitioners’ motion to augment the record with declarations regarding two mailed protest votes, petitioners’ evidence would not prove timely compliance with the protest procedure. Without the protest votes for which only evidence of mailing was tendered, the protest lacked a majority. Accordingly, the trial court's judgment was affirmed. View "Wolstoncroft v. County of Yolo" on Justia Law