Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal

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Cal Fire’s investigation of the 2007 Moonlight Fire determined that the fire started on property owned by landowner defendants and managed by Beaty. Sierra Pacific purchased the standing timber on the property, and contracted with Howell, a licensed timber operator, to cut the timber. On the day the Moonlight Fire began, two of Howell’s employees, Bush and Crismon, were working on the property installing water bars. Cal Fire’s investigators concluded the fire began when the bulldozer Crismon was operating struck a rock or rocks, causing superheated metal fragments from the bulldozer’s track to splinter off and eventually to ignite surrounding plant matter, and that the fire was permitted to spread when Bush and Crismon failed to timely complete a required inspection of the area where they had been working that day. On the eve of trial in July 2013, consolidated actions were dismissed following a hearing after the trial court concluded Cal Fire could not as a matter of law state a claim against Sierra Pacific, Beaty, or landowner defendants, and that no plaintiff had presented a prima facie case against any defendant. After judgment was entered, the trial court awarded defendants costs without apportionment amongst plaintiffs. It also ordered Cal Fire to pay to defendants attorney fees and expert fees totaling more than $28 million because defendants as prevailing parties were entitled to recover attorney fees on either a contractual basis or as private attorneys general, or alternatively as discovery sanctions. The trial court additionally imposed terminating sanctions against Cal Fire. Plaintiffs appealed, challenging both the judgment of dismissal (case No. C074879) and the postjudgment awards (case No. C076008). Plaintiffs also requested that any hearings on remand be conducted by a different judge. In the published portion of its opinion, the Court of Appeal concluded the trial court’s order dismissing the case as to all plaintiffs based on their failure to present a prima facie case at a pretrial hearing should have been reversed because the hearing was fundamentally unfair: Plaintiffs were not provided adequate notice of the issues on which they would be asked to present their prima facie case. However, the Court concluded the trial court did properly award judgment on the pleadings against Cal Fire. In light of these conclusions, in the unpublished portion of its opinion, the Court found the trial court’s award of costs to defendants as prevailing parties as to any plaintiff but Cal Fire was vacated, and because the trial court did not apportion costs, the costs award was remanded to determine which costs Sierra Pacific, Beaty, and landowner defendants could recover from Cal Fire. Furthermore, the Court determined the trial court erred in awarding attorney fees to the prevailing parties, and that the award of monetary discovery sanctions should have been reversed and remanded for further proceedings. The imposition of terminating sanctions against Cal Fire was affirmed. Plaintiffs' requests for a new judge was rejected. View "Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection v. Howell" on Justia Law

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Monterey County Water Resources Agency (MCWRA) is a flood control and water agency. Coastkeeper sued, alleging that MCWRA had violated the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act (Wat. Code 13000) by failing to report to the regional water quality board its discharges of agricultural pollutants into the Reclamation Ditch and the Blanco Drain and breach of fiduciary duty under the public trust doctrine. The trial court granted the petition as to the claim of failure to report waste discharge and denied it as to breach of fiduciary duty, commanding MCWRA “to prepare and file a report of waste discharge ... with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.” The court of appeal reversed, finding that Coastkeeper failed to exhaust its administrative remedy under the Act, which provides that any person aggrieved by a regional water board’s action or failure to act is entitled to administrative review by the State Water Board, and then by petition for administrative mandamus in the superior court. The regional board was apparently investigating MCWRA's actions; Coastkeeper failed to file a petition for review with the State Water Board of the regional board’s action or failure to act with regard to MCWRA’s alleged waste discharges. View "Monterey Coastkeeper v. Monterey County Water Resources Agency" on Justia Law

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In this second appeal, challenging the environmental impact report (EIR) and related project approvals for two natural resource plans for the proposed Newhall Ranch development, the Court of Appeal affirmed the post-remand judgment and accompanying writ. The court held that both actions were legally permissible under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and rejected plaintiffs' claim that Public Resources Code section 21168.9 prohibits partial decertification of an EIR, and that the same section prohibits leaving project approvals in place while decertifying an EIR. The court held that a trial court has authority to partially decertify an EIR; a trial court has the power to leave some project approvals in place after partial decertification of an EIR; the trial court did not abuse its discretion in issuing the limited writ; and the writ provided an adequate remedy for a Fish and Game Code section 5515 violation. View "Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal reversed the County's certification of an environmental impact report (EIR) and approval of a project to modify an oil refinery in Bakersfield. The court held that the EIR's choice of 2007 as the measure of an existing conditions baseline for an operating refinery was supported by substantial evidence; appropriately deviated from the normal baseline; and conformed to the principles set forth by the California Supreme Court in Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management Dist. (2010) 48 Cal.4th 310. Therefore, the baseline complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The court also held that the EIR's discussion of greenhouse gas emissions contained no prejudicial error. However, the EIR containde factual error in its description of federal railroad safety data and the error caused the EIR to underestimate the risk of a release by fivefold. Finally, the EIR erroneously stated federal law preempted CEQA review of certain environmental impacts of off-site rail activities. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Association of Irritated Residents v. Kern County Board of Supervisors" on Justia Law

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After the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) certified an environmental impact report (EIR) for its 2050 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (transportation plan), CREED-21 and Affordable Housing Coalition of San Diego filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the EIR's adequacy under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Cleveland National Forest Foundation and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a similar petition, in which Sierra Club and the State later joined. The superior court granted the petitions in part, finding the EIR failed to carry out its role as an informational document because it did not analyze the inconsistency between the state's policy goals reflected in Executive Order S-3-05 (Executive Order) and the transportation plan's greenhouse gas emissions impacts after 2020. The court also found the EIR failed to adequately address mitigation measures for the transportation plan's greenhouse gas emissions impacts. The California Supreme Court granted review on the sole issue of whether the EIR should have analyzed the transportation plan's impacts against the greenhouse gas emission reduction goals in the Executive Order and reversed the Court of Appeal "insofar as it determined that the [EIR's] analysis of greenhouse gas emission impacts rendered the EIR inadequate and required revision." Cleveland and the State requested the Court of Appeal keep the remainder of its decision substantially intact and publish it as revised. SANDAG asserted the case was moot because the EIR and the transportation plan have been superseded by more recent versions, which Cleveland and the State did not challenge. The Court of Appeal agreed with Cleveland and the State that SANDAG did not establish this case was moot. The Court exercised its discretion and reversed to the extent the superior court determined the EIR failed to adequately analyze the transportation plan's greenhouse gas emissions impacts. The judgment was affirmed to the extent the superior court determined the EIR failed to adequately address the mitigation measures for the transportation plan's greenhouse gas emissions impacts. The judgment was modified to incorporate this court's decision on the cross-appeals. The matter was remanded to the superior court with directions to enter a modified judgment and order the issuance of a peremptory writ of mandate conforming to the Supreme Court's decision in Cleveland II and to this court's decision on remand. View "Cleveland Nat. Forest Foundation v. San Diego Assn. etc." on Justia Law

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The state acquired land on the Upper Truckee River in the Lake Tahoe Basin: 608 acres for Washoe Meadows State Park plus the 169-acre Lake Valley State Recreation Area, to continue operation of an existing golf course. Golf courses are not allowed in state parks. Erosion of the River’s bed raised concerns about wildlife habitat, water table, and sedimentation of Lake Tahoe. Studies identified the state land among the worst contributors. The golf course's layout had altered the river's course, CEQA review (Pub. Resources Code 21000) commenced on the “Upper Truckee River Restoration and Golf Course Reconfiguration Project,” identifying four alternatives: no project; river restoration with reconfiguration of the 18-hole golf course; river restoration with a nine-hole golf course; river stabilization with continuation of the existing golf course; and restoration of the ecosystem and decommissioning the golf course. Relocating some holes inside the Park would necessitate adjustment of the Park/Recreation Area boundary. A draft environmental impact report (DEIR) did not identify a preferred alternative but analyzed the alternatives in detail. The final EIR identified river restoration with a reconfigured 18-hole golf course as the preferred alternative, taking about 40 acres from the Park. The court of appeal affirmed an order directing reversal of approval of the project. The DEIR did not identify a proposed project, but described five very different alternatives; the public was not provided with “an accurate, stable and finite” project description on which to comment. View "Washoe Meadows Community v. Department of Parks and Recreation" on Justia Law

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The State of California prevailed in a representative public nuisance action against ConAgra, NL, and Sherwin-Williams. The trial court ordered the defendants to pay $1.15 billion into a fund to be used to abate the public nuisance created by interior residential lead paint in the ten counties represented by the state. The court of appeal affirmed in part, noting that the absence of a regulation or statute declaring interior residential lead paint to be unlawful does not bar a court from declaring it to be a public nuisance. The court reversed in part, holding that substantial evidence did not support causation as to residences built after 1950, and remanded to the trial court with directions to recalculate the amount of the abatement fund to limit it to the amount necessary to cover the cost of remediating pre-1951 homes, and hold an evidentiary hearing regarding the appointment of a suitable receiver. View "People v. ConAgra Grocery Products Co." on Justia Law

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CEH filed a complaint in Alameda County alleging violation of the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, Health and Safety Code section 25249.5 (Proposition 65) by failing to warn individuals who live or work in the Kern County town of Shafter that a soil fumigant manufactured by Dow contains a chemical known to cause cancer. Dow moved to transfer the case to Kern County, where the cause of action arose, citing Code of Civil Procedure section 393(a). The trial court denied held that venue is proper in any county under section 395(a) because Dow is a nonresident defendant with no principal place of business in California. The court of appeal disagreed, concluding that section 393(a) establishes that proper venue is in Kern County, where the cause of action arose.The “main relief rule” does not apply because the complaint allegations do not implicate real property rights; it is not necessary to determine whether the relief sought is primarily local and governed by section 392. A Proposition 65 private enforcement action does not fit within the class of cases characterized as transitory because the plaintiff is not seeking recompense for personal harm. An action for equitable relief under such a statute falls within the express language of section 393(a) when, as here, the plaintiff seeks a statutory penalty. View "Dow Agrosciences LLC v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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The Judicial Council of California (Government Code 70321) prepared an environmental impact report (EIR, California Environmental Quality Act (Pub. Resources Code, 21000)) in connection with the consolidation of El Dorado County courthouse operations from two buildings, one of which is a historic building in downtown Placerville, into a single new building on the city’s outskirts, less than two miles away. Although the draft EIR addressed the possible economic impact of moving judicial activities from the downtown courthouse, it concluded the impact was not likely to be severe enough to cause urban decay in downtown Placerville. The League contended this conclusion was not supported by substantial evidence, given the importance of the courthouse to downtown commerce. The trial court and court of appeal upheld certification of the EIR. The court noted that the new construction will not result in a competitor to siphon business from downtown, but will leave behind a building that can be filled with other activities producing a level of commerce similar to that removed by the relocation, thereby mitigating the impact of the relocation. There was substantial evidence to support the draft EIR’s conclusion that urban decay is not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the project. View "Placerville Historic Preservation League v. Judicial Council of California" on Justia Law

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The 7,517-square-foot lot, on the south side of Telegraph Hill bordering the Filbert Street steps, was unimproved except for a small uninhabitable 1906 cottage. Four other buildings were demolished in 1997. The developers intend to restore the existing 1.000-square-foot cottage and build a three-story over basement building with three units ranging from 3,700-4,200 square feet apiece. A new curb cut along Telegraph Boulevard will provide access to a basement with three off-street parking spaces. The front of the building, bordering the Filbert Street steps, is designed to appear as three separate single-family homes, each below the 40-foot height limit as they step down the hill. The San Francisco Planning Department determined the project was statutorily exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, Public Resources Code, 21000 (CEQA), because it fell within classes of projects that were determined not to have significant effects on the environment: restoration or rehabilitation of deteriorated structures; a residential structure totaling no more than four dwelling units. The Planning Commission approved a conditional use authorization. The Board of Supervisors, superior court, and court of appeal upheld the approvals. No CEQA review was necessary because the project was categorically exempt from review and no unusual circumstances exist to override the exemptions on the basis the project will have a significant effect on the environment. View "Protect Telegraph Hill v. City & County of San Francisco" on Justia Law