Castaic Lake Water Agency v. Newhall County Water District (2015) 238 Cal.App.4th 1196

Why It Matters: In an unreported decision in the continuing legal skirmishes involving development in the Santa Clarita Valley, the court upheld a water district's public meeting notice even though it referenced an incorrect section of the Brown Act, California's open meeting law. Although the case cannot be cited as legal precedent, it provides a perspective into at least one court's reasoning that perfection is not always required—substantial compliance was sufficient, and that courts will not always fault an agency for a technical error so long as the goal of public information and disclosure was met.

Facts: On March 8, 2013, the Newhall Water District (Newhall) posted a "Notice and Agenda of Regular Meeting of the Board of Directors of Newhall County Water District." The Notice/Agenda advised the public that the Newhall Board planned to hold a regular meeting four days later. Specifically, the Notice/Agenda contained an item providing "CLOSED SESSION [¶] 1. Conference with Legal Counsel pursuant to Government Code Section 54956.9(c) to discuss potential litigations (2 cases)." A meeting followed on March 14, 2013, and the Newhall Board authorized the initiation of a lawsuit against Castaic Lake Water Agency (Castaic), a public water wholesaler. The lawsuit was filed April 25, 2013.

On June 21, 2013, Castaic objected to the March 2013 Notice/Agenda contending, among other objections, that the Notice/Agenda erroneously cited subdivision (c) of Government Code Section 54956.9 instead of subdivision (d)(4), and therefore failed to properly disclose an open meeting item to be discussed in closed session. Castaic demanded that Newhall cure or correct the violations by dismissing its lawsuit. Rather than dismiss the lawsuit, on July 3, 2013, Newhall took efforts to "cure" the alleged defects by renoticing a closed session to discuss its litigation with Castaic, and to hold a vote to "ratify" the lawsuit.

In July 2013, Castaic filed a petition for writ of mandate and complaint against Newhall alleging violations of the Brown Act. Castaic sought a determination that the first-filed lawsuit by Newhall was "null and void." Newhall promptly filed a motion to dismiss, contending that its decision to initiate the lawsuit was a valid action under the Brown Act because it subsequently cured or corrected any alleged failure to give proper notice by placing the matter on a later agenda and allowed public comment.

The trial court ruled in favor of Newhall, noting that "[e]ven where a plaintiff has satisfied the threshold procedural requirements to set aside an agency's action, Brown Act violations will not necessarily invalidate a decision; the plaintiff must show prejudice." Castaic appealed.

The Decision: The issue before the Court of Appeal was whether Newhall's failure to include accurate information on its March 2013 Notice/Agenda, i.e., citing subdivision (c) of Government Code Section 54956.9 instead of subdivision (d)(4), violated the Brown Act. Applying substantial compliance as the "governing test," the court found that the March 2013 Agenda "substantially complied with the Brown Act, making it unnecessary to address whether Newhall properly cured and corrected the purported violation."

The court reasoned that so long as an agency takes "reasonably effective efforts to notify interested parties of a public meeting," the objectives of the Brown Act can be satisfied. In rendering its decision, the court signaled a rejection of "hypertechnical" interpretations of the Brown Act that elevate "form over substance." Since the public was alerted to Newhall's closed session meeting to discuss litigation, irrespective of the variance between the given Notice/Agenda and the statutorily prescribed notice, the given notice was in substantial compliance.