CEQA Case Report: Understanding the Judicial Landscape for Development[i]

In an unpublished opinion issued May 3, 2018, Endangered Habitats League, Inc. v. City of San Marcos, Case No. D072404, the California Court of Appeal determined that the Endangered Habitats League (Petitioner) substantially complied with procedural provisions of CEQA that require a petitioner to file a written request for a hearing, and the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision to dismiss Petitioner’s suit.

In summary, the court determined:

  • An oral request for a hearing on the merits of a CEQA petition, followed by written notice to all parties, fulfills the objectives of CEQA’s procedural requirement that a petitioner file a written request for a hearing, such that the substantial compliance doctrine applies.

The trial court dismissed the action based on its belief that the court was foreclosed from applying the substantial compliance doctrine to CEQA’s procedural requirements. Petitioner had orally requested a hearing on the merits of its CEQA action, provided timely written notice to City of San Marcos (City) and the real parties in interest (Real Parties). Petitioner had additionally filed and served a declaration attesting to the request for hearing, but had failed to file a document entitled, “request for a hearing.” Petitioner appealed the dismissal.

Background for Appeal

On January 13, 2017, Petitioner challenged City’s approval of a housing project proposed by Real Parties. Petitioner filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging that the City failed to comply with CEQA because the environmental impacts of the project had not been properly analyzed. Under CEQA section 21167.4(a), Petitioner had 90 days (until April 13) to request a hearing on the petition.

During the next few weeks, the parties engaged in initial discovery, unsuccessful settlement conferences, and various other communications. Petitioner orally requested a hearing date with the court, and upon confirmation from the court, Petitioner emailed the other parties advising them of the requested hearing date set for November 17, 2017. Immediately after, Petitioner’s counsel filed and served a declaration on respondents attesting to the request for the November 17 hearing date. Petitioner’s later filings also included the November 17 date. In addition, the court independently sent notice of the hearing to the parties and stated that a status conference would be held prior to the November 17 hearing. These communications occurred well within 90 days of Petitioner filing the petition.

On April 27 (after the 90 day period had expired), Real Parties moved to dismiss the action, stating that Petitioner failed to file and serve a written request for a hearing within the specified 90 day period as required under CEQA section 21167.4(a). The court explained that the purpose of the statute was to expedite the resolution of CEQA matters and that Petitioner had thus substantially complied with this purpose. However, the court ultimately granted Real Parties’ motion, citing precedent in which cases had been dismissed due to a lack of a written request for a hearing, but clarifying that it would otherwise have denied the motion to dismiss given that Petitioner had fulfilled the objectives of section 21167.4. Petitioner appealed.

Substantial Compliance Is Sufficient If Statutory Objectives Are Met

On appeal, Petitioner argued that its actions satisfied the objectives of section 21167.4 and that it had thus substantially complied with CEQA, despite not filing a document specifically entitled “request for a hearing.” The substantial compliance doctrine governs when a party has complied with the objectives of a CEQA provision. The objectives of section 21167.4 are to promote prompt resolution of CEQA matters and to provide judicial oversight and involvement in scheduling processes. Here, the Court of Appeal found that by requesting a hearing as well as filing and providing written notice to all the parties involved within 90 days of filing the petition, Petitioner had fulfilled this statutory objective.

The Court of Appeal further found that Petitioner’s actions provided Real Parties sufficient opportunity to request an earlier or different hearing date, and these actions also did not prevent the court from setting a different date for the hearing. Even though Petitioner did not file a specific written request for a hearing with the court, the Court of Appeal found that Petitioner’s and the trial court’s actions confirmed Petitioner’s requested hearing date. Thus, the court and all parties received the same opportunities as a written request for hearing would have provided.

The Court of Appeal distinguished its holding from prior rulings by clarifying that in those cases, the notice of a hearing was only given to the court via telephone (and not attested to in a written declaration filed with the court), and written notice was not given to the other parties within the 90-day time frame. The Court of Appeal was careful to note that it did not disagree with the precedential opinions and was merely distinguishing the prior rulings from the present circumstances, confirming that written notice of a hearing request is required under CEQA.

Disposition

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the Court of Appeal’s decision.

  • Opinion by Justice Aaron, with Acting Presiding Justice O’Rourke, and Justice Guerrero concurring.
  • Trial Court: Superior Court of San Diego County, No. 37-2017-00001434-CU-WM-NC, Judge Ronald F. Frazier.