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In Lucille Saunders v. City of Los Angeles (2012) 2012 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 6965, Lucille Saunders (Saunders) and Fix the City sought writs of mandate to require the City of Los Angeles (City) to comply with its general plan, its municipal code, applicable Government Codes, and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  The Second Appellate District Court affirmed the lower court’s denial of the writs.

Pursuant to Government Code section 65300, the City prepared a general plan for future development.  The City included in its plan the seven mandatory elements, such as housing, noise, and land use, as well as an optional Framework Element.  Lawsuits ensued after the Framework Element’s adoption.  In response, the City readopted its Framework Element and made new CEQA findings and statement of overriding considerations.  Saunders filed a complaint alleging a CEQA violation, failing to perform mandatory duties under the Framework Element, and evidentiary error.

Appealing from the lower court’s holding that the CEQA claim was barred by the 180-day statute of limitations, Saunders argued she could not have discovered the CEQA violation prior to the City’s service of supplemental discovery responses made on March 11, 2009.  The appellate court explained a plaintiff must bring a cause of action within the limitations period applicable after accrual of the cause of action, which is “when, under substantial law, the wrongful act is done.”  The court also addressed the “discovery rule,” an exception to the general rule which postpones the start of the limitation date until plaintiff discovers or has reason to discover the cause of action.

With regard to this case, the court found the City informed Saunders’s counsel in a letter dated January 14, 2008 that the Planning Department had “not produced an Annual Report on Growth and Infrastructure for the years 1999 through 2007.”  The court held this evidence sufficient to support a reasonable inference that Saunders knew or should have known in January 2008 of the alleged CEQA violation, that the City was no longer generating bound Annual Reports.  Since Saunders did not file her CEQA claim until October 2009, the 180-day limitation period had passed and her claim was thus time barred.

Saunders’s claims of failing to perform mandatory duties under the Framework Element required the court to partake in statutory interpretation of said Framework Element.  Saunders asserted City Council intended to impose on the Planning Department mandatory duties to monitor growth and prepare Annual Report programs; therefore the Department had no power to eliminate those two programs.  The City responded the Department had not eliminated either program, but simply changed the timing, method, and manner of the implementation of those programs, an action well within its discretionary power.  The court agreed with the City, finding that based on the general language and the context of the Framework Element as a whole, the City Council intended to give the Planning Department broad discretion when deciding how best to implement the Framework Element.  The court thus denied Saunders’s petition.

Saunders’s last claim alleged the trial court erred by allowing certain evidence offered by the City and excluding certain evidence offered by Saunders.  The court explained if a trial court improperly excluded or admitted evidence, its decision would be overturned only if the “error resulted in a miscarriage of justice.”  The court found no evidence that Saunders was prejudiced by these rulings.  Therefore, the court upheld the lower court’s judgment.

Key Point:

The statute of limitations for a CEQA claim begins once the injury occurs.  However, under the “discovery rule,” that start date could be postponed to the date at which plaintiff knows, or more importantly should have known, when the injury occurred.  As seen in this case, the City presented evidence sufficient to show Saunders should have known in January 2008 of the alleged CEQA violation.  Therefore, her March 2009 claim was time barred.

Written By: Tina Thomas, Ashle Crocker and Holly McMannes (law clerk)
For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

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