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LED Street LightOn April 13, the Second Appellate District disapproved two of its prior decisions that had expansively interpreted the availability of mandatory relief from default or dismissal under Code of Civil Procedure section 473(b). In The Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles, the court held that this mandatory relief provision did not apply to an adverse judgment at a CEQA merits hearing, resulting from plaintiff’s failure to lodge the administrative record with the court prior to the hearing.

The underlying mandate petition and complaint alleged a single cause of action challenging the City’s finding that a streetlight replacement project using LED lights was exempt from environmental review under CEQA. The parties stipulated that plaintiff would prepare the administrative record and, following certification by the City, lodge it with the trial court. However, plaintiff never lodged the certified record. At the hearing on the merits, the trial court determined that plaintiff could not present sufficient evidence to support its arguments because it failed to lodge the record. Accordingly, the trial court denied the plaintiff’s petition and complaint and entered judgment in favor of the City.

Plaintiff moved to vacate the judgment, seeking relief under both the discretionary and mandatory relief provisions of C.C.P. section 473(b). Under section 473’s procedural safety-net, relief is generally discretionary where an attorney commits excusable neglect, but is mandatory in the case of a “default,” “default judgment,” or “dismissal,” if an attorney submits an affidavit attesting to his or her mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or neglect. In this case, the plaintiff’s attorney submitted an affidavit, declaring that although he instructed his newly hired legal assistant to lodge the administrative record, due to his hectic workload, he did not verify that the assistant actually executed the task. In making the case for mandatory relief, plaintiff asserted that the judgment following the merits hearing was the “functional equivalent” of a dismissal.  The trial court denied discretionary relief, finding that the attorney’s conduct did not constitute excusable neglect, but granted the motion under the mandatory relief provision, finding that the attorney’s mistake deprived plaintiff of its day in court.

On appeal, the City argued that the judgment against the plaintiff did not constitute a “default,” “default judgment,” or “dismissal,” as required for mandatory relief under section 473(b). The Second District agreed and reversed the trial court ruling. The Second District reviewed two lines of cases interpreting section 473(b)’s mandatory relief provision, and chose to follow the majority rule set forth in English v. IKON Business Solutions, Inc. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 130.  In English, the appellate court held that summary judgment based on failure to submit supporting evidence does not constitute a default, default judgment, or dismissal giving rise to mandatory relief under section 473(b) because it is not “a removal of plaintiff’s application for relief,” but rather an adjudication of that application based on the undisputed facts before the court.

Analogizing to English, the Second District held that the judgment against the plaintiff here did not remove the plaintiff’s “application for relief” but instead resulted from a trial on the merits, and the plaintiff simply failed to present sufficient evidence to meet its burden of proof. In so holding, the Second District disapproved of two of its prior opinions that took a more expansive view of the type of judgment that may give rise to mandatory relief under section 473(b): Avila v. Chua (1997) 57 Cal.App.4th 860, and In re Marriage of Hock & Gordon-Hock (2000) 80 Cal.App.4th 1438.

Although the rule of this decision is not CEQA-specific, it is of particular importance to CEQA litigation and other mandate proceedings. If a petitioner or respondent fails to support its arguments with record evidence and, as a result, is subject to an adverse judgment on the merits, the prospects for relief under section 473(b), whether mandatory or discretionary, are very slim.