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September 12, 2011

Developers’ Abandonment of Project and City’s Rescission of Approval Rendered Judgment Moot for Purposes of Appeal

Developers’ Abandonment of Project and City’s Rescission of Approval Rendered Judgment Moot for Purposes of Appeal

Coalition for a Sustainable Future in Yucaipa v. City of Yucaipa [No. E047624; filed 8/25/11]

By Andrea A. Matarazzo

Coalition for a Sustainable Future in Yucaipa (“Coalition”) appealed from a trial court judgment denying its petition for writ of mandate.  The petition challenged the City of Yucaipa’s approval of a Target shopping center on land owned by Palmer General Corporation.  The principal basis of the challenge was a claim that the project conflicted with affordable housing requirements, but the Coalition also alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) regarding the City’s analysis greenhouse gas emissions, urban decay effects, and traffic impacts.

 

The Fourth District Court of Appeal determined the Coalition’s appeal was moot based on events subsequent to the filing of the appeal. Target and Palmer abandoned the project because of litigation between them over a claimed breach of contract respecting the project.  The City rescinded its resolutions approving the project along with a general plan amendment necessary to the project and certification of the environmental impact report (“EIR”), all of which were the subject of the Coalition’s petition for writ of mandate and appeal.

 

In light of these events, the Court of Appeal suggested the appropriate disposition of the appeal would be reversal of the trial court judgment solely to restore jurisdiction to the superior court to dismiss the action.  The court reached this view based primarily on the Supreme Court’s opinion in Paul v. Milk Depots, Inc., (1964) 62 Cal.2d 129, 134-135 (“Paul”).  Although the Coalition naturally approved the proposed disposition, respondents objected on the grounds that (1) the case had not been rendered moot “in a manner that rendered the Superior Court’s decision erroneous” and that (2) “there is no outstanding relief that would be rendered improper by this Court’s determination of mootness.”  In support of the second ground, respondents distinguished two cases in which the Paul disposition was used to vacate judgments granting injunctions that were no longer proper.  The Court of Appeal rejected respondents’ view and instead concluded “Paul’s analysis and disposition also fit this case.”

 

First, just as the basis for the judgment in Paul had disappeared, so had the basis for the judgment in this case (the project).  Second, just as the case in Paul had been rendered moot before the judgment could be fully litigated, so had the case underlying this appeal been rendered moot before the judgment could be fully litigated.  According to the appellate court, just as it is appropriate to avoid impliedly affirming a judgment that delegitimizes a regulation that no longer exists, so it is appropriate to avoid impliedly affirming a judgment that legitimizes a project that no longer exists.  “Thus,” the court concluded, “the appropriate disposition of this case is the same as in Paul.  A reversal should be used as the vehicle to vacate the judgment and deliver instructions to the superior court to dismiss the underlying action as moot.  The disposition should make clear that the reversal of the judgment is not based on its merits, but based on its mootness.”

 

In rejecting respondents’ objections, the court said that those objections appeared to be based on a misunderstanding of Paul.  Respondents’ objections, as noted above, were that (1) the case had not been rendered moot “in a manner that rendered the Superior Court’s decision erroneous” and that (2) “there is no outstanding relief that would be rendered improper by this Court’s determination of mootness.”  In response to the first objection, the court reasoned, the Supreme Court in Paul was unconcerned with the merits.  The Supreme Court’s concerns were that the basis for the judgment had disappeared, rendering the underlying case moot, and that a dismissal would imply an affirmance of a judgment that had not been fully litigated.  Neither of these concerns related to whether the judgment was erroneous—it may well have been correct—the court never decided that question.  The Court of Appeal’s response to the second objection was that the Supreme Court was concerned with the propriety of the denial of injunctive relief by the judgment in Paul only in the sense that the propriety of that denial was not fully litigated.  “We have the same concern here, the propriety of the project was never fully litigated and, for that reason, the judgment should not stand.”

 

On that basis, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court judgment as moot, stating, “[t]his reversal does not imply that the judgment was erroneous on the merits, but is solely for the purpose of returning jurisdiction over the case to the superior court by vacating the otherwise final judgment solely on the ground of mootness.”

 

By Andrea Matarazzo

 

Andrea advises and advocates for private and public clients in all aspects of project permitting and entitlements, environmental compliance, and litigation, particularly regarding environmental review under CEQA and NEPA, land use and zoning issues, air quality regulation, climate change law and policy, water supply and water quality mandates, state and federal endangered species laws, wetlands permitting, and other regulatory requirements.

 

(916) 496-8500

(916) 737-5838 (Direct)

andrea@pioneerlawgroup.net

 

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