Appellate Court Holds That Mandatory Relief is Unavailable Because of Recording Error - Trial Court Ruled on Partial Record After Party Failed to Lodge Full Administrative Record in CEQA Case

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HIGHLIGHTS:

  • In The Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles et al., the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, reversed an order by the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, holding that the trial court incorrectly granted relief from an attorney's error under Code of Civil Procedure section 473(b). The Court of Appeal explained that relief is unavailable for a party who fails to lodge the full administrative record with the court, causing the trial court to decide the case using record excerpts submitted by the City. The court used a narrow reading of section 473(b), which specifically applies only to a "default judgment" or "dismissal," in refusing to vacate the trial court's ruling.
  • There is little case law that addresses the consequences of a plaintiff's failure to lodge the administrative record in a California Environment Quality Act (CEQA) case, and this case provides some helpful insight.

In The Urban Wildlands Group, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles et al., No. B271350 (Cal. Ct. App. 2nd District, April 13, 2017), The Urban Wildlands Group Inc. (Urban Wildlands) filed a petition for writ of mandate and a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, challenging a finding by the City of Los Angeles' Bureau of Street Lighting (City) that light emitting diode replacement lights are exempt from review under the California Environment Quality Act (CEQA). Slip op. at 2-3. Urban Wildlands prepared and the City certified the administrative record, which the court then ordered Urban Wildlands to lodge. Slip Op. at 3.

Both parties briefed the case, and the City submitted excerpts of the administrative record, but Urban Wildlands failed to lodge the full record. The trial court held a hearing on the CEQA challenge and adopted a tentative ruling denying plaintiff's petition and complaint. Ibid. Urban Wildlands then moved to vacate the judgment under the Code of Civil Procedure section 473, subdivision (b), which provides as follows:

"Notwithstanding any other requirements if this section, the court shall, whenever an application for relief is made no more than six months after entry of judgment, is in proper form, and is accompanied by an attorney's sworn affidavit attesting to his or her mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or neglect, vacate any ... (2) resulting default judgment or dismissal entered against his or her client ..." (emphasis added).

Urban Wildlands argued that mandatory relief was required because the court lacked the full record and could not decide the case on the merits, and that discretionary relief should be granted because the attorney made an excusable mistake in failing to lodge the full record. Urban Wildlands' attorney filed a statement explaining that he instructed his inexperienced assistant to lodge the record, but neglected to ensure it had been lodged. Slip Op. at 4.

The trail court denied Urban Wildlands' motion for discretionary relief, stating that failure to lodge the record did not rise to the level of excusable neglect. However, the trial court granted the Urban Wildlands' request for mandatory relief, explaining that the ruling on the merits was nullified by the confusion and lack of a full record, and that the plaintiff was "entitled to its day in court based on the actual record." Slip Op. at 5. The City appealed, arguing that section 437(b) could not apply because the judgment issued by the trail court was not a default, default judgment or dismissal within the meaning of the code section.

Appellate Court Decision

In this case, the Court of Appeal looked at two conflicting lines of decisions to determine whether a decision on the merits without a full administrative record qualifies as a "dismissal" or "default judgment" as used in section 437(b). The first line of cases holds that the terms should be strictly interpreted, and therefore the meaning of the code section may not be expanded to include other kinds of judgments. Slip Op. at 7 (see, e.g., Huh v. Wang (2007) 158 Cal.App.4th 1406; English v. IKON Business Solutions, Inc. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 130). By contrast, the second line of cases holds that mandatory relief under section 437(b) may also be applied to judgments that are "the procedural equivalents" of dismissals and default judgments. Ibid. (see, e.g. In re Marriage of Hock & Gordon-Hock (2000) 80 Cal.App.4th 1438; Avila v. Chua (1997) 57 Cal.App.4th 860).

The Court of Appeal agreed with the first line of cases, finding it more faithful to the principles of statutory construction, which dictate that if words used in a statute are straightforward, the strict meaning of the words apply. Slip Op. at 10-11. The court concluded that the statutory language of section 473(b) was unambiguous, and legislative intent was clearly to limit relief rather than allow it for every attorney error that hurts a client. Ibid.

Because the judgment at issue was not a default, default judgment or dismissal, the mandatory relief provision of section 473(b) does not apply. Slip Op. at 12-13. This case provides some insight to project applicants who are sued under CEQA and considering potential outcomes with regard to a petitioner's failure to prepare the administrative record.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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