Trial Court’s Jurisdiction over CEQA Case is Lost after Writ is Satisfied by Rescission of Project Approvals

Downey Brand LLP

In McCann v. City of San Diego (2023) 94 Cal.App.5th 284 (McCann II), the Fourth District Court of Appeal held the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction by failing to discharge a writ of mandate. The writ was issued for the failure to analyze whether a set of projects approved through a mitigated negative declaration (MND Projects) to convert overhead utility wires to an underground system in several neighborhoods were consistent with the City’s Climate Action Plan. In this second appeal concerning the writ and continuing jurisdiction, the Court of Appeal found the writ was fully satisfied because the City rescinded the MND Projects approvals, thus requiring the writ to be discharged.

McCann I

In McCann v. City of San Diego (2021) 70 Cal.App.5th 51 (McCann I), Margaret McCann, a resident of a neighborhood within the undergrounding project, challenged the need for the underground system to be supplemented with above-ground transformers housed in three-foot-tall metal boxes on the public right-of-way. She alleged the City violated CEQA on four grounds by failing to properly consider the environmental impacts of two undergrounding projects. The Court of Appeal rejected all grounds except the assertion that substantial evidence did not support the City’s finding that the Projects would not have a significant environmental impact due to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The Court held that because the City failed to analyze whether the MND Projects were consistent with the GHG reduction measures included in the City’s Climate Action Plan, substantial evidence did not support the City’s finding that the Projects would not have a significant environmental effect. The judgement was reversed as to the MND Projects and the Court directed the trial court to issue a writ ordering the City to set aside the resolutions that approved the Projects.

Proceedings on Remand

The trial court issued a writ consistent with the Court of Appeal’s order. Thereafter, the City rescinded the MND Projects approvals and asked the trial court to discharge the writ. McCann filed an objection to the City’s return to the writ and argued the writ should not be discharged until the City proved compliance with CEQA through the preparation of a legally sufficient environmental analysis of the MND Projects’ GHG emissions. The City filed a response in which it argued it fully complied with the terms of the writ by rescinding the Project approvals. The trial court sustained McCann’s objection and declined to discharge the writ.

Public Resources Code section 21168.9 and the Applicable Standard of Review

The City appealed, arguing the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction by failing to discharge the writ after the City fully complied with the writ’s requirements along with the remedial provisions of Public Resources Code section 21168.9(a)(1). McCann agreed that the writ could be discharged if the City no longer intended to move forward with the Projects because CEQA does not apply to rejected or denied projects. However, she argued the City intended to re-analyze the GHG emissions and recirculate the MND, and thus, Section 21168.9(b) imposed a mandatory duty on the trial court to exercise continuing jurisdiction over the proceedings until the CEQA requirements were met.

Public Resources Code section 21168.9 governs the issuance of a peremptory writ of mandate and subsection (a) provides for three types of mandates that may be issued. Once a peremptory writ of mandate has been issued, subsection (b) establishes that the court “should order the agency to file a return by a date certain informing the court of the agency’s action in compliance with the writ.”

The Court independently interpreted the terms of the writ as a question of law, but reviewed the adequacy of the City’s return under an abuse of discretion standard of review because attempting to comply with the writ was, for all practical purposes, an attempt to comply with CEQA. An abuse of discretion here is established if the agency has not proceeded in a manner required by law or if the determination or decision is not supported by substantial evidence.

Appellate Court Ruling

The Court of Appeal held the writ issued by the trial court did not direct the City to perform any other remedial actions other than rescinding the resolutions that approved the MND Projects and halting any further activity that may have altered the environment. It found no abuse of discretion by the City because the City complied with the trial court’s writ through its rescission of the resolutions that approved the Projects. The Court explained that voiding a project approval is a remedial mandate authorized under Section 21168.9(a)(1), which the City complied with by rescinding the MND Projects approvals. It then discussed Section 21168.9(c), which confers equitable powers on the trial court to issue orders to compel compliance with a peremptory writ of mandate. However, once an agency has fully satisfied a writ, the trial court cannot continue to have jurisdiction over the matter. Because the Court concluded the City satisfied the writ, it also concluded the trial court’s failure to discharge the writ and terminate its jurisdiction constituted an abuse of discretion.

The Court then delved into a statutory interpretation exercise concerning Section 21168.9(b). McCann argued the Section authorized the trial court to retain jurisdiction until it found the City complied with CEQA. The City argued the Section only confers limited continuing jurisdiction on a trial court when “the offending project or CEQA determination is severed and some non-offending portion of the approval is left in place.” The Court found the Section, as well as case law that applied the Section, were clear that the trial court retains jurisdiction to enforce a peremptory writ of mandate “until the court has determined that the public agency has complied with this division [here, subsections (a)(1) and (2)].”

McCann expressed a concern that by discharging the writ, the trial court in effect made a finding that the City complied with CEQA, which would preclude future challenges to the adequacy of the City’s environmental review of the MND Projects under the principles of res judicata. The Court of Appeal declined to conjecture about the ways res judicata may or may not affect a future hypothetical project. It reiterated that the MND Projects will not be in compliance with CEQA unless the City performs the required analysis to determine consistency with the Climate Action Plan. The Court held the City fully satisfied the writ by rescinding the MND Projects approvals and thus, the writ must be discharged.

Key Takeaway

This ruling emphasizes that when a court issues a peremptory writ of mandate for a project’s CEQA defects, the writ can be discharged once that entire project has been decertified or voided. And, at that point, the trial court loses jurisdiction due to the writ’s satisfaction. This discharge does not need to wait until the project is reapproved upon adequate environmental review.

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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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