By Katherine J. Hart

In Alliance for the Protection of the Auburn Community Environment v. County of Placer (April 2, 2013, C067961) ___Cal.App.4th ___, the Third District Appellate Court held that California Code of Civil Procedure section 473 does not provide relief from a petitioner’s mistake that resulted in the late filing of a CEQA petition. While the provisions of section 473 are to be liberally construed, the statute cannot be construed to offer relief from mandatory deadlines deemed jurisdictional in nature such as Public Resources Code section 21167.

In 2008, Bohemia Properties, LLC submitted an application to the County of Placer (County) for the development of a 155,000-square foot building. The County required that an environmental impact report (EIR) be prepared for the project. After the requisite hearings, the Planning Commission certified the EIR and approved the project in July 2010. Alliance filed an appeal to the Board of Supervisors, which was heard on September 28, 2010. The Board denied the appeal and again certified the EIR and approved the project. The County timely filed and posted a notice of determination on September 29, 2010.

Pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21167(c), an action to set aside an EIR must be filed within 30 days from the date of the filing of the notice of determination. In this case, the Alliance was required to file its CEQA petition on or before October 29, 2010. However, Alliance did not file its petition until three days later on November 1, 2010.

Bohemia filed a demurrer to the petition, alleging the petition was not timely filed. Alliance filed a motion for relief under CCP section 473, as well as an opposition to the demurrer, on the grounds that the late filing resulted from a “miscommunication with the attorney service as to the deadline for receipt of the Writ.” The trial court sustained Bohemia’s demurrer without leave to amend and denied Alliance’s motion for relief on the grounds of mistake and excusable neglect on the grounds that the 30-day statute of limitations contained in Public Resources Code section 21167 is mandatory and does not provide for an extension of time to file a petition based on a showing of good cause.

In interpreting CCP section 473, the appellate court looked to the California Supreme Court case of Maynard v. Brandon (2005) 36 Cal.4th 364 (Maynard). In Maynard, the Supreme Court considered whether relief under section 473 was available for a party who failed to comply with the 30-day statute of limitations in the Mandatory Free Arbitration Act. The Court held that it did not, noting that section 473 provides relief only for procedural errors (i.e., untimely demands for expert witness disclosures, etc.). The appellate court also looked to Kupka v. Board of Administration (1981) 122 Cal.App.3d 791, wherein the court held that section 473 could not operate to provide relief for the late filing of a petition for writ of mandate to review an administrative decision on the basis that statute of limitations are not flexible in nature, but are firmly fixed, unless the legislature expressly provides for an extension based on a showing of good cause.

The court of appeal in this case noted that while the provisions of section 473 are to be liberally construed generally, and further, that CEQA should be broadly interpreted to protect the environment, CEQA also clearly requires prompt resolution of lawsuits claiming violations of it. Alliance argued that other courts have required relief to CEQA’s 30-day statute of limitations, but the court distinguished each case Alliance offered in support of its argument and specifically noted that none of the cases proffered by Alliance related to section 21167.

Moral: If you are a petitioner and you are going to file a petition for writ of mandate to challenge an agency’s actions under CEQA – whether that challenge is procedural or substantive in nature – compliance with the statutes of limitations under Public Resources Code section 21167 are mandatory. CEQA provides three distinct statutes of limitations – a 30-day, 35-day, and 180-day statute of limitations – depending on the specifics of the CEQA challenge and whether a notice of exemption or notice of determination was properly filed and posted. Strict compliance is required as failure to timely file a petition for writ of mandate pursuant to CEQA will not be excused. 

Katherine J. Hart is senior counsel at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, or the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.