Appellate Court Rejects Challenge to Walmart Supercenter Under Res Judicata and Calls Decision Not to Dismiss Appeal as Frivolous a Close One

June 26th, 2014

By: Thomas Law Group



In Roberson v. City of Rialto, (2014) Cal. App. LEXIS 532, the Court of Appeal for the Fourth District affirmed the denial of a writ of mandate challenging the City of Rialto’s approval of a Wal-Mart Supercenter and shopping center in the city. However, the court declined to dismiss the appeal as frivolous and denied a motion to sanction the appellant in what the court referred to as a “close one.” The opinion was initially filed as unpublished, but was switched to published at the request of Sonoma County Counsel.

The appellant Roberson, a citizen of the City of Rialto in San Bernardino County, filed the petition pursuant to California Government Code sections 65090 and 65094, which require the notice of a public hearing to include “a general explanation of the matter to be considered.” Roberson contended that the City of Rialto’s approval of a Walmart Supercenter was defective because the notice for the meeting failed to include the planning commission’s recommendations. The court upheld the denial of the writ for two independent reasons.

First, the court found that Roberson had not demonstrated any reversible error by the trial court. All parties agreed that the notice was defective, but Roberson contended that had he known of the planning commission’s recommendations, he would have submitted comments urging the City Council to reject the project. Yet, Roberson did not state what comments he would have submitted or why those comments would have made it probable that the City Council would reject the project. As a result, Roberson failed to show that the trial court had erroneously disregarded any evidence of prejudice that would justify a reversal.

Second, the court found that Roberson’s claim was barred by res judicata, which requires a court to find 1) the issue before the court is identical to a previously litigated issue; 2) the prior proceeding resulted in a final judgment on the merits; and 3) the party in the present case is in privity with the party in the prior proceeding. In a previous case, Rialto Citizens for Responsible Growth v. City of Rialto (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 899, a community group representing the citizens of Rialto challenged the validity of the same meeting notice. The court in that case ultimately found no evidence of prejudicial error.

Roberson conceded that Rialto Citizens resulted in a final decision on the merits, but he contended that his claim was unique because he never actually opposed the project at the hearing, in contrast to the Rialto Citizens group that had submitted comments. However, the court found that the issues were still identical because both parties sought to show prejudice in the defective notice and Roberson could not show how his comments to the City Council would have been any different from the Rialto Citizens group’s comments.

Roberson claimed that he was not in privity with the plaintiff in Rialto Citizens because he was not a member of the organization and brought his case in his own interest rather than the public interest. Still, the court found that Roberson’s interests were adequately represented by the Rialto Citizens group and Roberson failed to show that he suffered any harm different than the harm to the community. As a result, the court found an “identification in interest” between Roberson and the Rialto Citizens group and barred his claim under res judicata.

Finally, the court considered a motion to dismiss the appeal as frivolous and sanction Roberson with $12,860 in attorney’s fees from the real party in interest, Walmart. The court denied the motion but stated that the issue was “a close one.” The court explained that an appeal should only be considered frivolous if it is carried forward for the purpose of harassment or delay, or when any reasonable attorney would agree the appeal is indisputably without merit.  Here, the court found that reasonable attorneys could agree that because Roberson was a private citizen and not a member of the Rialto Citizens group, his appeal may have had some merit. Additionally, Walmart had agreed with Roberson to withdraw a proposed judgment at trial pending resolution of the Rialto Citizens case, and thus was partially responsible for the four year delay in entry of judgment.

KEY POINTS

Under the doctrine of res judicata, a private citizen can be in privity with a community group that he is not a member of when the citizen cannot show how the harm he suffered differed from the harm suffered by the community. Absent clear intention of delay or harassment or an appeal that is indisputably meritless, courts will decline to find that an appeal frivolous and sanctionable under California Rules of Court, rule 8.276(a)(1).