In The Inland Oversight Committee v. City of San Bernardino (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 771, the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgement entered by the trial court sustaining a demurrer without leave to amend, holding that a mandate action brought by The Inland Oversight Committee (IOC), CREED-21, and the Highland Hills Homeowners Association (HOA) alleging CEQA and Water Code violations was barred by res judicata based on the final judgment in the HOA’s prior related CEQA action and failure to state a claim.
The Court’s opinion involved challenges to modifications to the Highland Hills Project (Project), a 541-acre mixed use development in the City of San Bernardino (City). The specific plan and associated EIR were originally approved in 1982. Subsequent amendments to the Project and challenges to those amendments resulted in an agreement. As relevant here, the agreement’s second addendum (Second Addendum) permitted “minor modifications” to the Project, defined as those resulting in development with the same or less intense environmental impacts from a CEQA standpoint, could be approved as “ministerial acts” by the City’s development director without further planning commission involvement.
In 2014, Real Party in Interest First American Title Insurance Company (First American), the developer’s successor in interest, applied for modified construction plans that (1) further reduced the total number of units; (2) eliminated commercial uses, including a convenience store and golf course; (3) increased park acreage and protected an important ridge line by eliminating higher-elevation development; and (4) substantially reduced the Project’s footprint and impact on jurisdictional streams and wetlands. The City’s development director adopted and made findings from an independent environmental consultant’s report that these were “minor modifications” in line with the Second Addendum. The City rejected appeals by the HOA and approved the modifications. The City filed a motion in the trial court requesting confirmation the proposed changes complied with the terms of the Second Addendum. The trial court granted the motion. The HOA timely appealed.
In an unpublished 2017 decision, the Court of Appeal held that the HOA “failed to demonstrate either that the City eliminated any mitigation measures without due consideration or that there was a lack of substantial evidence supporting the City’s conclusion that the [Project modifications] would have equally intense or less intense environmental impacts than the unmodified [Project].”
The IOC, joined by CREED-21 and the HOA, filed suit in 2015 challenging the approval of the minor modifications by the City for being illegal under CEQA and the Water Code. The trial court sustained the City and First American’s demurrer without leave to amend on the grounds that the issues were moot by the principle of res judicata. The IOC, CREED-21, and the HOA collectively appealed.
Addressing the doctrine of res judicata, the Appellate Court found that a valid final judgement on the merits bars subsequent action by the parties “or their privities on the same cause of action.” Identical causes of action are those that involve the same “primary right.” For CEQA cases, res judicata is limited; “if two actions involve the same general subject matter but involve two distinct episodes of purported noncompliance, the doctrine of res judicata does not apply.” Applying these principles, the Court held that the IOC, CREED-21, and the HOA’s CEQA claim was the same one asserted in the related action brought only by the HOA and resolved in 2017. Specifically, the claims in both are that the City violated CEQA by failing to conduct further environmental review by treating First American’s proposal as “minor modifications” under the Second Addendum. The HOA litigated the claim and lost, receiving a final judgement on arguments that were specifically alleged in the action brought by the three groups together.
The Court then turned to principles of collateral estoppel. Privity is found where “a relationship between the party to be estopped and the unsuccessful party in the prior litigation is “sufficiently close” so as to justify application of collateral estoppel. Thus, the Court likewise barred the same CEQA claim as asserted by the IOC, CREED-21, and the HOA together because the entities are in privity with the HOA. Such a relationship renders the losing litigant a “virtual representative” of the new plaintiffs where it has the “same interest” as them and a “strong motive” to assert it. The IOC, CREED-21, and the HOA shared the same interest in “promoting responsible land use and planning” and sought to invalidate the minor modifications. Since there was no evidence the HOA failed to zealously litigate the related matter, the IOC, CREED-21, and the HOA’s collective interests were adequately represented in the previous case.
The Court also dismissed appellants Water Code claim that asserted a Water Supply Assessment (WSA) was required for the Project modifications. While a WSA is required for certain discretionary development approvals, the Project modifications, as held above, were ministerial.
The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgement; the demurrer was sustained.
The doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel prevent citizens’ groups from collectively filing a lawsuit with the same issues that one of the groups had previously received a final judgment on.