Third District Denies Challenges to Re-Certified EIR Sections Previously Litigated

Environmental/Land Use Alert (April 12, 2019)

On February 26, 2019, the California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, issued a decision affirming the dismissal of a challenge to an aggregate extraction project, known as the Newman Ridge Project, in unincorporated Amador County (County). Specifically, in Ione Valley Land, Air, and Water Defense Alliance, LLC v. County of Amador, Court of Appeal No. C081893, the Court held that petitioner Land, Air, and Water Defense Alliance, LLC’s (LAWDA) various causes of action against the project’s re-certified EIR were barred by res judicata, or claim preclusion, because LAWDA raised, or could have raised, the same claims in a prior action. (In support of this holding, the Court cited its prior decision in Citizens for Open Government v. City of Lodi (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 296, 324–327.)

As background, LAWDA filed a prior writ petition in 2012, challenging the project’s EIR on several grounds, including its analysis of air quality, water supply and water quality, and traffic and circulation. In February 2014, the trial court granted this first petition as to two traffic-related claims and denied all other claims. The trial court directed the County to vacate certification of the EIR and approval of the project, revise the traffic analysis to comply with CEQA, recirculate the EIR, and decide anew whether to certify the EIR and approve the project. The County complied with these requirements and decided to recertify the EIR and re-approve the project. The trial court then discharged the writ, with LAWDA subsequently filing a second writ petition challenging the re-certified EIR.

In Ione Valley, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of LAWDA’s second writ petition. Under principles of res judicata, also known as claim preclusion, a petitioner is barred from re-litigating a cause of action that was previously adjudicated or could have been litigated in a prior proceeding between the same parties. The Court of Appeal held that res judicata barred the non-traffic-related arguments set forth in LAWDA’s second petition pertaining to water supply and quality, biological resources, air quality, and mitigation measures, because LAWDA raised or could have raised these same arguments in its first petition. The trial court’s order on the first petition had required the County to revise only the traffic impacts analysis, so only those claims related to the County’s traffic-related revisions could proceed through a second petition. 

In concluding LAWDA’s non-traffic claims were barred, the Court of Appeal rejected three arguments from LAWDA that res judicata did not apply. First, LAWDA argued that, because the County rescinded its initial certification and then re-certified the entire EIR, all elements of the re-certified EIR were subject to renewed challenges. The Court of Appeal, however, concluded that the fact the County re-certified the entire EIR was immaterial because the entire EIR, except the traffic analysis, was subject to prior litigation. Second, LAWDA argued that, because the trial court had granted its first writ petition, LAWDA could not have appealed from that prior judgment. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument because the trial court also denied the first petition in part and the law allowed LAWDA to appeal from the partial denial. Finally, LAWDA argued that intervening material facts and conditions, including new groundwater legislation, subjected the entire re-certified EIR to a renewed challenge. The Court of Appeal deemed this argument forfeited because LAWDA failed to raise it in its opening brief on appeal.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal held that res judicata barred all causes of action and arguments in LAWDA’s second petition, except those related to traffic and circulation. In an unpublished portion of the opinion, which is not citable in other judicial proceedings and therefore not summarized here, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of LAWDA’s claims as to the traffic analysis on separate bases.

[This case alert does not constitute legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is created by viewing or responding to this alert.  Legal counsel should be sought for answers to specific legal questions.]