Roberson v. City of Rialto (4th Dist., Div. 2, 5/21/2014, E058187)

The Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying a petition for writ of mandate to invalidate project approvals for the construction of a large commercial retail center in the City of Rialto (the “City”) to be anchored by a Wal-Mart Supercenter.  The court held that: (1) the appellant had not demonstrated that the trial court committed reversible error by failing to credit the appellant’s “evidence of prejudice,” and (2) appellant’s defective notice claims were barred by res judicata.  The court’s conclusion that the parties were in privity with one another, despite the appellant’s assertion he brought the case in his own interest, demonstrates how defendants may be able to more effectively apply the doctrine of res judicata to bar subsequent claims in litigation under the California Environmental Quality Act.

The Rialto City Council adopted project approvals for construction of a commercial retail center on July 15, 2008, pursuant to the recommendation of the City’s planning commission.  Prior to adoption of the project approvals, the City published a notice of the hearing for the project proposal on June 21, 2008, which stated that the city council would hold a public hearing on July 1, 2008, to consider the project approvals.  The notice did not disclose that the planning commission’s recommendation.

Appellant and plaintiff, Marcus L. Roberson, filed a writ petition alleging that the notice of the July 1 city council hearing on the project was defective—which defendants conceded was true—because it did not include the planning commission’s recommendations on the project approvals.  In its analysis, the court took note of a related case, which also sought to set aside the project approvals based in part on the same defect in the notice, Rialto Citizens for Responsible Growth v. City of Rialto (2012) 208 Cal.App.4th 899.

On the merits of appellant’s case, the court first determined that Roberson failed to show that he was prejudiced by the defective notice as required under Government Code § 65010(b).  The court explained that the record was insufficient to demonstrate prejudice on two grounds: (1) appellant failed to substantiate what comments he would have submitted had he known of the planning commission’s recommendation to adopt the project approvals in addition to the evidence already submitted in the Rialto Citizens case; and (2) the trial court’s judgment denying appellant’s petition did not state on what basis.  Because appellant failed to carry his burden of providing an adequate record on appeal to support his claim of error, the court concluded that the trial court’s judgment had to be presumed correct.  The court also rejected appellant’s assertion that case law presumed substantial injury and the probability of a different result as a matter of law, reasoning that such an interpretation was contrary to the language of the statute.

Second, the court concluded that Roberson was barred from bringing his claim as he was in privity with the citizens of the City who had litigated the same claim in the Rialto Citizens case, which resulted in a final, adverse judgment on the merits.  Appellant contended that his claim was not barred because, unlike the Rialto Citizens case, he had demonstrated prejudice and, moreover, his claim was brought in his own interest.  The court was not persuaded.  The court explained that the defective notice claims were identical in the instant case and in Rialto Citizens as the alleged harm was presumptively the same since Roberson failed to demonstrate otherwise.  The court then determined that Roberson was in privity with the Rialto citizens because his testimony demonstrated that he was seeking to vindicate the same public interests the Rialto citizens were, not his private interests.  Accordingly, the court held that appellant’s suit was barred by res judicata as the claims were identical; the Rialto Citizens case resulted in a final judgment on the merits; and appellant was in privity with the Rialto Citizens plaintiffs.

Significantly, the Roberson court’s high threshold for proving an individual interest in a CEQA suit such that a subsequent plaintiff is not in privity with the members of a previously litigated dispute appears to significantly restrict a subsequent plaintiff’s ability to bring another suit.  This may allow parties to more fully take advantage of the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel to bar, conclusively, further CEQA litigation by obtaining a judgment on the merits or a stipulated judgment through settlement at the outset.  See In re Baker, 74 F.3d 906, 910 (9th Cir. 1996) (“For res judicata purposes, an agreed or stipulated judgment is a judgment on the merits.”); Cal. State Auto. Assn. Inter-Ins. Bureau v. Super. Ct., 50 Cal. 3d 658, 664 (1990) (judgment by stipulation is as conclusive a bar as a judgment rendered after trial so long as the parties manifest an intent to be collaterally bound by its terms).