In Nacimiento Regional Water Management Advisory Committee v. Monterey County Water Resources Agency, (2004 Daily Journal D.A.R. 12,134, Cal.App. 1 Dist., Sept. 29, 2004), the California Court of Appeal addressed the issue of whether a trial court is required to set aside the dismissal of a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) case where the dismissal was the result of an attorney’s inexcusable mistake or neglect.
On June 4, 2002, the Monterey County Water Resources Agency (Agency) certified an environmental impact report (EIR) for the Salinas Valley Water Project. The Nacimiento Regional Water Management Advisory Committee (Committee) alleged that the Agency ignored adverse impacts on Lake Nacimiento when approving the EIR. On July 3, 2002, the Committee filed a lawsuit in San Luis Obispo County alleging CEQA violations. The case was transferred to San Francisco County upon agreement of the parties. The San Francisco Superior Court sent notice that the case was accepted for transfer on October 31, 2002. The parties stipulated that Committee would serve and file its request for hearing on the merits of the petition by December 1, 2002. The Agency moved to dismiss the action in April 2003 because no request for a hearing had been filed. The San Francisco Superior Court dismissed the action.
Committee asked the trial court to set the dismissal aside. The attorney for the Committee admitted that his failure to request a hearing was the result of his inexcusable neglect. The trial court denied Committee’s request.
Appellate Court Decision
Public Resources Code section 21167.4 provides that, in any action or proceeding for noncompliance with the CEQA, the petitioner must request a hearing within ninety days from the filing of the petition or the case will be subject to dismissal. Committee asserts that the Code of Civil Procedure section 473 requires that the dismissal in this case be reversed. Section 473(b) provides that a court shall vacate a default judgment if an application to vacate is made within six months after the entry of judgment and the attorney provides a sworn affidavit attesting to his or her mistake, inadvertence, neglect or surprise.
The Court of Appeal found that section 473(b) is inapplicable. The Court commented, “Nearly every section 21167.4 dismissal for failing to request a hearing on alleged CEQA violations is caused by the mistake, inadvertence, or neglect of the plaintiff’s attorney, and few dismissals would be final if mandatory relief under section 473 were applied to such dismissals.” The Court went on to note that the application of section 473 would effectively nullify section 21167.4’s dismissal provisions and would undermine the legislature’s intent to promptly resolve CEQA challenges. The Court concluded that the trial court properly denied Committee’s request to set the dismissal aside.
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