For-Profit Corporation Seeking To Enforce A Public Right Can Bring A Citizen’s Suit Under CEQA

In Burrtec Waste Industries v. The City of Colton, 2002 WL 519838, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, determined that a for-profit corporation can bring a citizen’s suit to enforce a public right under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

In 1999, Taormina received a conditional use permit from the City of Colton to operate a materials recycling facility. In 2000, the City granted an amended conditional use permit to allow it to process solid waste. Burrtec, a competitor of Taormina, filed suit alleging that the notice of intention to adopt a mitigated negative declaration was not properly posted and, therefore, it did not find out about Taormina’s application to amend the conditional use permit until it was too late to comment on it, or to appeal the City’s decision to approve it. Taormina then challenged Burrtec’s ability to bring such a suit, alleging that, as a business competitor, it could not bring a citizen’s suit. The trial court found that Burrtec had standing to bring a citizen’s suit and that there was insufficient evidence that the notice of intention was properly posted as required by the Act.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision on both grounds. Specifically, the Court held that Burrtec’s status as a corporation did not necessarily prevent it from bringing a citizen’s suit. The standing requirement usually necessitates that the party bringing a suit have a private or particular interest in the matter at issue. However, if a public right is involved, a citizen may file suit to enforce a public duty even if he or she does not have a private interest in the matter. Furthermore, a property owner, taxpayer or elector may file suit against a municipal entity that violates the Act if he or she can show a geographical nexus to the challenged site.

The Court distinguished its holding in Waste Management of Alameda County, Inc. v. County of Alameda (2000) 79 Cal.App.4th 1223, wherein it held that a waste company could not challenge a solid waste facility permit granted to its competitor. The Court found in Waste Management that commercial and competitive interests were not within the zone of interests the Act was designed to protect. The Waste Management Court concluded that a for-profit corporation could not maintain a citizen’s action for economic or competitive purposes under the Act because such an action is not brought out of demonstrable environmental concern.

The Court concluded that Burrtec is not automatically precluded from bringing a citizen’s suit just because it is a business competitor. A corporation is a person entitled to both receive notice and sue for non-compliance and it may seek to enforce a public duty under the Act. The Court found that Burrtec’s interest was not grounded in commercialism but in the need to insure that public notice is given under the Act. The Court also held that its decision in Waste Management did not preclude such a result because Burrtec had also demonstrated environmental concern.

As to the posting of the notice of intention, the Court found that the objective of the Act to allow for public comment was not satisfied. The evidence established that the county clerk properly posted the notice of intention twenty days before the public hearing when Taormina applied for the original conditional use permit. However, the Court found no evidence that the City delivered the notice of intention to the county clerk for posting when Taormina applied for the amended conditional use permit as required by the Act.