2018 Year in Review: Public agencies prevailed in 65% of CEQA cases analyzed.

By James L. Arnone, Marc T. Campopiano, Christopher W. Garrett, and Lucinda Starrett

Over the course of 2018, Latham & Watkins lawyers reviewed all 57 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) cases, both published and unpublished, that came before California appellate courts. These cases covered a variety of CEQA documents and other topics. Below is a compilation of information from the review and a discussion of the patterns that emerged in these cases. Latham will continue to monitor CEQA cases in 2019, posting summaries to this blog.

The California Court of Appeal heard 55 CEQA cases, while the California Supreme Court heard one case: Sierra Club v. County of Fresno. This case concerned what constitutes sufficient detail in an environmental impact report (EIR) and has implications for the preparation of EIRs as well as judicial review of agency decisions certifying EIRs.

In addition to the 56 state cases, one federal CEQA case, AquAlliance v. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, was heard by the Eastern District of California.

Of the 57 cases, 26 were published, 25 were unpublished, and six were partially published. Figure 1 (above) shows all 57 cases sorted by topic. The greatest number of cases (28 of the 57, or 49%) focused on EIRs. In 2017, only 43% of cases focused on EIRs. Attorneys’ Fees, Justiciability, and Other Procedures accounted for 16 cases. This category includes issues such as mootness, statutes of limitations, waiver, and res judicata. Nine cases focused on Exemptions and Exceptions. Two cases focused on Mitigated Negative Declarations and two cases focused on Supplemental Review.

Figure 2 (right) shows the distribution of cases heard among the six appellate districts as well as the public agency success in each district. The Sixth District was the only district in which the public agencies prevailed in all cases. In the Fifth District, public agencies had the least success, prevailing in only 29% of the cases.

Figure 3 (below) sorts cases by topic and includes additional information on whether the public agency prevailed in each kind of case. For the purposes of this summary, if the public agency lost on any issue, it was deemed not to have prevailed. Overall, public agencies prevailed in 37 of 57 cases, or 65% of the time, the same percentage as in 2017, and won in 68% of EIR cases, compared with 55% in 2017. By contrast, public agencies prevailed in only 56% of cases involving Attorneys’ Fees, Justiciability, and Other Procedures, compared with 67% in 2017.

Additionally, a suite of amendments to the CEQA Guidelines went into effect this year. The California Office of Administrative Law adopted amendments relating to several sections, including those affecting greenhouse gas impacts, baseline procedural requirements, and permissible mitigation deferral. More detail on these amendments can be found in this article, published on Latham’s Environment, Land & Resources blog. The final adopted text of these amendments is publicly available here.

Read the full CEQA Case Report Year in Review 2018.