Constructive Notice Established as Obstacle to Relation Back Doctrine

In Organizacion Comunidad de Alviso v. City of San Jose, the Sixth Appellate District held that the relation back doctrine was inapplicable where a plaintiff received constructive notice of a defendant’s identity months prior to the last date where filing was permitted pursuant to an applicable statute of limitations.

In Organizacion Comunidad de Alviso, Mark Espinoza, an Organizacion Comunidad de Alviso (OCA/Plaintiff) representative, asked the City of San Jose (“the city”) to place him on the public notice list for a proposed rezoning project. He also twice specifically requested a copy of the notice of determination (NOD) documenting the city’s certification of an environmental impact report (EIR) and approval of the project. Despite Espinoza diligently requesting all notices for the project, the city, in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), failed to send Espinoza the legally operative second NOD for the project; the first NOD was provided to OCA, but named an incorrect party in interest.

OCA brought action against the city, alleging a CEQA cause of action. OCA, relying on the city’s first NOD, named the wrong real party in interest in its initial petition for writ of mandate, and did not file an amended petition naming Microsoft, the correct party in interest, until well after the statute of limitations had run. The trial court determined that the initial petition was defective for failing to join Microsoft as a necessary and indispensable party and dismissed Plaintiff’s CEQA cause of action in the amended petition as untimely.

On appeal, OCA contended that 1) the trial court applied the incorrect statute of limitations, and should have determined the complaint was timely pursuant to a 180-day statute of limitations, and 2) that the trial court should have applied either estoppel or relation back doctrine in light of the city’s conduct.

In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Court of Appeal first dismissed Plaintiff’s argument that the trial court should have applied a 180-day statute of limitations due to the city’s conduct.  Here, the city did violate CEQA in failing to provide notice of the second NOD, but there was no statutory remedy. Rather, the 180-day statute of limitations would only apply where the operative NOD was materially defective. Plaintiff did not contend that anything in the second NOD was incorrect or missing. Thus, the 30-day statute of limitations was correctly applied.

The Court of Appeal next discussed relation back doctrine as applied to OCA’s amended petition. The Court summarized that an amended petition relates back to an original filing only when a complaining party can establish that it was ignorant of the name of a defendant; this ignorance must be genuine and based on a lack of knowledge of the defendant’s connection with the case. In its analysis, the Court rejected OCA’s argument that relation back was appropriate where a complaining party had only constructive notice of a party’s connection with its action.  Rather, the Court reasoned that the city’s filing of the second NOD provided OCA constructive notice of Microsoft’s identity in relation to OCA’s claim, precluding OCA’s ability to claim genuine ignorance. Though the Court of Appeal held that a plaintiff’s constructive notice was sufficient to disqualify relation back doctrine, it additionally determined that OCA likely had actual notice as well, alluding to evidence in the record. The Court thusly concluded that “given the constructive and likely actual notice of Microsoft’s identity as the project applicant, any claim of plaintiff’s ignorance of that status is unreasonable as a matter of law.”

Finally, the Court addressed OCA’s argument that the city and Microsoft should have been equitably estopped from asserting the statute of limitations defense. The Court reasoned that even if the city intentionally failed to send Espinoza the second NOD, Plaintiff’s reliance on that failure would be unreasonable as a matter of law. The timely filing of the second NOD with the county clerk gave constructive notice to all potential litigants of the correct parties to name in a CEQA action, which barred OCA’s argument for equitable estoppel.

Organizacion Comunidad de Alviso v. City of San Jose is important for two reasons. First, there is now case law which firmly establishes that a plaintiff cannot use relation back doctrine to overcome an applicable statute of limitations when the plaintiff had constructive notice of the defendant’s relationship to the plaintiff’s action prior to the expiration of the limitations period. Second, the case is instructive as to how to preserve a CEQA action where a public agency commits error and fails to provide notice of determination.

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February 12, 2021