California Rules of Court Amendments Lead to Requests for Clarification Regarding CEQA Lawsuits
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the California Judicial Council on April 6, 2020, introduced amendments to the California Rules of Court, which are effective immediately and impact a broad suite of criminal and civil judicial proceedings. With respect to civil complaints, for example, California Judicial Council Emergency Rule 9 tolls the statutes of limitations for civil causes of action "from April 6, 2020, until 90 days after the Governor declares that the state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic is lifted."
Emergency Rule 9 does not differentiate between the full "lifting" of the state of emergency and any interim steps that California Gov. Gavin Newsom may take, such as allowing more people to return to work. Because Emergency Rule 9 does not start a 90-day statute of limitations until the Governor "lifts" the state of emergency regarding the COVID-19 crisis, statutes of limitations in civil actions do not commence for the foreseeable future – and won't end until 90 days thereafter.
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), unlike many civil lawsuits such as contract and property disputes, statutorily prescribes much shorter statutes of limitations. Lawsuits challenging projects approved with a Negative Declaration or Environmental Impact Report must be filed within 30 days of the filing of the required notice, and lawsuits challenging categorical exemptions must be challenged in 35 days. (Cal. Pub. Res. Code Section 21167.)
A CEQA lawsuit is a petition for writ of mandate as opposed to a standard civil complaint. The emergency rule applies to "civil causes of action," which are distinct from special proceedings such as writs of mandate. See generally Code Civ. Proc. §§ 21-24.
Because Emergency Rule 9 does not address modified rules for writs (including CEQA writs), stakeholders are requesting clarifications from the Judicial Council. Petitioners who assume that Emergency Rule 9 has effectively eliminated the CEQA statute of limitations for the foreseeable future (90 days after the end of the COVID-19 emergency) do so at the risk of having such lawsuits deemed barred by CEQA's statutorily prescribed statute of limitations.
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