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California Court of Appeal Upholds Denial of Union’s Permissive Intervention into Complex CEQA Matter

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By Travis Brooks

In a decision filed November 4, 2021, the Second District Court of Appeal upheld a Los Angeles County Superior Court order refusing to allow the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Locals 13, 63, and 94’s (Union) motion for permissive intervention in a complicated and long-running action under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) regarding the China Shipping Container Terminal (Terminal) in the Port of Los Angeles. The Union was a permissive litigant seeking to get involved in an action where its interests were already represented by other parties seeking to keep the Terminal open, accordingly the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision to exclude the Union from the litigation. [South Coast Air Quality Management District v. City of Los Angeles et al., 71 Cal.App.5th 314 (2nd Dist. 2021).]

Factual and Procedural Background

The Port of Los Angeles is the busiest seaport in the western hemisphere with significant trade with Asia. The Terminal is owned by the City of Los Angeles and is leased to several Chinese owned businesses (shipping companies). In 2001, certain entities owned by the City (City entities) issued a permit to the shipping companies to build the Terminal. In 2008, several community groups filed a CEQA lawsuit challenging the City’s approval of the Terminal. As part of the settlement of that lawsuit, the City entities were required to prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) which found the project would have significant and unavoidable adverse environmental impacts to air quality, aesthetics, biological resources, geology, transportation, noise, and water quality sediments and oceanography. As a result, the City entities adopted more than 50 mitigation measures to reduce these impacts. In the following years, the City entities failed to implement these measures and many were ignored altogether. As a result, in 2020, the City entities adopted an updated EIR that incorporated further mitigation measures, which were not subsequently enforced or implemented by the shipping entities.

At the Superior Court

In 2020 the South Coast Air Quality Management District (Air District) filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging that the City entities failed to enforce the 2008 and 2020 mitigation measures. The Air District’s petition alleged that the 2020 EIR violated CEQA in several ways and asked the court to set aside the approvals for the Terminal pending compliance with CEQA.

In November 2020, the California Attorney General and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) filed a joint motion to intervene asserting that they were entitled to mandatory intervention under the Code of Civil Procedure. The trial court agreed that the Attorney General had a statutory right to intervene and observed that CARB had a right to partial mandatory intervention. The trial court found that CARB had particularized regulatory interest in a nearby community emissions reduction plan that would be impacted by the Terminal and related litigation.

The Union also filed a motion for permissive intervention based on the claim that 3,075 of its members would lose their jobs if the court required the Terminal to shut down. The trial court ruled that the Union’s interest in the case was speculative and consequential and not direct and immediate which is required for permissive intervention. The prejudice to existing parties outweighed the reasons supporting intervention. The Union appealed the ruling and the City entities filed a brief in support of the appeal.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Second District Court began by noting that the court’s exercise of discretion in denying the Union a “seat at the table” was proper. Under statutory provisions allowing for permissive interventions, trial courts have discretion to permit nonparties to intervene in a lawsuit provided that four factors are met: 1) the nonparty follows proper procedures, 2) it has a direct and immediate interest in the action, 3) intervention will not enlarge the issues, and 4) the reasons for intervention outweigh any opposition by existing parties. When determining whether to allow a permissive intervention, a trial court must balance the interests of those affected by a judgment against the interests of the original parties in pursuing their case unburdened by others.

The court reviewed the trial court’s decision under the abuse of discretion standard and concluded that “the trial court reasonably concluded that the Air District’s interest in litigating the case without Union involvement outweighed the Union’s reasons for intervening.” The court found that even if the Union’s interest was direct, denying permissive intervention in the circumstances was a proper action of the trial court. The Union admitted its position on the merits of the case was duplicative because the City entities were already defending their actions regarding the terminal.

The appellate court also noted that Union intervention would create undue complexity in the matter. The Union represented 3,075 members but the Union also acknowledged that the Terminal provided approximately 80,000 indirect jobs in the Los Angeles region. The trial court could “reasonably conclude that permitting Union intervention in the lawsuit would spur representatives of the other tens of thousands of jobs connected to the terminal to enter the fray. That result would be unmanageable”

Here the trial court “had no mandatory obligation to open the gate to every potentially affected interest that might mobilize itself to appear.” Trial judges need to balance the realities of trial court management against the claims of all wishing to be heard. As a result, the court determined that the “trial court’s decision was sound.”

Conclusion and Implications

This case is helpful in illustrating the difference between mandatory litigants and permissive litigants in writ actions. A permissive litigant may have a direct interest in the outcome of litigation, but the trial court has wide discretion based on the circumstances include or exclude such litigants. The court’s decision can be found here: