By Curtis R. Wright, Founding Partner, Silver & Wright LLP
In March 2020, the California Court of Appeal made a ruling that set a new precedent for how administrative citation appeals are treated in California. That ruling arguably contradicts the express language of the governing State statute, paves the way for many more administrative citation appeals to be classified as unlimited civil cases, solidifies public agencies’ right to appeal adverse rulings, and establishes a public agencies’ right to a Writ of Mandate when appropriate.
The case began in October 2017 when Humboldt County issued a notice of violation and administrative penalty against Alejando Quezada because property he owned allegedly violated several health and safety codes, including allegations of improper removal of solid waste, unpermitted grading, violation of the commercial cannabis land-use ordinance, and others.
Typically, cities use administrative citations as a way to circumvent criminal or civil court, in order to quickly resolve an issue and save money on litigation costs for minor violations. However, when an administrative case is appealed, it becomes a civil case, which can quickly become expensive for all parties involved. Classifying it as a limited civil case reduces some of the formalities of litigation, including the process and discovery, to reduce the city and taxpayer’s cost burden.
Unlimited and limited civil cases also differ in which courtroom hears the case, what procedures can be applied to it, and where an appeal may be taken. A limited civil case appeal would be heard by the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, while an unlimited civil case appeal would be heard by the Court of Appeal, which can take significantly longer to receive a decision.
In the Quezada case, the County claimed it was entitled to civil penalties of $88,800 from Quezada. The County secured an administrative decision in its favor that was appealed to the Superior Court by Quezada, which reduced the penalty to $59,200.
Despite Quezada’s civil penalties remaining above the $25,000 cap for a limited civil case, Humboldt County appealed the case to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court as a limited civil case based on Government Code section 53069.4. However, the Appellate Division dismissed the case, stating that a right to appeal did not exist in a code enforcement proceeding beyond the initial Superior Court appeal.
Humboldt County filed a writ petition asking the Court of Appeal to order the Appellate Division to hear the matter. Instead, the Court of Appeal determined that the case should be treated as an unlimited civil case since the amount in controversy was over $25,000. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal concluded that the Appellate Division should have transferred the matter to the Court of Appeal to be heard there, instead of dismissing the County’s appeal. The Appellate Division was ordered to rescind its order and Humboldt County was granted further appellate consideration with the Court of Appeal.
This significant decision establishes multiple new aspects of administrative citation law:
- That appeals are unlimited civil cases when the amount in controversy is over $25,000 despite Government Code section 5306.9.4 stating all appeals are limited civil cases;
- That these cases are subject to secondary writs and appeals; and
- That public agencies also enjoy the right to appeal adverse rulings.
Consulting with municipal law attorneys will be instrumental in assessing the impact of this case on each jurisdiction’s nuisance abatement program, including assessing the new potential costs associated with administrative citations and alternative strategies to avoid costs.
Silver & Wright LLP attorneys deliver municipal legal services, specializing in receiverships, nuisance abatement, public safety, and public agency litigation defense. Leveraging their unique experience, cutting-edge legal concepts, and effective use of existing laws, they empower their clients to secure compliance, improve their communities, and recover costs where allowed by law. They help cities and counties throughout California increase public safety, combat blight, and save funds. Silver & Wright’s passion for code enforcement is reflected in their volunteer service and local advocacy.