Justia Utilities Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
Phelan Piñon Hills Community Services District v. California Water Service Co.
The Antelope Valley Groundwater Cases (AVGC) proceeding litigated whether the water supply from natural and imported sources, which replenishes an alluvial basin from which numerous parties pumped water, was inadequate to meet the competing annual demands of those water producers, thereby creating an "overdraft" condition. Phelan, which provides water to its customers who are located outside the Antelope Valley Adjudication Area (AVAA) boundaries, became subject to the AVGC litigation because a significant source of its water is pumping from a well (Well 14) located in the AVAA basin. The trial court's judgment and adopted Physical Solution concluded that, while Phelan held no water rights in the AVAA basin, Phelan could continue operating Well 14 to draw up to 1,200 afy to distribute to its customers outside the AVAA, on condition that Phelan's pumping causes no material harm to the AVAA basin and that Phelan pays a "Replacement Water Assessment" for any water it pumped for use outside the AVAA.The Court of Appeal concluded that substantial evidence supports the judgment as to Phelan; the trial court correctly rejected Phelan's claim that it had cognizable water rights as an appropriator for municipal purposes; Phelan was not deprived of its due process rights to present its claims; and the trial court did not err in rejecting Phelan's claim to return flows from native water it pumped from the AVAA basin. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment as to Phelan. View "Phelan Piñon Hills Community Services District v. California Water Service Co." on Justia Law
Department of Finance v. Commission on State Mandates
After the Regional Board issued a permit authorizing the County and certain cities (collectively, the Operators) to operate stormwater drainage systems, some of the Operators filed claims with the Commission seeking a determination that the state must reimburse them for the costs related to the trash receptacle and inspection requirements pursuant to article XIII B, section 6 of the California Constitution. After the Commission determined that the trash receptacle requirement is a reimbursable state mandate and that the inspection requirements are not, the state agencies filed a petition in the superior court for a writ of administrative mandamus to command the Commission to set aside its decision concerning the trash receptacle requirement. The local governments filed a cross-petition challenging the Commission's decision as to the inspection requirements. The superior court granted the state agencies' petition and denied the cross-petition as moot.The Court of Appeal held that, under Government Code section 17556, subdivision (d), when, as here, the state imposes on local governments a new program or higher level of service, the state is not required to provide subvention to the local government if the local government "has the authority to levy service charges, fees, or assessments sufficient to pay for the mandated program or increased level of service." The court reversed the superior court's judgment and agreed with the Commission that the local governments have the authority to levy service charges, fees, or assessments sufficient to pay for the inspection requirements, but not for the trash receptacle requirement. Therefore, the trash receptacle requirement requires subvention under section 6. View "Department of Finance v. Commission on State Mandates" on Justia Law
Malaga County Water District v. Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board
This is one of several cases involving disputes between Malaga and the agencies involved in issuing and enforcing the permits necessary for Malaga to operate its waste treatment facility. In this case, Malaga wanted a wastewater discharge permit allowing it to discharge 0.85 million gallons per day (mgd) into certain disposal ponds. Malaga seeks to set aside the trial court's decision that the permit allowed a discharge of 0.85 mgd, arguing that the permit actually limited Malaga to discharging 0.49 mgd.After noting Malaga's aggressive approach, the Court of Appeal stated that it was unclear why litigation of this type was necessary when alternative administrative procedures could have resolved this issue in a faster and more efficient manner. The court concluded that the primary issue raised in this case is sufficiently important to warrant the use of the court's discretion to hear issues that are technically moot. The court held that the verification process included in Malaga's permit constituted an improper delegation of authority from the Water Quality Board to its executive officer. However, the court did not reach the parties' remaining issues, because those issues were not part of the trial court's final judgment, were not resolved in the first instance by the trial court, and are thus insufficiently developed to determine whether they could either support the trial court's judgment or require vacating the entire permit issued. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Malaga County Water District v. Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board" on Justia Law
Malaga County Water District v. State Water Resources Control Board
This is one of several cases involving disputes between Malaga and the agencies involved in issuing and enforcing the permits necessary for Malaga to operate its waste treatment facility. In this case, the Water Quality Board imposed penalties totaling $78,000 on Malaga for violating the water discharge requirements of its permit. Malaga contends that these penalties were inappropriately imposed for several reasons.The Court of Appeal agreed with Malaga that laches is a proper defense in administrative sanctions proceedings, and that the Water Quality Board utilized a void underground regulation when it issued the "Hearing Procedure for Administrative Civil Liability Complaint R5-2013-0527" (Hearing Procedure). The court explained that the first issue may only affect some of the penalties imposed by the Water Quality Board while the second may require a full rehearing. Therefore, the court reversed the trial court's order and remanded the matter to the trial court to determine whether a writ should issue based on one or both of Malaga's right to present a laches defense and the Water Quality Board's use of a void underground regulation via the Hearing Procedure. The court affirmed in all other respects. View "Malaga County Water District v. State Water Resources Control Board" on Justia Law
Malaga County Water District v. Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board
This is one of several cases involving disputes between Malaga and the agencies involved in issuing and enforcing the permits necessary for Malaga to operate its waste treatment facility. In 2016, the Water Quality Board issued an administrative civil liability complaint (ACL) to Malaga, which resulted in a civil liability penalty of more than $1 million. In proceedings before the trial court, Malaga prevailed on the theory that the hearing procedure document utilized to control the proceedings constituted an improper underground regulation.The Court of Appeal conclude that while portions of the hearing procedure constituted a void underground regulation, the trial court incorrectly remanded the matter without considering whether the use of those procedural regulations was harmless. Therefore, the court remanded the matter to the trial court to determine whether use of the void regulations was prejudicial and, if not, to resolve any further disputes in this matter. View "Malaga County Water District v. Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board" on Justia Law
Humphreville v. City of Los Angeles
A city-owned utility charges rates to its customers that do not "exceed the reasonable costs" of providing the utility service, but at the end of each fiscal year, the city routinely invokes its power under the city's charter to, via multiple steps, transfer the "surplus" in the utility's revenue fund—the amount left over after paying all "outstanding demands and liabilities" which, if transferred, will not have a "material negative impact" on the utility's "financial condition" (L.A. Charter, section 344(b))—to the city's general fund. Plaintiff filed suit against the city defendants, alleging that this routine practice by the city constitutes a "tax" that requires voter approval.The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the action challenging the practice as being an unlawful "tax." The court held that the city's alleged, ongoing practice of transferring a “surplus” from the DWP's revenue fund to the city's General Fund where, as also alleged, the rates charged by the DWP to its customers nevertheless do not exceed the costs of providing electricity to them, does not constitute a "tax" for three reasons. First, the practice does not satisfy the definition of a "tax" under the plain language of the California Constitution. Second, this conclusion is the one that best accords with the purpose behind the Constitution's restrictions on local taxation, namely to stop local governments from extracting even more revenue from California taxpayers. Third, Citizens for Fair REU Rates v. City of Redding (2018) 6 Cal.5th 1, strongly suggests that the city's yearly transfers of surplus funds do not constitute a "tax" when they do not cause the DWP's rates to exceed its costs of providing electricity. In this case, because plaintiff will be bound in any future amended complaints by the same verified allegations that doom his claims now, the court concluded that he cannot cure these defects by amendment and the trial court properly sustained the demurrer without leave to amend. View "Humphreville v. City of Los Angeles" on Justia Law
Communities for a Better Environment v. Energy Resources Conservation & Development Commission
Environmental groups challenged the constitutionality of Public Resources Code section 25531, which limits judicial review of decisions by the Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission on the siting of thermal power plants. Section 25531(a) provides that an Energy Commission siting decision is “subject to judicial review by the Supreme Court of California.” The plaintiffs contend this provision abridges the original jurisdiction of the superior courts and courts of appeal over mandate petitions, as conferred by California Constitution Article VI, section 10. Section 25531(b) provides that findings of fact in support of a Commission siting determination “are final,” allegedly violating the separation of powers doctrine by depriving courts of their essential power to review administrative agency findings (Cal. Const., Art. III, section 3; Art. VI, section 1).The court of appeal affirmed summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. The Article VI grant of original jurisdiction includes the superior courts and courts of appeal and may not be circumscribed by statute, absent some other constitutional provision. Legislative amendments to section 25531 have broken the once-tight link between the regulatory authority of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Energy Commission power plant siting decisions, such that the plenary power Article XII grants the Legislature over PUC activities no longer authorizes section 25531(a). Section 25531(b) violates the judicial powers clause by preventing courts from reviewing whether substantial evidence supports the Commission’s factual findings. View "Communities for a Better Environment v. Energy Resources Conservation & Development Commission" on Justia Law
Mahon v. City of San Diego
Proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act, generally required local governments obtain voter approval prior to imposing taxes. Plaintiffs Jess Willard Mahon, Jr. and Allan Randall brought this certified class action against the City of San Diego (City) claiming that the City violated Proposition 218 by imposing an illegal tax to fund the City’s undergrounding program. Specifically, plaintiffs contended the City violated Proposition 218 through the adoption of an ordinance that amended a franchise agreement between the City and the San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDG&E). The ordinance, together with a related memorandum of understanding, further specifies that part of the money to fund the undergrounding budget will be collected by SDG&E through a 3.53 percent surcharge on ratepayers in the City that will be remitted to the City for use on undergrounding (Undergrounding Surcharge). Plaintiffs claim that the surcharge is a tax. Plaintiffs further claim that the surcharge violates Proposition 218 because it was never approved by the electorate. Plaintiffs note that the City has imposed more than 200 million dollars in charges pursuant to the Undergrounding Surcharge during the class period. Through this action, plaintiffs seek a refund of those amounts, among other forms of relief. The City moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted on two grounds: (1) the Undergrounding Surcharge constituted compensation for franchise rights and thus was not a tax; alternatively, (2) the Undergrounding Surcharge was a valid regulatory fee and not a tax. After review, the Court of Appeal concluded the trial court properly granted the City’s motion for summary on the ground that the Undergrounding Surcharge was compensation validly given in exchange for franchise rights and thus, was not a tax subject to voter approval. View "Mahon v. City of San Diego" on Justia Law
State Lands Commission v. Plains Pipeline, L.P.
The California State Lands Commission and Aspen American Insurance Company filed suit against Plains Pipeline and its affiliate, alleging that when Plains's negligent maintenance of a pipeline resulted in disrupting the flow of oil, it also disrupted the payment of royalty income to the Commission, and caused damage to improvements on the Commission's land.The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's judgment in favor of Plains, holding that Plains is not exempt from liability for the interruption in service. The court explained that no statute grants immunity to public utilities and whether immunity applies is a question of judicial policy. In this case, Plains does not deliver essential municipal services to members of the general public and, although it is called a public utility, it is a private business, entitled to no more immunity from liability than any ordinary private business. The court also held that the complaint alleges sufficient facts to show a special relationship between the parties that allows the Commission to recover purely economic damages. As for the reverse condemnation claim raised for the first time on appeal, the court noted that the proper procedure is to make any motion to amend in the trial court in the first instance. View "State Lands Commission v. Plains Pipeline, L.P." on Justia Law
Riverside County Transportation Comm. v. Southern Cal. Gas Co.
The Riverside County Transportation Commission (Commission) sought to extend its Metrolink commuter rail line from Riverside to Perris, using the route of a preexisting rail line that it had acquired. At five points, however, the new rail line would cross gas pipelines owned by the Southern California Gas Company. The Gas Company had installed these pipelines under city streets decades earlier, pursuant to franchises granted by the relevant cities and, in some instances, pursuant to licenses granted by the then-owner of the preexisting rail line. The new rail line could not be built as long as the pipelines remained in place. The Commission terminated the licenses and demanded that the Gas Company relocate its pipelines at its own expense. The parties agreed that the Gas Company would relocate its pipelines, to other points also owned by the Commission, and the Commission would pay the estimated expenses, but only provisionally; the Commission could still sue for reimbursement, and the Gas Company could then sue for any additional expenses. The trial court ruled that the Gas Company had to bear all of the costs of relocation; however, it also ruled that the Gas Company had never trespassed on the Commission’s land. Both sides appealed. After review, the Court of Appeal held the Gas Company did have to bear all of the costs of relocation. However, the Court also held that, at those points where the Gas Company held licenses for its pipelines, once the Commission terminated the licenses, the Gas Company could be held liable for trespass. View "Riverside County Transportation Comm. v. Southern Cal. Gas Co." on Justia Law