Legal Alerts Aug 11, 2016

Appellate Court “SLAPP”s Residents in Culver City Upset Over Parking Restriction Changes

City Did Not Violate Brown Act

The state’s anti-SLAPP law comes into play, even if a lawsuit appears to be in the public interest, but will specifically benefit the plaintiff, a California appellate court ruled this week. The decision, handed down in Cruz v. Culver City, also found that the state’s open meeting law cannot be wielded as a sword to fight the internal procedures of a public entity: the Brown Act requires matters to be put on an agenda, but it cannot be used to litigate whether a matter can be placed on an agenda in the first place.

A group of Culver City residents sued the City for violating the Brown Act when the Council considered changes to parking restrictions. The Second District Court of Appeal on Monday upheld a trial court ruling dismissing the residents’ case on a motion brought by the City under the anti-SLAPP statute, which protects against lawsuits that quash the right to speak on issues of public concern.

Farragut Drive residents in Culver City had enjoyed years of city-imposed parking restrictions that limited the ability of parishioners from a nearby church from parking on their street. In 2014, the church sent a letter to a City Council member complaining about the inability to challenge the restrictions under the City’s existing parking control procedures. The council member discussed the letter as a non-agenda item at a Council meeting, and the church’s request was placed on the agenda at the next meeting.

The residents then sued, asserting the discussion of the letter violated the Brown Act because it was not on the meeting agenda. They also claimed that placing it on the agenda for the next meeting ignored that the City’s own parking regulation procedures made no provision for such action. The City countered by filing an anti-SLAPP motion seeking dismissal of the lawsuit, contending the Council’s actions arose from First Amendment activity and that the Brown Act claims were groundless and the residents could not prevail on the merits. The trial court granted the motion, dismissed the suit and the residents appealed.

The principal claim of the residents on appeal was that their lawsuit was not subject to the anti-SLAPP law because it was brought in the “public interest” to establish and correct the Council’s Brown Act violations. The anti-SLAPP law provides an exemption from that law for suits “brought solely in the public interest” as established by 1.) the fact the plaintiff seeks no relief greater than what any member of the public would be entitled to, 2.) if successful, the judgment would enforce an important right affecting the public interest, and 3.) private enforcement is necessary and poses a financial burden on the plaintiff greater than the plaintiff’s stake in the matter.

The appellate court agreed with the City and held that the residents’ lawsuit did not qualify as a “public interest” suit because it essentially sought to preserve the parking restrictions and would therefore uniquely benefit the plaintiffs.

The appellate court went on to find that the plaintiffs were also unlikely to prevail on the merits of their lawsuit because the Council had not violated the Brown Act. The court held that the initial discussion of the church’s letter was not substantive or substantial. Second, the court held that the Brown Act did not stand as a barrier to the Council considering changes to its parking restriction procedures, which was strictly an intramural issue affecting the City.

If you have any questions about this opinion or how it may impact your agency, please contact the attorney author of this Legal Alert listed to the right in the firm’s Municipal Law practice group, or your BB&K attorney.

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