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Association’s Brown Act Claims Dismissed Due To Unreasonable Litigation Delay
Prior to 2018, the Julian Volunteer Fire Company Association (Volunteer Association) provided fire prevention and emergency services through a local fire district, the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District (District), to the Julian and Cuyamaca rural communities. In April 2018, the District’s board of supervisors approved a resolution to dissolve the District and to be replaced by the County of San Diego (County) fire authority.
Two weeks later, the Volunteer Association sued the District, alleging the District’s approval of the resolution violated the Brown Act. The Volunteer Association alleged that the District’s board members secretly communicated through email and private meetings to discuss the dissolution prior to the formal negotiations. The Volunteer Association sought a writ of mandate ordering the District to vacate the resolution. The trial court scheduled a hearing in November 2018 to rule on the merits of the Brown Act claims. However, the Volunteer Association took the hearing off the calendar in October 2018.
While the Volunteer Association’s lawsuit was pending, the County and the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) conducted a mandatory review of the dissolution request, which included holding public hearings and a special election for residents affected by the request. In March 2019, the County announced the special election had resulted in a majority vote favoring the District’s dissolution.
Following the election, the Volunteer Association filed an emergency motion asking the court to immediately enter judgment in favor of its Brown Act claims, without notifying LAFCO or the County of this request. The court entered judgment for Volunteer Association and issued a writ ordering the District to revoke its original dissolution resolution. The District then relied on this judgment to preclude LAFCO from certifying the special election results.
The County and LAFCO then intervened in the Volunteer Association’s lawsuit and successfully moved to vacate the judgment and the writ. The County and LAFCO moved for judgment on the pleadings against the Volunteer Association. They argued that the lawsuit was untimely and that the Brown Act claims were barred by the laches doctrine, which applies if a plaintiff unreasonably delays in prosecuting its claims to the prejudice of the defendant. The trial court granted the motion solely on the grounds that the lawsuit was untimely and entered judgment against the Volunteer Association. The Volunteer Association appealed, and the California Court of Appeal affirmed on different grounds.
The Court of Appeal found that the Volunteer Association improperly waited to reschedule the hearing on its Brown Act claims until after the special election results were announced. In doing so, the Court of Appeal held that Volunteer Association unreasonably delayed since the alleged Brown Act violations occurred months before the special election. The Court noted the Volunteer Association presented no justification for the delay, such as the need to conduct discovery. The Court also found that the delay prejudiced LAFCO, the City, and the general public, given the substantial costs and burdens of the completed special election. Based on this ruling, the Court affirmed the judgment against the Volunteer Association.
Julian Volunteer Fire Company Association v. Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District, 62 Cal.App.5th 583 (2021).
While litigation is often a lengthy process, this decision shows that some delays are improper if they prejudice the party being sued.