On May 29, 2020, the Judicial Council of California issued a Circulating Order to amend its earlier-issued Emergency Rule 9 in order to shorten the time for tolling statutes of limitations for all civil causes and provide a fixed date, including for causes of action arising under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and State planning and zoning laws. Under the amended Emergency Rule 9, the tolling period for civil actions with limitations periods that are less than 180 days—which includes most CEQA and planning and zoning law claims—expires on August 3, 2020. This clarifies and dramatically reduces the time within which complaining parties must file civil litigation to challenge most CEQA and related land use approvals.
As we noted earlier, on April 6, 2020, the Judicial Council of California issued Emergency Rules to address impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the judicial branch. This included Emergency Rule 9, which tolled the time to file any type of civil litigation from April 6, 2020, to until 90 days after the Governor lifts the state of emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic. This created enormous uncertainty related to land use matters and CEQA actions, as the time to file such challenges is unusually short (30 to 90 days) and it is entirely unclear when the Governor might lift the state of emergency. Emergency Rule 9 threatened to extend the limitations periods for CEQA and land use claims by months.
Following the issuance of the Emergency Rules, the Judicial Council received numerous public comments raising concerns regarding the application of Emergency Rule 9 to land use challenges, particularly under CEQA. The comments requested that the statutes of limitation for land use and CEQA actions be limited to the emergency period, without the added 90 days included in the original Emergency Rule 9.
In response to these valid concerns, the Judicial Council has approved the amended Emergency Rule 9 to provide two categories of tolling for civil actions:
- For statutes of limitation and repose applying to civil causes of action that exceed 180 days, the period for filing suit is tolled from April 6 until October 1, 2020.
- For statutes of limitation and repose applying to civil causes of action that are 180 days or less, the period for filing suit is tolled from April 6 until August 3,2020.
With these amendments, the Judicial Council has provided some clarity and certainty to the local agencies and project applicants that depend on the shorter limitations periods under CEQA and State planning and zoning laws to keep development projects moving, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. This amended Emergency Rule 9 acknowledges the importance and reflects the priority that the Legislature has provided towards actions arising under CEQA and the state planning and zoning laws by ensuring such claims are resolved more quickly.