By Matthew Hinks
Effective environmental review of a real estate development project under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) often requires that the approving agency and representatives of the developer work together collaboratively to ensure that environmental review is carried out according to the dictates of the law. However, doing so raises the question of the protectability of communications shared between the developer, the CEQA lead agency and their lawyers. Communications between an attorney and his or her client are privileged and are therefore not subject to disclosure as part of the discovery process or the administrative record in CEQA litigation. But what about in situations where communications take place or are shared among a developer, a lead agency and their lawyers?
A new California Court of Appeal opinion — Citizens for Ceres v. Superior Court — offers a new answer to that question, which will have significant practical implications for property owners and developers engaged in the CEQA process. However because the opinion appears to conflict with a prior Court of Appeal opinion, it is unclear how the rule announced by the Ceres court will get applied in future litigation. Moreover, there is significant question as to whether the Ceres rule will get applied outside of the CEQA context.