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COVID-19 Update: Judicial Council Amends Emergency Rule on Statutes of Limitations in CEQA and Land Use Cases

On May 29, 2020, the Judicial Council approved revisions to Emergency Rule 9 regarding the statutes of limitations for civil cases during the COVID-19 pandemic. The revisions establish different tolling periods for claims that ordinarily have shorter statutes of limitations, such as claims under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) and the State Planning and Zoning Law, and those with longer statutes of limitations. The revisions specify a definite end date to the tolling period. Under the revisions, claims that ordinarily have a statute of limitations period of 180 days or less, such as CEQA, will be tolled from April 6, 2020 until August 3, 2020. Claims with a statute of limitations period of more than 180 days will be tolled from April 6, 2020 until October 1, 2020. These changes bring clarity and certainty to causes of action that accrue during the state of emergency.

Why Changes Were Made
The Judicial Council adopted the original Emergency Rule 9 on April 6, 2020. At that time, the Judicial Council tolled statutes of limitation on all civil cases until 90 days after Governor Newsom lifts the state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Judicial Council received numerous comments that tolling the statute of limitations for cases, such as those under CEQA and the State Planning and Zoning law, for 90 days after the state of emergency is lifted, would likely interfere with construction financing and obstruct the State’s goal of building more housing in the state. In some cases, the order would have also significantly extended the statute of limitations even after the Governor lifts the state of emergency. The statute of limitations for CEQA cases typically run for 30 or 35 days and the statute for planning and zoning actions typically run for 90 days. The Judicial Council amended Emergency Rule 9 so that it is no longer tied to the end of the state of emergency declaration – an unknown date. The amended rule will end the statutes of limitations tolling on specified dates – August 3, 2020 for CEQA, land use and other actions with a statute of limitations of 180 days or less and October 1, 2020 for all civil causes of action with a statute of limitations that exceeds 180 days.

Why The Changes Are Important
The shortened and defined end of the tolling period for CEQA and land use projects under the revised Rule is more consistent with the Legislature’s determination that lawsuits challenging these public agency decisions should be filed soon after the agency action. With a defined ending of the tolling period, both plaintiffs and defendants will be able to calculate the specific deadline when claims must be filed and know with certainty when the time for filing a claim has passed. By resolving those questions, the amended Emergency Rule is helpful to developers and public agencies to analyze timeframe of litigation risk when looking to move forward with new projects as the current public health crisis abates.