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Ralphs Grocery Company v. Missionary Church of the Disciples of Jesus Christ et al

April 25, 2012


(Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. YC060329) APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles Andrew C. Kauffman, Judge. Affirmed.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Manella, J.


Respondent Ralphs Grocery Company (Ralphs) brought suit against appellant Missionary Church of the Disciples of Jesus Christ (the Church) for trespass. On cross-motions for summary judgment, Ralphs established that Church members regularly placed themselves in front of the entry/exit doors of Ralphs' El Segundo grocery store to solicit donations without first seeking permission from store management or attempting to comply with Ralphs' rules for expressive activity. Ralphs further established that neither the El Segundo store nor the sidewalk/apron area where the Church members stood were places where members of the public were encouraged to gather or linger. Relying on In re Lane (1969) 71 Cal.2d 872 (Lane), the Church contended its members had an absolute right to solicit donations on Ralphs' property as a commercial location open to the general public.*fn1 The Church expressly disavowed reliance on the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Robins v. Pruneyard Shopping Center (1979) 23 Cal.3d 899 (Pruneyard). Accordingly, the Church presented virtually no evidence concerning the attributes of the store or the sidewalk/apron area or its ability to comply with Ralphs' time, place and manner rules. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Ralphs and issued a permanent injunction barring Church members from, among other things, soliciting donations within 20 feet of the sidewalk and apron areas of the El Segundo store.

On appeal, the Church continues to contend that under Lane, it had an unfettered right to use the area in front of Ralphs' El Segundo store to solicit donations without regard to the owner's attempt to regulate the time, place and manner of expressive activity on its property. It now also contends the area constituted a public forum within the meaning of Pruneyard. We conclude that Lane does not support the Church's absolute right to solicit funds for charitable and religious purposes on any private property open to the public, and that the limited evidence presented supported Ralphs' position with respect to the characterization of the area for purposes of a Pruneyard analysis. Ralphs' summary judgment motion was, therefore, properly granted.*fn2


A. The Complaint

In August 2009, Ralphs sued the Church for trespass, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Ralphs alleged that in May 2009, two members of the Church began soliciting contributions at Ralphs' El Segundo grocery store. The complaint described the El Segundo store as a stand-alone building with a private sidewalk/apron that ran between the storefront and a fire lane that bordered the customer parking lot. The Church members allegedly set up a stand with a bucket and placed themselves in the fire lane directly in front of the entrance/exit doors. When asked to desist, the Church members refused.

The complaint stated that because the area in front of the typical Ralphs grocery store is similarly limited, Ralphs has adopted "uniform rules for expressive activity" which impose "time, place and manner restrictions on all forms of expressive activity that individuals and groups seek to carry out on Ralphs store property." The rules state that individuals engaged in expressive activity must position themselves 20 feet from any store entrance.*fn3 According to the complaint, Church members made no attempt to contact Ralphs prior to engaging in activity on its property or to comply with its rules.

B. Summary Judgment

After preliminary matters were resolved, the parties submitted cross-motions for summary judgment.*fn4 Ralphs presented evidence to support that the El Segundo store was located in a stand-alone building in a "commercial strip development with a handful of other commercial retailers" and was fronted by a sidewalk/apron that was situated between the store and a fire lane abutting the customer parking lot. Ralphs has "exclusive control" over the interior of the store, "its entrance/exit ways" and "the surrounding sidewalk/apron areas." Ralphs also presented evidence that persons are invited onto the property solely to shop for food and related products, that the El Segundo store did not offer amenities such as plazas, walkways or central courtyards containing benches, and that Ralphs did not encourage customers to linger, meet friends, be entertained or congregate on store property for any purpose other than shopping.

Ralphs' evidence established that members of the Church regularly positioned themselves in the fire lane directly in front of the entrance/exit doors of the El Segundo store and solicited customers entering and leaving the store for contributions.*fn5 They obstructed the fire lane, disrupted customers and moved a Ralphs sign. Church members repeatedly ignored requests to comply with Ralphs' rules for expressive activity or to leave. On one occasion, the manager for operations for the El Segundo store gave a Church member soliciting in front of the store a copy of the rules. The member immediately threw the rules in the trash.

The Church objected to many of the factual assertions made by Ralphs in its moving papers as irrelevant, but presented no countervailing evidence to challenge Ralphs' factual assertions. In support of its cross-motion, the Church presented evidence that it is a nonprofit religious corporation whose goal is to teach the Bible and provide assistance to the poor and needy. It also presented evidence that Ralphs' El Segundo store is on a "busy" street "lined with commercial locations and businesses for miles in each direction" and that it "shares its parking lot with other businesses." The development in which the store is located was said to have "an attractive covered plaza and walkway area . . . with tables and chairs for sitting and relaxing."*fn6 The Church presented no other facts about the area or the attributes of Ralphs' El Segundo store.

In its memoranda in support of its motion for summary judgment and in opposition to Ralphs' motion, the Church took the position that Ralphs' rules for expressive activity "fail[ed] the tests for reasonable time, place and manner regulations" and that application of the rules "prohibit[ed] or interfere[d] with [the Church's] speech activities and [its] solicitation of donations for religious and charitable purposes," but did not explain how or why that was the case. The Church asserted that the issue presented was governed not by Pruneyard, supra, 23 Cal.3d 899, but exclusively by Lane, supra, 71 Cal.2d 872. According to the Church, Lane established that "freedom of speech, without the permission of the store owner, is constitutionally protected on a privately owned sidewalk outside the doors of a single, free-standing grocery supermarket" and that the California constitution grants to members of the public the right "to engage in freedom of expression at or near the entrance to free-standing grocery stores."

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Ralphs and issued the requested permanent injunction. In the written order, the court explained: "The relevant facts are not in dispute. Representatives of [the Church], engaged in expressive conduct, in the form of soliciting donations from Ralphs' customers, while on the sidewalk 'apron' immediately outside the entrance to the Ralphs store in El Segundo, CA. The store is located in a stand-alone building within a retail strip development. Defendant's representatives engaged in this conduct in violation of [Ralphs'] established restrictions on time, place and manner, and despite objections of [Ralphs'] management personnel." The Church "fail[ed] to submit any evidence that its expressive activity was related to the conduct of [Ralphs'] business, or that the retail development in ...

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