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Davis v. Fresno Unified School District

California Court of Appeals, Fifth District

June 1, 2015

STEPHEN K. DAVIS, Plaintiff and Appellant,
FRESNO UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT et al., Defendants and Respondents.

[As Modification on June 19, 2015]

APPEAL from judgment of the Superior Court of Fresno County, No. 12CECG03718 Donald S. Black, Judge.

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Carlin Law Group and Kevin R. Carlin for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Briggs Law Corporation, Cory J. Briggs, Mekaela M. Gladden and Anthony N. Kim for Kern County Taxpayers Association as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Appellant.

Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, Martin A. Hom and Jennifer D. Cantrell for Defendant and Respondent Fresno Unified School District.

Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost, Kathy McKee, Paul G. Thompson, James Traber and Luke Boughen for California’s Coalition for Adequate School Housing as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Defendant and Respondent Fresno Unified School District.

Lozoya & Lozoya and Frank J. Lozoya for Defendant and Respondent Harris Construction Company, Inc.


Franson, J.

Plaintiff Stephen K. Davis is a taxpayer challenging a noncompetitive bid contract between the Fresno Unified School District (Fresno Unified) and Harris Construction Co., Inc. (Contractor) for the construction of a middle school for $36.7 million. The construction was completed in 2014 pursuant to a lease-leaseback arrangement that Fresno Unified and Contractor contend is exempt from competitive bidding under Education Code section 17406.[1]

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Davis alleged the school construction project should have been competitively bid because the lease-leaseback arrangement did not create a true leaseback or satisfy the criteria for the exception in section 17406. Davis also alleged Fresno Unified’s board breached its fiduciary duties by approving the costly arrangement and Contractor had an impermissible conflict of interest that rendered the lease-leaseback agreement void.

The trial court sustained demurrers filed by Fresno Unified and Contractor. Davis appealed.

As to the causes of action based on the Education Code, we conclude (1) the competitive bidding process required by section 17417 is subject to the exception contained in section 17406 and (2) Davis adequately alleged three grounds for why section 17406’s exception did not apply to the lease-leaseback arrangement. First, Davis alleged the exception is available only for genuine leases and the subject leaseback agreement was simply a traditional construction agreement and not a genuine lease. Second, Davis alleged the agreement did not include a financing component for the construction of the project. Third, Davis alleged the lease-leaseback arrangement did not provide for Fresno Unified’s use of the newly built facilities “during the term of the lease, ” as required by section 17406, subdivision (a)(1).

As to the conflict of interest cause of action, we conclude Government Code section 1090’s prohibition of such conflicts extends to corporate consultants. Davis has stated a violation of Government Code section 1090 by alleging facts showing Contractor, as a consultant to Fresno Unified, participated in the making of a contract in which Contractor subsequently became financially interested.

We therefore reverse the judgment.


This case involves a project for the construction of buildings and facilities at the Rutherford B. Gaston Sr. Middle School, located in southwest Fresno. On September 26, 2012, Fresno Unified’s governing board adopted a resolution authorizing the execution of contracts pursuant to which Fresno Unified would lease the project site to the Contractor, which would build the project on the site, and lease the improvements and site back to Fresno Unified. The contracts were a site lease (Site Lease) and a facilities lease (Facilities Lease (collectively, the Lease-Leaseback Contracts).

Under the Site Lease, Fresno Unified leased the project site to Contractor for $1 in rent. The Site Lease began on September 27, 2012, and terminated

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the same day as the Facilities Lease. The Site Lease is the “lease” in the lease-leaseback arrangement.

The Facilities Lease was structured so that Contractor would (1) build the project on the site pursuant to the “Construction Provisions” attached as an exhibit to the Facilities Lease and (2) sublease the site and project to Fresno Unified[2] in exchange for payments under a “Schedule of Lease Payments.” The Construction Provisions were a detailed construction agreement (55 pages long) whereby Contractor agreed to build the project in accordance with the plans and specifications approved by Fresno Unified for a guaranteed maximum price of $36, 702, 876. Completion was to be 595 days from the notice to proceed.

The “Schedule of Lease Payments” attached to the Facilities Lease simply referred to the “payments for the Project as set forth in the Construction Provisions.” The Construction Provisions outlined monthly progress payments for construction services rendered each month, up to 95 percent of the total value for the work performed, with a 5 percent retention pending acceptance of the project and recordation of a notice of completion. Final payment for all of the work was to be made within 35 days after recordation by Fresno Unified of the notice of completion. Simply put, the funds paid by Fresno Unified under the Facilities Lease were based solely on the construction services performed by Contractor.[3]

Once the project was completed and the final lease payment made, the Facilities Lease terminated. Counsel for Fresno Unified confirmed at oral argument that the term of the lease was from the date of signing to the date of completion. As to possession of the project, the Facilities Lease stated that Fresno Unified was allowed to take possession of the project “as it is completed.” However, consistent with Davis’s allegations of fact, Fresno Unified’s opening brief acknowledged the Facilities Lease was in effect only during the construction of the school facilities and its counsel confirmed during oral argument that a phased completion of the project was not used in this case. Thus, the brief and counsel’s statement do not contradict the allegation that Fresno Unified did not occupy or use the newly constructed facilities during the term of the Facilities Lease.

As to ownership of the newly constructed improvements, the Facilities Lease provided that Fresno Unified would obtain title from Contractor “as

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construction progresses and corresponding Lease Payments are made to [Contractor].” In addition, the Facilities Lease provided that once Fresno Unified paid all of the lease payments, all rights, title and interest of Contractor in the project and the site would vest in Fresno Unified.


On November 20, 2012, Davis filed his original complaint.[4] The operative pleading is the first amended complaint (FAC) he filed in March 2013. The causes of action in the FAC are (1) violation of the competitive bidding requirements of the Public Contract Code by entering into an improper lease-leaseback arrangement that did not satisfy the criteria for the statutory exception outlined in subdivision (a)(1) of section 17406 (section 17406(a)(1)); (2) breach of fiduciary duty by the Board of Fresno Unified; (3) failure to comply with the competitive bidding requirements of section 17417; (4) conflict of interest by Contractor based on its participation in the planning and design of the project as a consultant to Fresno Unified before the contracts for the project’s construction were awarded; (5) improper use of section 17400 et seq., based on the legal theory that lease-leaseback arrangements are allowed only when used for financing school construction; (6) improper delegation of discretion; and (7) declaratory relief.

Davis alleged that, although the site was leased by Fresno Unified to Contractor while Contractor performed the construction, there was no genuine leaseback to Fresno Unified because Fresno Unified did not regain the right to use and occupy the property during the leaseback period. Davis also alleged that Fresno Unified made payments that lasted only as long as the duration of construction, varied based upon the value of the work performed, and ended with the completion of the construction. In addition, Davis alleged that Fresno Unified did “not have the right or practical ability to have beneficial occupancy of the demised premises during the term of the Facilities Lease to use them for their intended purposes.”

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In April 2013, Fresno Unified filed a demurrer to the FAC, which was supported by a request for judicial notice.[5] In May 2013, Contractor filed a separate demurrer that was similar to Fresno Unified’s.

Davis opposed the demurrers and objected to the request for judicial notice. Davis also lodged 11 exhibits with the trial court to support his opposition to the demurrers.

In August 2013, the trial court sustained both demurrers to each of the seven causes of action in the FAC. The court granted Davis 30 days leave to amend. Counsel for Davis informed counsel for Fresno Unified that Davis did not intend to file a second amended complaint. After the 30-day period expired, defendants filed applications for dismissal of the action and entry of judgment.

In September 2013, judgment was entered in favor of Fresno Unified and Contractor. Davis appealed.


I. Standard of Review

A. Demurrers

Appellate courts independently review the ruling on a general demurrer and make a de novo determination of whether the pleading alleges facts sufficient to state a cause of action. (McCall v. PacifiCare of Cal., Inc. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 412. 415 [106 Cal.Rptr.2d 271. 21 P.3d 1189].)

Generally, appellate courts “give the complaint a reasonable interpretation, reading it as a whole and its parts in their context. [Citation.]” (City of Dinuba v. County of Tulare (2007) 41 Cal.4th 859, 865 [62 Cal.Rptr.3d 614, 161 P.3d 1168] (Dinuba).) Also, the demurrer is treated as admitting all material facts properly pleaded, but does not admit the truth of contentions, deductions or conclusions of law. (Ibid.)

Ordinarily, the allegations in a pleading “must be liberally construed, with a view to substantial justice between the parties.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 452.)

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However, this principle of liberal construction does not apply when, as in this case, a plaintiff has been granted leave to amend and elects not to do so. (Reynolds v. Bement (2005) 36 Cal.4th 1075, 1091 [32 Cal.Rptr.3d 483, 116 P.3d 1162], abrogated on another ground in Martinez v. Combs (2010) 49 Cal.4th 35, 62-66 [109 Cal.Rptr.3d 514, 231 P.3d 259].) In such cases, appellate courts will construe the pleading strictly, based on the rationale that the plaintiff’s election indicates he or she believes the pleading has stated the strongest case possible. (Reynolds, supra, at p. 1091.)

B. Statutory Construction

This appeal presents a number of issues relating to the proper construction of the Education Code provisions addressing lease-leaseback arrangements and the Government Code provisions addressing conflicts of interest.

Issues of statutory construction are questions of law subject to independent review by appellate courts. (Neilson v. City of California City (2007) 146 Cal.App.4th 633, 642 [53 Cal.Rptr.3d 143].)

“A reviewing court’s fundamental task in construing a statute is to determine the intent of the lawmakers so as to effectuate the purpose of the statute. [Citations.] Courts start this task by scrutinizing the actual words of the statute, giving them their usual, ordinary meaning. [Citation.] When statutory language is clear and unambiguous (i.e., susceptible to only one reasonable construction), courts adopt the literal meaning of that language, unless that literal construction would frustrate the purpose of the statute or produce absurd consequences. [Citation.]

“Alternatively, when the statutory language is ambiguous, courts must select the construction that comports most closely with the apparent intent of the Legislature, with a view to promoting rather than defeating the general purpose of the statute. [Citation.] The interpretation of ambiguous wording is guided by the fundamental principle that courts construe those words in the context and with reference to the entire scheme of law of which they are a part. [Citations.] Courts resolving statutory ambiguity also may be aided by the ostensible objects to be achieved by the legislation, the evils to be remedied, the legislative history, and public policy. [Citation.] When a court interprets an ambiguous statute, it is not authorized to rewrite the statute. It must simply declare what is, in terms or in substance, contained in the statute. [Citation.]” (POET, LLC v. State Air Resources Bd. (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 681, 749 [160 Cal.Rptr.3d 69].)

The foregoing rules of statutory construction are subject to specific rules that apply to particular types of statutes. The specific rule relevant in

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this case provides that any statutory exception to competitive bidding requirements for government contracts are to be strictly construed. (Unite Here Local 30 v. Department of Parks & Recreation (2011) 194 Cal.App.4th 1200, 1209; see 45A Cal.Jur.3d (2008) Municipalities, § 524, p. 301 [exception to competitive bidding should be strictly construed and restricted to circumstances that truly satisfy the statutory criteria].)


A. Background

School districts can procure new facilities in various ways based on (1) different methods for financing the project and (2) different delivery methods for the construction.

1. Traditional Financing and Delivery

The traditional method for financing new school facilities is for school districts to obtain voter approval for the issuance of general obligations bonds and then use the proceeds from the bonds to pay for the construction. (62 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 209, 210 (1979).)

The traditional delivery method for new school facilities is referred to as design-bid-build, which involves three separate steps. (See 10 Miller & Starr, Cal. Real Estate (3d. ed. 2010) § 27:27, p. 27-143.) First, the school district hires an architect to design the project. Second, the district uses the design in its request for competitive bids from construction firms. Third, the winning bidder builds the project.

School construction contracts are a type of public works contract subject to the competitive bidding process unless an exception applies. (See Pub. Contract Code, § 20111, subd. (b).) Competitive bidding is favored by a strong public policy “‘“to eliminate favoritism, fraud and corruption; avoid misuse of public funds; and stimulate advantageous marketplace ...

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