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Weatherford v. City of San Rafael

Supreme Court of California

June 5, 2017

Cherrity Weatherford, Plaintiff and Appellant,
City of San Rafael et al., Defendants and Respondents.

         Court Superior County Ct.App. 1/1 A138949 No. CIV 1300112 Marin Roy O. Chernus Judge.

          Mark T. Clausen for Plaintiff and Appellant.

          Alan L. Schlosser; Richard A. Rothschild; Barbara A. Jones; Arnold & Porter and Steven L. Mayer for American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Western Center on Law and Poverty, Legal Aid Association of California and AARP as Amici Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Appellant.

          Bertrand, Fox & Elliot, Bertrand, Fox Elliot, Osman & Wenzel, Thomas F. Bertrand and Richard W. Osman for Defendant and Respondent City of Rafael.

          Steven M. Woodside, County Counsel, Renee Giacomini Brewer, Valerie R. Boughey and Ellen Obstler, Deputy County Counsel, for Defendant and Respondent County of Marin.

          Burke, Williams & Sorensen, Thomas B. Brown and Matthew D. Visick for League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties and California Special Districts Association as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendants and Respondents.

          Cuéllar, J.

         In California, concerns about improper government expenditures can give rise to more than just criticism in the public sphere or complaints to elected officials. Under Code of Civil Procedure section 526a, [1] certain individuals and corporations also have a right to pursue legal actions enjoining wasteful or illegal expenditures by government entities. Whether someone can use this provision to begin a lawsuit depends on whether the person has standing to do so. At issue in this case is whether an individual's standing to sue under section 526a requires the payment of a property tax and - if the payment of a property tax is not required - what types of tax payments satisfy the statute.

         What we hold is that section 526a does not require the payment of a property tax. An allegation that the plaintiff has paid an assessed tax to the defendant locality is sufficient under section 526a. Because the superior court and Court of Appeal held that payment of a property tax was required, we reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


         Plaintiff Cherrity Weatherford resides in the City of San Rafael and the County of Marin. She does not own real property in the city or county, but she lived with her daughter in a rental apartment in San Rafael when she began this lawsuit.[2] On January 9, 2013, Weatherford filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief challenging the manner in which the City of San Rafael and County of Marin enforced Vehicle Code section 14602.6. According to Weatherford, defendants' practice of impounding vehicles without providing adequate notice violates both the state and federal Constitutions. As Weatherford had not been personally subject to this allegedly unconstitutional practice, she averred that she had taxpayer standing under section 526a. According to Weatherford, she had paid sales tax, gasoline tax, water and sewage fees, and “other taxes, charges and fees routinely imposed” in the City of San Rafael and the County of Marin. Her complaint conceded that she had not paid property taxes.

         On April 22, 2013, the trial court filed a stipulated order and judgment of dismissal. In the stipulated order, Weatherford cited two prior Court of Appeal opinions that contained language suggesting that section 526a requires a plaintiff to pay property taxes to satisfy the taxpayer standing requirement. (See Torres v. City of Yorba Linda (1993) 13 Cal.App.4th 1035; Cornelius v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (1996) 49 Cal.App.4th 1761 (Cornelius).) Weatherford averred that those opinions interpreted section 526a to require the payment of a property tax and, further, that they had rejected her argument that such a requirement is an unconstitutional wealth-based classification. (See, e.g., Torres, at p. 1048, fn. 7.) Defendants and the trial court agreed with Weatherford's interpretation of those cases, so the parties stipulated to a judgment of dismissal on the ground that Weatherford could not amend her complaint to cure the defect in standing under existing case law. Weatherford then appealed the stipulated judgment.

         The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment of dismissal. Although it reasoned that some plaintiffs might be able to invoke the statute without paying property taxes, it held that an individual plaintiff must be liable to pay a property tax within the relevant locality -- or have paid such a tax during the previous year -- in order to have standing.

         We granted review to address whether section 526a requires an individual to have paid or to be liable for the payment of property taxes in order to have the necessary standing for a taxpayer action.



         Section 526a provides, in relevant part: “An action to obtain a judgment, restraining and preventing any illegal expenditure of, waste of, or injury to, the estate, funds, or other property of a county, town, city or city and county of the state, may be maintained against any officer thereof, or any agent, or other person, acting in its behalf, either by a citizen resident therein, or by a corporation, who is assessed for and is liable to pay, or, within one year before the commencement of the action, has paid, a tax therein.” At the heart of this case is the question of how to read the phrase “who is assessed for and is liable to pay... or, has paid, a tax therein” - a phrase in section 526a that we have not previously construed. To answer it, we must begin by considering the statute's language and structure, bearing in mind that our fundamental task in statutory interpretation is to ascertain and effectuate the law's intended purpose. (See, e.g., Horwich v. Superior Court (1999) 21 Cal.4th 272, 276.) We examine the ordinary meaning of the statutory language, the text of related provisions, and the overarching structure of the statutory scheme. (See Larkin v. Workers' Compensation Appeals Bd. (2015) 62 Cal.4th 152, 157-158; see also Poole v. Orange County Fire Authority (2015) 61 Cal.4th 1378, 1391 (conc. opn. of Cuéllar, J.) [“The statute's structure and its surrounding provisions can reveal the semantic relationships that give more precise meaning to the specific text being interpreted, even if the text may have initially appeared to be unambiguous”]; Lonicki v. Sutter Health Central (2008) 43 Cal.4th 201, 209-210.) As this is a question of statutory interpretation, we consider it de novo. (Imperial Merchant Services, Inc. v. Hunt (2009) 47 Cal.4th 381, 387.)

         The Legislature conditioned taxpayer standing under section 526a by using language strongly implying a limitation on the type of tax contemplated by the statute. The statute begins by describing the type of action and relief available under section 526a, before listing the categories of jurisdictions that may be held liable under the statute. (§ 526a [listing cities and counties, among others].) Within that same sentence, section 526a also defines the persons who are eligible to bring suit: a “citizen resident therein” and a corporation that is “assessed” for and liable to pay or has paid a “tax therein.” The statutory language itself thus defines two particular classes of taxpayers that may maintain an action under section 526a, and further specifies the type of tax that they must be liable to pay and where they must pay it.

         To further illuminate the scope and significance of section 526a, we consider its provisions in light of the statute's larger legal context -- a context encompassing the evolution of standing in California from its common law roots to its various statutory incarnations. (See, e.g., Carsten v. Psychology Examining Com. of the Bd. of Medical Quality Assurance (1980) 27 Cal.3d 793, 798-802 [considering scope of standing in light of prudential and separation of powers concerns]; see generally Jasmine Networks, Inc. v. Superior Court (2009) 180 Cal.App.4th 980, 990-993 [comparing history of standing under California and federal law].) At its core, standing concerns a specific party's interest in the outcome of a lawsuit. (See, e.g., Carsten, supra, 27 Cal.3d at p. 798; Harman v. City and County of San Francisco (1972) 7 Cal.3d 150, 159 [“The propriety of a private person's judicial challenge to legislative or executive acts depends upon the fitness of the person to raise an issue (‘standing') and the amenability of the issue raised to judicial redress (‘justiciability')”].) We therefore require a party to show that he or she is sufficiently interested as a prerequisite to deciding, on the merits, whether a party's challenge to legislative or executive action independently has merit. (See, e.g., § 1086 [standing to seek writ of mandate].) In making this threshold determination, our inquiry differs somewhat ...

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