A new Court of Appeal decision may affect how someone appeals a city or county issued administrative fine. In Wang v. City of Sacramento Police Department, the city of Sacramento issued $137,000 in administrative fines against the appellant, Wang, due to his tenants’ exceeding the number of permitted marijuana plants permitted by the city’s municipal code.
The citations were upheld in an administrative appeal, but the total fine amount was reduced. Wang appealed under Government Code section 53069.4, which provides for a “de novo” review in the “limited” jurisdiction of the Superior Court. De novo review means the Superior Court affords less deference to the underlying decision being appealed. Limited civil court is a jurisdictional by-product from when voters unified the former municipal courts with the Superior Court. Cases involving amounts of $25,000 or less are dealt with in limited civil court, while ones with higher amounts fall under the jurisdiction of unlimited civil court.
In defending against Wang’s appeal, the city picked up on this distinction. It made a procedural argument that since the fine amount exceeded the $25,000 jurisdictional limits of limited civil court, Wang’s appeal either had to be dismissed, or he had to file a writ to challenge the administrative ruling. The City presumably preferred the writ route since a reviewing judge must afford substantial deference to the underlying ruling being appealed – a greater amount of deference than the de novo review process would have provided.
In contrast, Wang preferred the limited civil appeal and the accompanying de novo review, so he would benefit from a lower, de novo, standard of review, perhaps improving his chances of a successful appeal.
This appeal raised a procedural and jurisdictional conflict in State law: One State law clearly allowed a de novo review of the administrative citations in limited civil court, but another State law required cases with amounts greater than $25,000 to be under the jurisdiction of the unlimited civil court, and here, the amount in controversy was well over that limit. The ruling on this conflict would determine whether only specific appeals could be heard in limited civil court, thus, limiting which cases could potentially enjoy the lower de novo review.
The Court of Appeal ruled that, despite the plain language of Government Code section 53069.4, appeals of administrative fines exceeding the $25,000 jurisdictional limit fall under the jurisdiction of the unlimited civil court. However, the Court also ruled that the de novo review standard would still apply.
This decision means that where the amount of administrative fines being appealed exceeds $25,000, it must be filed as an unlimited civil case.
“This Court of Appeal decision held that an appeal under Government Code 53069.4, where the amount in controversy exceeds $25,000 must be filed as an unlimited civil case; another statutory provision superseded that limited civil designation; however, the more deferential de novo standard that comes with a limited civil appeal such cases follows the case to unlimited civil court.” Silver & Wright LLP Partner Matthew Silver
The Court of Appeal also provided a reminder of why the administrative fine process exists and one of the purposes it serves:
“The law was intended to provide a faster and more cost-effective enforcement mechanism than criminal prosecution for the violation of a local ordinance.”
(Wang v. City of Sacramento Police Department (2021) __ Cal.Rptr.3d ___, C091011, quoting, County of Humboldt v. Appellate Division of Superior Court (2020) 46 Cal.App.5th 298, 305.)
What does this mean for municipalities?
It is essential for municipalities to understand all of the ways in which a recipient of an administrative fine can appeal. As the Court in Wang re-emphasized, there are three types of appeal available to a recipient of an administrative fine issued pursuant to an ordinance based on Government Code section 53069.4:
- A limited civil de novo appeal if fines are $25,000 or under;
- An unlimited civil de novo appeal if the fine amount exceeds $25,000; or,
- An administrative writ regardless of the amount, which is always heard as an unlimited civil case.
“Those appealing administrative fines need to watch out for potential jurisdictional defects in their appeals, whether for their own appeals or in defending against appeals. Filing in the right court with the right jurisdiction is critical to avoid procedural challenges to an appeal.”
Silver & Wright LLP Partner Matthew Silver.