Collateral estoppel is no day at the beach (a lesson in appealing in a timely fashion)

Occasionally, a party will try to get around the finality of a decision by making a “collateral attack” on its validity in a separate proceeding. That can work if you are attacking the jurisdiction of the tribunal to issue the prior ruling, but otherwise . . . well, I haven’t seen it work. (But there may be a case out there.)

The plaintiffs in Bowman v. California Coastal Commission, case no B243015 (2d. Dist. March 18, 2014) were unusually imaginative in their attempt. Plaintiffs owned a coastal property. Their predecessor had applied for a coastal development permit to refurbish the residence on the property. After his death, his successors (plaintiffs) received notice that the permit had been approved on the condition that the owners offer to dedicate a lateral easement across the property. The owners did not appeal that decision.

Later, they applied for a second permit, this time to replace a collapsed barn on the property, but also including remodeling of the residence and some other improvements that had been approved in the first permit. They asked the County to remove the condition that was placed on the first permit. The County did so, but two commissioners and a couple of public interest groups appealed to the Coastal Commission, which reversed, meaning the condition stayed. The owners petitioned for administrative mandate.

The arguments the owners (SDS) had made to the commission concerned whether the easement was an appropriate condition to place on the first permit. They get nowhere, for the Court of Appeal points out that having failed to appeal that decision on the first permit, the decision — condition included — had become final, and the doctrine of collateral estoppel precluded the owners’ collateral attack on the condition.

Since they never completed the renovation authorized by the first permit, the owners argued they could avoid collateral estoppel by “walking away” from the first permit, giving Justice Gilbert an opportunity to deliver one of his typically witty lines (emphasis mine):

SDS argues, without citation to authority, that a permit applicant who is dissatisfied with a permit condition may simply “walk away” from the permit and apply for a new one. SDS may be able to walk away from the permit, but it cannot walk away from collateral estoppel.

The lesson here? If you are dissatisfied, appeal in a timely fashion. Don’t count on being able to attack any aspect of the decision in a later proceeding.