The Second District Court of Appeal has ruled that a lower court erroneously rejected an injunction requested by a community group that is seeking to prevent construction of a new school in Los Angeles's Echo Park area.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Daniel Solis Pratt "erroneously declined to consider the potential merit of the coalition's claims," the appellate court ruled. Those claims concern the adequacy of an environmental impact report adopted by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

Pratt considered only the relative harm that the district would suffer if he were to issue an injunction halting the project against the harm the coalition would suffer if the injunction were denied. But he also needed to consider the project opponents' likely success on the lawsuit's merits, the Second District ruled. The appellate court sent the case back to Pratt for reconsideration, a move that, for a time, ensures that houses the LAUSD took by eminent domain remain standing.

In 2004, the school district selected a two-block site on North Alvarado Street, just south of Sunset Boulevard, for a new elementary school. The decision was controversial because the site contains about 50 housing units and is on a busy thoroughfare considered rather unsafe for pedestrians.

The following year, the district approved a mitigated negative declaration, which says that all project impacts can be resolved, for construction of the school. A group called Right Site Coalition, composed of the Echo Park Historical Society and neighborhood activists, sued over the mitigated negative declaration. In late 2006, Judge Pratt ruled the mitigated negative declaration inadequate.

The school district responded by preparing an EIR, which the district certified in June 2007. The coalition returned to court, arguing the document failed to consider reasonable alternatives and did not adequately address air quality, traffic, pedestrian safety, public services, land use, cultural and historic resources, housing and cumulative impacts. The coalition also sought an injunction to prevent the school district from demolishing 49 housing units on the site. The district acquired the houses after selecting the site in 2004, and the houses have now stood empty for several years.

When Pratt declined to issue the injunction, the coalition immediately turned to the appellate court, which swiftly ordered the LAUSD to maintain the status quo. The Second District then hurried its consideration of the coalition's appeal.

In its decision overturning Pratt, the appellate court cited King v. Meese, (1987) 43 Cal.3rd 1217, 1227, for this general principle when a court considers an injunction: "The likelihood of plaintiffs' ultimate success on the merits ‘does affect the showing necessary to a balancing-of-hardships analysis. That is, the more likely it is that plaintiffs will ultimately prevail, the less severe must be the harm that they allege will occur if the injunction does not issue. This is especially true when the requested injunction maintains, rather than alters, the status quo.'"

The LAUSD contended that delays would add $110,000 a week in construction, property management and security costs. This would be greater harm than the coalition would suffer if the project went forward and houses were demolished, the district argued. Pratt accepted that argument and declined to go any further. That was his mistake.

"The trial court's denial of the preliminary injunction, without any consideration of the potential merit of the coalition's claims, was clearly erroneous," Presiding Justice Joan Klein wrote for the Second District, Division Three.

The appellate court declined to address the merits of the claims. Instead, the court sent the case back to Pratt with direction to weigh "the likelihood that plaintiffs will prevail on the merits at trial, and the comparative harm to be suffered by plaintiffs if the injunction does not issue against the harm to be suffered by defendants … if it does."

The Case:
Right Site Coalition v. Los Angeles Unified School District, No. B202053, 08 C.D.O.S. 1900, 2008 DJDAR 2747. Filed January 30, 2008. Ordered published February 22, 2008.
The Lawyers:
For Right Site Coalition: Robert Silverstein, (626) 449-4200.
For LAUSD: Patrick Breen, Allen, Matkins, Leck, Gamble, Mallory & Natsis, (213) 622-5555.