The “validation statutes,” Code of Civil Procedure sections 860 to 870.5, are a powerful tool public agencies (and the plaintiffs that sue them) might overlook when defending challenges to legislative acts. They provide a short statute of limitations — 60 days — and allow agencies to sue for a court ruling validating an action, to which any and all challengers must answer or be forever barred from challenging it. (Code Civ. Proc., § 870, subd. (a).) Challengers may also use the validation statutes to challenge legislative acts, but only if they meet the short statute of limitations and publish summons in a newspaper of record, among other procedural requirements. (Code Civ. Proc., § 863.)
The validation statutes apply only to public agency actions the Legislature has identified as requiring them. Even so, the Legislature has identified a wide range of actions subject to validation, including bonds and other contracts for debt (Gov. Code, § 53511), annexations (Gov. Code, § 56103), assessments under the Municipal Improvement Act of 1913 (Sts. & Hy. Code, § 10601), and formation of water reclamation districts (Wat. Code, § 50440). Chartered cities might also be empowered to require the use of the validation statutes (and their short statute of limitations) in challenges to certain actions, but there is no published authority to allow — or prohibit — this. (Reid v. City of San Diego (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 343, 373–374.)
As the validation statutes bar later claims to “all matters therein adjudicated or which at that time could have been adjudicated” (Code Civ. Proc., § 870, subd. (a)), they also apply to bar challenges on theories usually governed by longer statutes of limitation. The Los Angeles Court of Appeal recently reaffirmed this principle in finding a conflict-of-interest challenge to a school district’s lease-leaseback agreement for a school construction project subject to validation because it challenged the validity of the underlying contract. (McGee v. Torrance Unified Sch. Dist. (May 29, 2020, B298122) __ Cal.App.5th __.) The plaintiff argued Code of Civil Procedure section 526a (the “taxpayer standing” or “taxpayer waste” statute) and Government Code section 1090 provided a separate basis for his suit outside the validation statutes, but the Court of Appeal disagreed. Because the plaintiff sought to invalidate the contracts, the Court concluded his claims were subject to the validation statutes’ procedural requirements and statute of limitations. As the school district had completed the challenged project while the plaintiff’s claims were pending, his claims were moot, too.
Thus, in any facial challenge to public agency actions — especially those involving long-term financial obligations and debt — the first question to answer is whether the challenge is subject to the validation statutes. If so, the next step is to determine whether the challenger met the short, 60-day statute to sue, no matter his theory for invalidating the action.