CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION
BENKE, Acting P. J.
Plaintiffs and appellants Eugene G. Plantier, as Trustee of the Plantier Family Trust (Plantier); Progressive Properties Incorporated (Progressive); and Premium Development LLC (Premium), on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated (collectively plaintiffs), appeal the judgment in favor of defendant and respondent Ramona Municipal Water District (District or RMWD). In this class action, the trial court found plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies under article XIII D of the California Constitution in connection with plaintiffs' substantive challenge to the method used by District to calculate wastewater service "fees or charges"
On appeal, plaintiffs contend the trial court erred when it found there was a mandatory exhaustion requirement in section 6 of article XIII D (hereinafter section 6).
As we explain, we independently conclude that plaintiffs' class action is not barred by their failure to exhaust the administrative remedies set forth in section 6 because plaintiffs' substantive challenge involving the method used by District to calculate its wastewater service fees or charges is outside the scope of the administrative remedies, and because, under the facts of this case, those remedies are, in any event, inadequate. Reversed.
District is a municipal water district organized under the Municipal Water District Act. (Wat. Code, § 71000 et seq.) District is governed by the RMWD legislative code. District provides, among others, water and, as relevant here, wastewater services to about 40,000 people living in Ramona, California, an unincorporated community within San Diego County. Ramona has two wastewater treatment plants, San Vicente and Santa Maria.
District uses an "Equivalent Dwelling Unit" (EDU)
Sewer rates for residential customers within District living in single-family homes and multi-family dwelling units with one or more bedrooms are assigned 1 EDU per dwelling unit. District has over 20 sewer rate classes for commercial customers; EDUs are assigned for commercial customers based on such factors as "square footage, number of washing machines [and] number of students [per school]."
District has authority to set and collect charges for sewer services. (Wat. Code, § 71670.) Revenues collected from service charges are used to pay operating and maintenance fees. (Id., § 71671.) District is required to recover sufficient revenues to cover both the operating expenses of the sewer services it provides to customers and repairs to, and depreciation of, works it owns and/or operates in connection with such services. If the board of directors (board) of District determines the "revenues . . . will be inadequate . . . to pay [its] operating expense[s] . . ., to provide for repairs and depreciation of works owned or operated by it, and to meet all of its obligations[,] the board shall provide for the levy and collection of a tax . . . sufficient to raise the amount of money determined by the board to be necessary for the purpose of paying [its] operating expenses . . ., providing for repairs and depreciation of works owned or operated by it, and meeting all of its obligations." (Id., § 72092.)
B. Plaintiffs and Their Operative Complaint
Since 1998, Plantier has owned a commercial property in Ramona. As such, he pays wastewater service fees to District.
Progressive, a California corporation, owns a 25,000 square foot office building in Ramona. Like Plantier, Progressive pays for wastewater services provided by District.
Finally, Premium, a California limited liability company, owns two properties located in Ramona. It too pays District for wastewater services.
Plaintiffs' operative complaint asserted claims on behalf of themselves and all other District customers who paid a wastewater service fee on or after November 22, 2012.
Specifically, plaintiffs in their operative class action complaint alleged that District assigned EDU's arbitrarily and without regard to a property's actual wastewater use and to the proportional cost of providing that property's wastewater service; that District's EDU-based wastewater billing system was "inconsistent with general practice among California water districts"; that all District wastewater customers were required to pay an annual sewer service fee imposed on a per-EDU basis; that at all times relevant, District's board established the dollar amount of the sewer service fee on an "ad-hoc basis, without reliance on a rate study or other technical document providing a rational basis for [the sewer service fees it] adopted"; that the sewer service charge was a property-related fee subject to section 6, subdivision (b)(3); that the then-current sewer service fee for District customers in the San Vicente sewer service area was about $605 per EDU, and about $637 per EDU for the Santa Maria sewer service area; and that the lack of "any rational relationship between the [sewer service fee] and actual wastewater use has resulted in the systematic overcharge of wastewater customers for whom the proportional cost of providing their property with wastewater service is less than their EDU-based" sewer service fee.
C. Proposition 218
California voters in November 1996 passed Proposition 218, which added articles XIII C and XIII D to the California Constitution. (Paland v. Brooktrails Tp. Community Services Dist. Bd. of Directors (2009) 179 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1365.) As noted ante, the instant case concerns article XIII D, which undertook to "constrain the imposition by local governments of `assessments, fees and charges.' (Art. XIII D, § 1.)" (Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency v. Amrhein (2007) 150 Cal.App.4th 1364, 1378.) "Article XIII D sets forth procedures, requirements and voter approval mechanisms for local government assessments, fees and charges." (Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. v. City of Roseville (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 637, 640.)
At issue in this case is section 6 (of article XIII D), which sets forth mandatory procedures an agency, such as District, must follow "in imposing or increasing any fee or charge." Among other requirements, section 6 mandates that an agency provide "written notice by mail of the proposed fee or charge to the record owner of each identified parcel upon which the fee or charge is proposed for imposition" (§ 6, subd. (a)(1)); the amount of the proposed fee or charge (ibid.); the "basis" upon which the fee or charge was "calculated" and the "reason" for the fee or charge (ibid.); "together with the date, time, and location of a public hearing on the proposed fee or charge" (ibid.).
An agency is required to conduct a public hearing on the proposed fee or charge "not less than 45 days after mailing the notice . . . to the record owners of each identified parcel" upon which the fee or charge is sought to be imposed. (§ 6, subd. (a)(2).) At the public hearing, the agency shall "consider all protests against the proposed fee or charge" and if "written protests against the fee or charge are presented by a majority of owners of the identified parcels, the agency shall not impose the fee or charge." (Ibid.)
D. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies
On District's motion, the court bifurcated the trial into two phases, as noted. In phase 1, the court considered the threshold issue of whether Proposition 218 imposed an exhaustion requirement and, if so, whether plaintiffs satisfied that requirement or were otherwise excused from doing so. After hearing witness testimony and the argument of counsel, the court granted District's motion. In so doing, the court in its statement of decision ruled in part as follows:
After finding section 4 (but not section 6) included a mandatory exhaustion requirement, the court next turned to the issue of whether "plaintiffs made the necessary effort to give the RMWD Board the opportunity to resolve the dispute short of litigation and without threatening the viability of the District by not allowing the District to take up a challenge to the EDU scheme in the context of the annual budget process. The court finds they did not.
"In order to be meaningful, the effort at exhaustion must set forth at least the outlines of the basis for the disagreement. Otherwise the exhaustion requirement is just a mechanical charade. And plaintiff[s'] purported efforts to exhaust their remedies never did this. The letters were long on summary pronouncements and bald assertions, but backup for these allegations was not provided. And the District reasonably offered to receive same."
The court next rejected plaintiffs' contention it was "futile" for them to appear and object at the 2012, 2013 and 2014 budgetary hearings because District previously had rejected their administrative claim raising the same issue that District alleged should have been raised in connection with those hearings. The court in its statement of decision on this issue stated it "believed RMWD employees [who testified] to the effect that the District Board is genuinely interested in input from ratepayers, and that a legitimate, careful and legally/factually supported challenge to the District's EDU regime in the context of the annual Prop. 218/budget hearing would have received careful consideration."
Finally, the court addressed plaintiffs' contention that they gave District "every opportunity to act
"In light of the foregoing, the court finds the District carried its burden of proof on the special defense, and the special defense was proven by a preponderance of the evidence. The District acknowledges the plaintiffs may file another action. . . . For the present, the case as pled is clearly barred by the failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Plaintiffs' effort to reach back to November 21, 2012 is clearly untenable due to their failure to exhaust. RMWD is entitled to dismissal. There is no need for phase 2 of the trial, which was scheduled to start [the following day]."
A. Guiding Principles
When an applicable statute, ordinance, or regulation provides an adequate administrative remedy, a party must exhaust it before seeking judicial relief. (Coachella Valley Mosquito & Vector Control Dist. v. California Public Employment Relations Bd. (2005) 35 Cal.4th 1072, 1080; see American Indian Model Schools v. Oakland Unified School Dist. (2014) 227 Cal.App.4th 258, 291.)
We apply a de novo or independent standard of review in determining whether the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies applies in a given case. (See Defend Our Waterfront v. State Lands Com. (2015) 240 Cal.App.4th 570, 580 (Defend our Waterfront); see also Coastside Fishing Club v. California Fish & Game Com. (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 397, 414 [noting "[w]hether the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies applies in a given case is a legal question that we review de novo"].)
The exhaustion requirement is subject to exceptions, one of which is where the administrative remedy is inadequate. (City of San Jose, supra, 49 Cal.4th at p. 609.) The statute, ordinance, regulation, or other written policy establishing an administrative remedy must provide clearly defined procedures for the submission, evaluation, and resolution of disputes. (City of Oakland v. Oakland Police & Fire Retirement System (2014) 224 Cal.App.4th 210, 236-237 (City of Oakland); Unfair Fire Tax Com. v. City of Oakland (2006) 136 Cal.App.4th 1424, 1429-1430 (Unfair Fire Tax Com.). A policy that only provides for the submission of disputes to a decision maker without stating whether the aggrieved party is entitled to an evidentiary hearing or the standard for reviewing the prior decision is generally deemed inadequate. (City of Oakland, at p. 237; Unfair Fire Tax Com., at p. 1430.) An administrative remedy that fails to satisfy these and other requirements need not be exhausted. (City of Oakland, at pp. 236-237; Unfair Fire Tax Com., at p. 1430.)
B. Section 6
To determine whether plaintiffs were required to exhaust their administrative remedies in connection with their challenge to the method used by District to determine wastewater service fees for the years from about 2012 through 2014, we turn to the language of section 6 (and not section 4). (See Sheridan v. Touchstone Television Productions, LLC (2015) 241 Cal.App.4th 508, 512 [noting a court "begin[s] with the language of the statutes" in determining whether a plaintiff was required to exhaust his or her administrative remedies before filing suit].)
As summarized ante, section 6 includes mandatory procedures an agency such as District must follow when it seeks to impose or increase any "fee or charge." A "fee or charge" is defined in section 2, subdivision (e) to mean "any levy other than an ad valorem tax, a special tax, or an assessment, imposed by an agency upon a parcel or upon a person as an incident of property ownership, including a user fee or charge for a property related service."
Subdivision (a)(1) of section 6 provides: "The parcels upon which a fee or charge is proposed for imposition shall be identified. The amount of the fee or charge proposed to be imposed upon each parcel shall be calculated. The agency shall provide written notice by mail of the proposed fee or charge to the record owner of each identified parcel upon which the fee or charge is proposed for imposition, the amount of the fee or charge proposed to be imposed upon each, the basis upon which the amount of the proposed fee or charge was calculated, the reason for the fee or charge, together with the date, time, and location of a public hearing on the proposed fee or charge."
At the heart of the instant dispute is subdivision (a)(2) of section 6. It provides: "The agency shall conduct a public hearing upon the proposed fee or charge not less than 45 days after mailing the notice of the proposed fee or charge to the record owners of each identified parcel upon which the fee or charge is proposed for imposition. At the public hearing, the agency shall consider all protests against the proposed fee or charge. If written protests against the proposed fee or charge are presented by a majority of owners of the identified parcels, the agency shall not impose the fee or charge."
Here, we independently conclude under the facts of this case that plaintiffs were not required to exhaust the administrative remedies in subdivision (a)(2) of section 6 before seeking judicial relief. (See Defend our Waterfront, supra, 240 Cal.App.4th at p. 580.)
First, it is not even clear that the present controversy falls within the purview of subdivision (a)(2) of section 6, inasmuch as the subject of the instant case involves whether District complied with one (or more) of the substantive requirements of section 6, which, as noted ante, are set forth in subdivision (b) of this section, in calculating wastewater usage based on its EDU system, as opposed to the imposition of, or increase in, any proposed "fee or charge" that is the subject of subdivision (a) of this section.
Indeed, the language of subdivision (a)(2) of section 6 supports such an interpretation, inasmuch as the primary administrative remedy set forth therein—rejection of the proposed fee or charge—requires a "majority of owners" to submit "written" (as opposed to oral) "protests" to the proposed "fee or charge." (Italics added.)
District's own notices of public hearing for the years 2012, 2013 and 2014 support this interpretation. The 2012 public hearing notice states: "Any property owner or any tenant directly responsible for the payment of water or wastewater service fees may submit a written protest to the proposed increases to the rates and fees; provided, however, only one protest will be counted per identified parcel. Any written protest must . . . state that the identified property owner or tenant is opposed to the proposed water rate and/or wastewater service fee increases" among other requirements. (Italics added.)
The notice goes on to state that, when submitting a protest, an owner or tenant must identify on the envelope that the "enclosed protest is for the Public Hearing on the Proposed Increases to Rates for Water and Wastewater Service Fees" (italics added); that District at the hearing "will hear and consider all written and oral protests to the proposed rate increases"; and that, at the conclusion of the public hearing, the District board "will consider adoption of the proposed rate and fee increases" unless a majority of "property owners or customers" submitted written protests against such increases. (Italics added.) This language is also included in the public hearing notices for 2013 and 2014.
Thus, District's own public notices support the conclusion that the administrative remedy in subdivision (a)(2) of section 6 is limited to a protest over the imposition of, or increase in, rates for water and wastewater service fees, as opposed to protests over whether District complied with the substantive requirements of subdivision (b) of this section.
Second, assuming for the sake of argument a challenge to the substantive requirements of subdivision (b) of section 6 falls within the scope of the administrative remedies set forth in subdivision (a)(2) of that section, we nonetheless conclude under the facts of this case that these administrative remedies are inadequate. (See Glendale City Employees' Ass'n v. Glendale (1975) 15 Cal.3d 328, 343 (Glendale).)
Here, the record shows that District provides wastewater services to about 40,000 people in Ramona, or to about 6,900 parcel owners. The record also shows that only four "people" (as opposed to "parcel owners") protested the sewer service fees or charges in 2012; eight people protested in 2013; and 12 people protested such fees or charges in 2014. The record further shows that, with the exception of two protests in 2014, none of these protests went to the proportionality requirement that is the subject of this lawsuit. (§ 6, subd. (b)(3).)
The record therefore shows it would have been nearly impossible during these years for plaintiffs to obtain "written protests" from a "majority" of parcel owners in order to trigger the primary administrative remedy set forth in subdivision (a)(2) of section 6—rejection of the imposed or increased fee or charge.
In contrast to the majority requirement in section 6, subdivision (a)(2), section 4—which the trial court incorrectly relied on in its statement of decision when imposing a mandatory exhaustion requirement on plaintiffs—includes a balloting procedure for any "assessment" sought to be imposed by an agency. Subdivision (c) of section 4 provides that, in addition to notice of the date, time, and location of the public hearing concerning any proposed assessment, each notice "shall also include, in a conspicuous place thereon, a summary of the procedures applicable to the completion, return, and tabulation of the ballots required pursuant to subdivision (d), including a disclosure statement that the existence of a majority protest, as defined in subdivision (e), will result in the assessment not being imposed." (Italics added.)
Subdivision (d) of section 4 further provides that the notice sent to each identified parcel "shall contain a ballot which includes the agency's address for receipt of the ballot once completed by any owner receiving the notice whereby the owner may indicate his or her name, reasonable identification of the parcel, and his or her support or opposition to the proposed assessment." (Italics added.) Subdivision (e) of this section provides in part that, at the public hearing, the "agency shall consider all protests against the proposed assessment and tabulate the ballots. The agency shall not impose an assessment if there is a majority protest. A majority protest exists if, upon the conclusion of the hearing, ballots submitted in opposition to the assessment exceed the ballots submitted in favor of the assessment. In tabulating the ballots, the ballots shall be weighted according to the proportional financial obligation of the affected property." (Italics added.)
Clearly, section 4 has procedures—including a balloting requirement—that are nonexistent in subdivision (a)(2) of section 6. For this reason, we conclude the court erred in relying on section 4 when it imposed on plaintiffs a mandatory exhaustion requirement.
What's more, the record shows that, at all times relevant, each of the named plaintiffs were "commercial business owners" in the Santa Maria sewer area. The record further shows that within this area, commercial properties account for only about 15 percent (or 257 of 1,750) of the parcels, with the remaining 85 percent primarily being residential properties (i.e., assigned an EDU of 1.5 or less).
As such, if commercial property owners "successfully argued that they were overcharged for sewer service charges, the source of the funds for any potential refunds would be higher assessments on other property owners, who are predominately property owners." Because the relief plaintiffs are seeking in the instant case will potentially require other parcel owners to pay higher fees or charges for wastewater services—what District describes as a "zero-sum game"
Without the administrative remedy that requires a "majority" of parcel owners to protest in writing to the proposed "fee or charge," a parcel owner is left solely with the right to "protest" the proposed "fee or charge." Although subdivision (a)(2) requires the agency to "consider all protests" at the public meeting, we conclude merely having an agency consider a protest—without more—is insufficient to create a mandatory exhaustion requirement. (See Glendale, supra, 15 Cal.3d at pp. 342-343 [noting a "procedure which provides merely for the submission of a grievance form, without the taking of testimony, the submission of legal briefs, or resolution by an impartial finder of fact is manifestly inadequate to handle disputes of the crucial and complex nature of the instant case" involving a memorandum of understanding adopted under the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (Stats. 1968, ch. 1390)]; see also City of Oakland, supra, 224 Cal.App.4th at pp. 236-237 [noting even if a city's charter language requiring a public hearing before a police and retirement board "`in all proceedings pertaining to retirement and to the granting of retirement allowances, pensions, and death benefits'" was broadly construed to include disputes with the city, the court would still conclude that the process articulated in the charter was insufficient to create a mandatory exhaustion requirement because the "public hearing requirement contained in [the c]harter [did] not require the [b]oard to do anything in response to the submissions or testimony received by it at the hearing" and, thus, "the procedure does not provide for the acceptance, evaluation and resolution of disputes"]; Payne v. Anaheim Memorial Medical Center, Inc. (2005) 130 Cal.App.4th 729, 741-742 [concluding the physician plaintiff's allegations "against his coworkers present[ed] complex issues — a pattern of racist conduct intended to provide his minority patients with a lesser standard of care, and to interfere with his own ability to care of them," and, thus, further concluding that, unless the court presumed such allegations were unfounded, "which [it was] not permitted to do," the court could not "agree that the procedure outlined in [the hospital's bylaws], which, as in Glendale . . ., `provides merely for the submission of the grievance form, without the taking of testimony, the submission of legal briefs, or resolution by an impartial finder of fact' [was] adequate to resolve them"]; City of Coachella v. Riverside County Airport Land Use Com. (1989) 210 Cal.App.3d 1277, 1287 [concluding the public hearing process of the airport land use commission with respect to the adoption of the commission's land use plan did not constitute an adequate administrative remedy because the "public hearings held by the [c]ommission with regard to the adoption of [that plan] did not require that the [c]ommission do anything in response to submissions or testimony received by it incident to those hearings"]; Jacobs v. State Bd. of Optometry (1978) 81 Cal.App.3d 1022, 1029, quoting Rosenfield v. Malcom (1967) 65 Cal.2d 559, 566 [noting the "mere possession by some official body, such as the board, of a `continuing supervisory or investigatory power' does not itself suffice to afford an administrative remedy" and further noting "[t]here must be `clearly defined machinery' for the submission, evaluation and resolution of complaints by aggrieved parties"]; Sunnyvale Public Safety Officers Assn. v. City of Sunnyvale (1976) 55 Cal.App.3d 732, 736 [noting the administrative procedures enacted by the city for the settlement of employee grievances and disputes involving the city and public safety officers were inadequate as such procedures neither provided for a hearing before the city council nor the "taking of testimony [n]or the submission of legal briefs"]; Martino v. Concord Community Hosp. Dist. (1965) 233 Cal.App.2d 51, 57 [rejecting hospital's contention that physician had no right to judicial relief after seeking appointment to the medical staff because he had failed to appeal to the executive committee of the hospital staff as authorized in the hospital's bylaws, after concluding the hospital's procedures were "nebulous" because they did "not set forth any procedure for the hearing or determination of the appeal and state only that it shall be `considered' "under the bylaws]; and Henry George School of Social Science v. San Diego Unified School Dist. (1960) 183 Cal.App.2d 82, 85 [rejecting a school board's claim that plaintiff had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies in connection with plaintiff's efforts to enjoin the board from enforcing rental charges in excess of those authorized by state law because "no authority has been cited, and we have found none, that applies the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedy to any case where no specific remedy is provided, permitted or authorized by statute or by rule of the administrative agency involved"].)
Like the trial court in its statement of decision, District relies extensively on Wallich's to support its contention plaintiffs were required to exhaust their administrative remedies either by objecting beforehand in writing to the proposed increase in wastewater services fees or by appearing at the public hearing(s) when this issue was taken up by District in connection with its annual budget. In Wallich's, the court ruled the plaintiff failed to exhaust its administrative remedy when it challenged various assessments imposed under the Citrus Pest District Control Law (Food & Agr. Code, § 8401 et seq.; hereinafter pest control law) by the Kern County Citrus Pest Control District in connection with its efforts to eradicate the citrus tristeza virus. (Wallich's, supra, 87 Cal.App.4th at p. 880.)
In reaching its decision, the Wallich's court noted that the pest control law provided "a specific mechanism for levying and assessing taxes for district purposes." (Wallich's, supra, 87 Cal.App.4th at p. 880.) The court further noted that, "`[g]iven the public health and safety issues inherent in the [p]est [c]ontrol [l]aw, in addition to the policy of resolving disputes expeditiously,'" a "general exhaustion rule" was warranted (id. at p. 884); and, therefore, that the appropriate procedure for challenging the assessments was for the plaintiff to first exhaust its remedy by challenging the budget before the district, which could only be adopted after a noticed hearing and which the plaintiff had failed to do. (Id. at pp. 884-885.)
We conclude Wallach's is inapposite in the instant case. First, although the plaintiff in Wallach's contended the imposition of assessments violated Proposition 218 among other constitutional provisions, as noted the Wallach court found there was a "general exhaustion" requirement under the pest control law, and, thus, unlike the trial court in the instant case, the court in Wallach's did not impose an exhaustion requirement under Proposition 218. (See Wallich's, supra, 87 Cal.App.4th at p. 884.) In fact, the trial court in Wallich's found the district in that case was exempt from article XIII D (as a result of section 5, subdivision (a), which subdivision is not at issue in the instant case). (Wallich's, at p. 882.)
Second, in contrast to section 6, which generally applies to the imposition or increase in any "fee or charge" by any agency, the pest control law is a "comprehensive legislative scheme" (see City of Oakland, supra, 224 Cal.App.4th at p. 237) providing for the formation (Food & Agr. Code, § 8451 et seq.) and organization of districts (id., § 8501 et seq.); setting forth the powers and duties of districts (id., § 8551 et seq.), including the levying and assessing of taxes for district purposes (id., § 8601 et seq.); and providing for the consolidation and, ultimately, dissolution of districts (id., §§ 8701 et seq. & 8751 et seq., respectively).
For this separate reason, we conclude Wallich's—and its requirement that a party challenging an assessment exhaust its administrative remedy under a "comprehensive legislative scheme" (i.e., the pest control law)—is distinguishable from the instant case. (See also Woodard v. Broadway Federal Sav. & Loan Asso. (1952) 111 Cal.App.2d 218, 223-225 [concluding a challenge to validity of an election must first be brought to what was then known as the "Home Loan Bank Board" (12 U.S.C. former § 1462), which promulgated under federal law "comprehensive" and "explicit" rules and regulations governing the operation of federal savings and loan associations from their inception to their dissolution].)
Third, the pest control law requires a district board, after adopting a plan to control and eradiate citrus pests within the district (Food & Agr. Code, § 8557), to "make or cause to be made an estimate of the cost of operating the plan for the next fiscal year beginning not sooner than 90 days thereafter" (id., § 8558, italics added). The pest control law expressly requires a district board to hold an annual "budget hearing" to institute that plan. (See id., §§ 8560 [budget hearing, time, and place]; 8561 [publication of notice]; 8562 [notice, duration of publication]; 8563 [contents of notice]; 8564 [protests against budget or items]; 8565 [hearing protests against budget or items]; & 8566 [adoption of the budget for the forthcoming fiscal year].)
Unlike the pest control law, section 6 does not require an agency such as District to hold an annual meeting. As such, if an agency such as District decided not to impose a new or increased fee or charge year over year, parcel owners like plaintiffs herein challenging the method used by an agency to determine such fees or charges would have no remedy, adequate or otherwise, under section 6 during such period. For this separate reason, we conclude Wallich's is inapposite in the instant case.
Fourth, in contrast to the instant case in which plaintiffs' action presented a substantive challenge to the method used by District to determine its wastewater service fees via an EDU system, in Wallich's the plaintiff merely challenged the amount it was assessed on various parcels over a three-year period. The court in Wallich's noted that, after the budget was fixed by the agency in that case, the "`computation of the assessments [was] a simple matter of division and amount[ed] to no more than the performance of a ministerial act.'" (Wallich's, supra, 87 Cal.App.4th at p. 885, quoting Irvine v. Citrus Pest Dist. (1944) 62 Cal.App.2d 378, 383.) Thus, the nature of the challenge by the plaintiff in Wallich's further distinguishes it from the instant case.
Finally, the trial court in its statement of decision found plaintiffs had in fact exhausted their administrative remedy under the RMWD legislative code as a result of plaintiffs' November 21, 2013 submission of a written administrative claim to District. Included with the administrative claim was a draft complaint, which the trial court noted was "similar to the one [they] later filed with the [c]ourt." As such, the draft complaint included a detailed explanation of plaintiffs' challenge to the EDU system. District ultimately rejected that claim.
The trial court further noted in its statement of decision that District conceded both in its reply brief in support of its bifurcation motion and at the hearing that plaintiffs' administrative claim satisfied the general exhaustion requirement under the RMWD legislative code.
In sum, we conclude under the facts of the instant case that plaintiffs were not required to exhaust the administrative remedies in subdivision (a)(2) of section 6 either by objecting in writing beforehand to the annual increase in wastewater service fees District sought to impose in 2012, 2013, and 2014 and/or by appearing at the hearings in those years to challenge publicly such increases.
The judgment in favor of District is reversed and the matter is remanded to the trial court. On remand, the trial court is directed to vacate its order finding plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies under section 6 of article XIII D and to enter a new order finding section 6 does not include a mandatory exhaustion requirement in this case. Plaintiffs to recover their costs of appeal.
O'ROURKE, J. and DATO, J., concurs.