SAN FRANCISCO -- A California appellate court has rejected the petition of an oyster company which alleges their due process rights were compromised in the investigation conducted by the California Coastal Commission.

The Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District ruled the inclusion of some staff members of the California Coastal Commission did not affect the due process rights of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company. This decision remained valid despite the disputed staff members, who supported the enforcement orders against the company, were also included in the litigation team. 

In its ruling, the appellate court identified the main issue brought forth by the company and responded in the negative.

“As a matter of law, does the three enforcement staff members’ participation in the litigation after they had prosecuted the company in commission enforcement proceedings violate the company’s due process rights?” wrote Justice Theresa M. Stewart. “We conclude it does not because the staff members’ participation merely helps the commission act as a party in litigation and not as a decision-maker in a quasi-judicial administrative proceeding regarding the company’s interests.”

The matter started in 2003 when the commission ordered the oyster company to cease and desist in their non-permitted development projects in a 1,060-acre mariculture facility at the Point Reyes National Seashore. In 2006, the company applied for permits in an effort to continue with some of the improvements and continue the operations. However, both parties have not yet resolved any of the concerns raised.

In 2013, the commission conducted an enforcement hearing. Some of its staff members pointed out the company’s violations of the California Coastal Act. Based on these infringements, they recommended measures to be sent to the company. These included fulfilling the permitting requirements under the Coastal Act as well as stipulating the operating conditions it would implement to ensure the protection of the coastal resources. 

The orders also called for the company to halt their ongoing development projects and to get rid of some of the items specified by the commission. The orders received unanimous approval from the enforcement staff.

In response, the company submitted a petition for writ of mandate and complaint for declaratory relief. Among the issues raised in the complaint, the company pointed out the violation of their due process rights. 

According to Drakes Bay, the commission erred in permitting its enforcement staff to be the same representatives and advisers in the litigation. They noted that this arrangement breached the advocate-witness rule. The trial court denied the allegations of the company and sided with the commission. The appellate court shared the same belief.

“We know of no due process principle that would justify such a prohibition. Once litigation has been filed, the commission and its staff share the same interest in defending its decision,” said Stewart of the panel’s decision.

"Due process does not require that we tie the hands of the commission in the litigation and prevent it from reaching out to the enforcement staff for expertise and advice in circumstances in which administrative proceedings are no longer pending and it is a party to litigation challenging its decision.”

Appeal court justices James A. Richman and Marla J. Miller concurred with the decision.

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