Jump to Navigation
Jump to Content

Tafti v. County of Tulare

ELR Citation: 41 ELR 20276
Nos. No. F060098, (Cal. App. 5th Dist. , 08/24/2011)

A California appellate court reversed a lower court decision denying a gasoline station owner's petition challenging the validity of $1,148,200 in civil penalties imposed against him by a county for underground gasoline storage tanks violations. The county issued an enforcement order to the owner stating that he owed $138,824 in civil penalties for the violations. The order notified the owner that he was entitled to challenge the order at an administrative hearing. The owner did so, but this resulted in a massive increase of over $1 million in the total amount of civil penalties. A lower court upheld the administrative law judge decision. But the order's notice about the availability of a hearing was unclear as to whether it would simply be an opportunity to challenge the merits of the allegations in the enforcement order or, conversely, whether the hearing would decide anew the full amount of the appropriate civil penalties, thereby subjecting the owner to the potential of increased civil penalties. Basic fairness requires that when a party is ordered by an agency to pay substantial civil penalties, but is given a right to request an administrative hearing concerning said order, the party should be informed of which type of hearing is contemplated so that he or she will be able to ascertain what is at stake and intelligently decide on whether to request the hearing. That is particularly the case where, as here, the statute authorizing the civil penalties sets forth an expansive range of financial penalties that might be imposed per violation, per day. Accordingly, under the unique circumstances shown in this case, the owner did not receive fair and adequate notice. The court, therefore, reversed the lower court's decision.