California Court of Appeal upholds return of $331 million to NMS Deposit Fund despite legislative efforts
On April 2, the California Third District Court of Appeal upheld its July 2018 ruling that the state is required to return $331 million to the National Mortgage Settlement Deposit Fund (NMS Deposit Fund), reaching the same conclusion as it did previously notwithstanding newly enacted legislation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, three groups filed a lawsuit in 2014 against California Governor Jerry Brown and the state’s director of finance and controller alleging they unlawfully diverted money from the NMS Deposit Fund to make bond payments and offset general fund expenditures. The groups sought a writ of mandate compelling the state government to pay back approximately $350 million in diverted funds. After the Superior Court denied the writ, the Third District Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that the money still belongs in the NMS Deposit Fund, and not in the state’s General Fund. The state petitioned to the State Supreme Court for review and while the petition was pending, the governor signed SB 861, which states, “It is the intent of the Legislature…to confirm that allocations and uses of funds made by the director of finance from the National Mortgage Special Deposit Fund pursuant to [section 12531] in the 2011-12, 2012-13, and 2013-14 fiscal years were consistent with legislative direction and intent and to abrogate the holding of the Court of Appeal in [this case]. The Legislature further declares that the allocations made by the director of finance pursuant to [section 12531] were made for purposes consistent with the National Mortgage Settlement.” The Supreme Court directed the Court of Appeal to vacate the July 2018 opinion and reconsider in light of SB 861.
The Court of Appeal, having considered the views of the legislature in SB 861, confirmed its original conclusion from July 2018. Specifically, the court stated that the defendants’ reading of SB 861, “would effectively defeat the purpose of creating a special deposit fund to house the money” and would disregard the former Attorney General’s instructions for use of the settlement money, which was part of the National Mortgage Settlement. The Court of Appeal noted that in SB 861, the legislature declared that “the allocations…were made consistent with the National Mortgage Settlement,” but emphasized that “such a ‘belief is not binding on a court. . . .’” and the interpretation is “an exercise of the judicial power the Constitution assigns to the courts.” Therefore, upon second review, the Court of Appeal again held that the trial court erred when it did not issue a writ of mandate ordering the diverted funds to be returned to the NMS Deposit Fund.