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Category Archive: Real Estate

  1. Second District Court of Appeal Holds that Easement by Necessity Need Not Be over Previously Established Route, or the Most Accessible One

    Maria Tanzillo2017-06-05June 5, 20175:04 pmComments Off on Second District Court of Appeal Holds that Easement by Necessity Need Not Be over Previously Established Route, or the Most Accessible One
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    By M. Henry Walker

    This case involves the appeal of a trial court’s judgment granting an equitable easement over rural property in Ventura County. Plaintiff Hinrichs originally owned two large parcels which he inherited from his mother. He grew up in a home located on the southern parcel but hadn’t lived there since moving to Alaska in the 1980s. He sold the southern parcel to a third party based on the belief that he still had access to the only public road servicing the area via an historic trail which first appeared on a federal survey map in 1868 and which traversed several neighboring parcels. He was wrong in this regard; the owners of the neighboring parcels denied him access over the historic trail meaning his northern parcel was actually landlocked.

    Hinrichs sued several neighbors, claiming he had an easement which was appurtenant to the original land patent, that he had acquired a prescriptive easement, and that he was entitled to an equitable easement by necessity. The trial court rejected the first two theories but entered judgment in favor of Hinrichs on the third, creating an equitable easement by necessity. The location of the created easement, however, was not over the historical trail area previously used for ingress and egress but rather over a new indirect route which was less accessible due to the terrain. While portions of the newly created easement had existing driveways, in order for Hinrichs to use the judicially created easement he would be required to grade two new roadways to connect to the existing portions. The trial court applied the “balancing of hardships” test and determined this to be the best location because this location would only minimally interfere with the servient parcels.

    Hinrichs appealed, arguing the trial court erred in denying him an easement over the historic trail. The other parties appealed as well, claiming among other things that the trial court erred in creating a new easement where none had ever existed. The appellate court focused on the issue of whether a court can create an equitable easement by necessity where the party claiming the easement has made no prior use of the easement. On the latter issue, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s judgment, holding that “the court may grant an equitable easement without there being a preexisting use by the landowner seeking the easement.” The appellate court reasoned that despite the holdings of several cases which recognize the imposition of an easement by necessity in the case of a “long-standing encroachment,” such an encroachment is not an absolute requirement for an equitable easement. Moreover, the court found no evidence that Hinrichs was negligent in creating the landlocked parcel because he had a reasonable belief that he had a right of way over the trail.

    This case serves as a reminder that while the law recognizes a strong interest in preventing land-locked parcels, a trial court sitting in equity must balance the rights of all parties rather than focus solely on the rights of the party claiming the equitable easement. In other words, Hinrichs got his easement but can’t be heard to complain that the location was not over the best access route. Perhaps that’s why it’s called an easement by necessity rather than an easement by convenience.

    Hinrichs v. Melton (2017) 17 C.D.O.S. 4217.

  2. Broker Denied Commission Is Allowed to Proceed With Case Against Non-Signing Owners

    Maria Tanzillo2017-04-20April 20, 20178:45 pmComments Off on Broker Denied Commission Is Allowed to Proceed With Case Against Non-Signing Owners
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    Jacobs, a licensed real estate broker, signed a vacant land listing agreement granting her the exclusive right to sell a parcel of property in Marin County. The listing agreement was signed by one of the property owners, Locatelli, as trustee for the Locatelli trust. There were signature lines on the listing agreement for five additional owners, but they did not sign. However, the term “owner” was defined in the agreement as the Locatelli trust “et al.”, which means “and others”. Locatelli told Jacobs he was authorized to act on behalf of all owners.

     

    Jacobs marketed the property and found a potential buyer, The Trust For Public Land (TPL). When Jacobs informed Locatelli, he claimed that he had already been speaking with TPL for 3 years and would deal with them directly. He instructed Jacobs to cease all communications with TPL. The owners later sold the property to TPL, and refused to pay Jacobs a commission.

     

    Jacobs filed a complaint against the owners and TPL to recover the commission. The owners who had not signed the listing agreement moved to dismiss the case against them, and the trial court granted their demurrer. The court of appeal reversed the decision, thus keeping all the owners in the case.

     

    The non-signing owners argued that Jacobs’ complaint was barred by the statute of frauds, which provides that a broker’s commission agreement is invalid unless some form of it is in writing and signed by the party to be charged or the party’s agent. The court, however, found the statute inapplicable because Jacobs alleged there was a written agency agreement between Locatelli and the owners allowing him to act on their behalf, and he signed the listing agreement. In addition, Jacobs alleged that at least two of the other owners had acknowledged her as the listing broker during the marketing of the property. As such, the court of appeal held that the trial court should have allowed extrinsic evidence on these claims rather than dismissing the complaint.

     

    The owners also argued that the parol evidence rule barred introduction of extrinsic evidence to dispute the listing agreement because it was a fully integrated and thus a final agreement. The court of appeal also found this rule inapplicable, because there was no apparent contradiction between the terms of the listing agreement and Jacobs’ allegations, i.e., that all owners had retained her through their agent, Locatelli.

     

    This case was decided correctly under the facts and circumstances involved. It is nonetheless an important warning and reminder to brokers and agents to ensure that all necessary parties sign listing agreements and other transaction documents, so as to avoid unnecessary litigation and problems down the line.

     

    Jacobs v. Locatelli (Feb. 9, 2017) 17 C.D.O.S. 1232

    (2/17)

  3. Where Broker Acts as Dual Agent, Listing Agent Owes Equivalent Fiduciary Duty to Buyer

    Maria Tanzillo2017-04-208:42 pmComments Off on Where Broker Acts as Dual Agent, Listing Agent Owes Equivalent Fiduciary Duty to Buyer
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    It is settled law in California that a real estate broker representing both seller and buyer has fiduciary duties to both parties. In a recent decision, the California Supreme Court has now confirmed that, when there is such dual agency by the broker, the associate licensee acting solely as the listing agent under the broker’s license also has a fiduciary duty to the buyer.

     

    In this case, seller retained Coldwell Banker to list a luxury residence for sale. The listing agent marketed the home as having approximately 15,000 square feet, which was more than reflected in public records. Buyer was also represented by Coldwell Banker, but by a different salesperson in a separate office. As required by law, buyer had knowledge of and consented to the dual agency. The listing agent provided copies of public records and the marketing flyer, but did not advise buyer to verify the square footage. After the purchase, buyer discovered the discrepancy and sued for breach of fiduciary duty.

     

    Initially, the trial court decided that listing agent had no fiduciary duty to buyer. After the Court of Appeal reversed that decision in 2014, the California Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The court first examined the history of dual agency in California, noting many developments since the early 1980s. At issue was interpretation of the final two sentences of Civil Code section 2079.13(b), in which the term “agent” refers to the broker and contemplates a real property transaction: “The agent…bears responsibility for his or her associate licensees who perform as agents of the agent. When an associate licensee owes a duty to any prinicipal, or to any buyer or seller who is not a principal,…that duty is equivalent to the duty owed to that party by the broker for whom the associate licensee functions.”

     

    The listing agent argued that, taken in context, the “equivalent” language merely clarifies that the broker assumes duties owed by its agents, not the other way around. The court, however, agreed with buyer’s contrary position that because the agent’s authority derives solely from that of the employing broker, the second sentence imposes on the agent the same responsibility as held by the broker. This reading of the statute is supported by its full legislative history.

     

    As such, the court affirmed that listing agents, when their brokers act as dual agents, owe buyers a duty to learn and disclose all information materially affecting the value or desirability of the property being purchased. In this instance, that included a duty by the listing agent to the buyer to investigate and disclose everything he could learn about the square footage. Here, the duty to investigate arose because there was a known discrepancy regarding square footage.  This decision further clarifies and strengthens protection afforded to real estate buyers in California.

     

    Horiike v. Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage Company (Nov. 21, 2016) 16 C.D.O.S. 12228

    (12/16)

  4. Homeowners Were Not Liable, This Time, for Injury Sustained by Employee of Their Unlicensed, Uninsured Contractor

    Maria Tanzillo2015-12-09December 9, 201512:05 amComments Off on Homeowners Were Not Liable, This Time, for Injury Sustained by Employee of Their Unlicensed, Uninsured Contractor
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    Vebr v. Culp serves as a cautionary tale for any homeowner considering hiring a contractor to perform work on their home.

     

    The Culps contracted with OC Wide Painting to paint the interior of their home. The contract specified that OC Wide had workers’ compensation insurance, or would acquire it. Culp confirmed online that OC Wide had a valid license and also checked OC Wide Painting’s references. Before signing the contract, Culp reviewed the California Contractors State License Board’s detail for OC Wide which stated: “This License is exempt from workers compensation insurance; they certified that they have no employees at this time.”

     

    An hour into working in the Culps’ home, OC Wide’s employee, Plaintiff Tomas Vebr, fell from an extension ladder provided by OC Wide resulting in serious injury. The ladder was supported by two helpers employed by OC Wide. OC Wide never did acquire workers’ compensation insurance as promised in the contract and the Culps did not halt the project despite the fact that other individuals were working in their home.

     

    California Business and Professions Code § 7125.2(a)(2) provides that a contractor’s license is automatically suspended by operation of law as of the date the contractor is required to obtain workers’ compensation insurance but fails to do so. Labor Code § 2750.5 provides that a worker who performs services for which a license is required but lacks such a license is rebuttably presumed to be an employee, not an independent contractor.

     

    Vebr sought to hold the Culps liable in tort under the theory of respondeat superior as Vebr’s statutory employer in light of OC Wide’s unlicensed and uninsured status. The Culps moved for summary judgment on the grounds there were no facts to show that they were liable for Vebr’s injuries, that they breached any duty owed to Vebr, that the premises were dangerous or defective, or that the Culps’ actions were the legal or proximate cause of Vebr’s injuries. The trial court agreed and granted the motion for summary judgment. Vebr appealed, and the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, affirmed the decision of the Orange County Superior Court.

     

    Ordinarily, when an employee sustains a worksite injury, the exclusive remedy is provided by the workers’ compensation law, and the employer is immune from a lawsuit. (Lab. C. §§ 3600, 3601, 3602.) But if the employer has not secured workers’ compensation coverage, an injured employee may bring a civil suit against his employer. (Lab. C. § 3706.) If the employee establishes that he was injured in the course and scope of his employment, a rebuttable presumption is created that an uninsured employer was negligent and the employer is precluded from claiming comparative fault or assumption of risk as a defense. (Lab. C. § 3708; Huang v. L.A. Haute (2003) 106 Cal.App.4th 284, 289–291.)

     

    When an employee of a contractor is injured, and the contractor is unlicensed and uninsured at the time of injury, the injured employee’s recourse may be against not only the contractor, but also against the landowner who hired the contractor, as an additional employer. (Heiman v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (2007) 149 Cal.App.4th 724, 734.) The injured employee may have the landowner deemed a “statutory” employer and seek workers’ compensation benefits through the landowner’s general liability or homeowners’ insurance policy. In this case, the Culps were insured under a homeowners’ policy but Vebr did not qualify as a “residence employee” under that coverage. This meant that if the Culps were found liable, they would have to pay out of pocket for Vebr’s injuries.

     

    The potential scope of a homeowner’s tort liability to an injured employee of an unlicensed contractor whom the homeowner hired has not yet been resolved by the California Supreme Court. (See Cortez v. Abich (2011) 51 Cal.4th 285, 291 [“Whether unlicensed contractors or their workers may or must be deemed the homeowners’ employees under section 2750.5 … are difficult and unsettled questions.]; Ramirez v. Nelson (2008) 44 Cal.4th 908, 916 [same].

     

    The Court ruled that it did not need to decide whether the Culps were the statutory employer of Vebr because no triable issue of material fact existed regarding such liability. The court concluded: “Here, the undisputed facts show the cause of Vebr’s fall is a mystery. There is no evidence showing what had occurred or that Vebr was free from negligence himself. There is no evidence, for example, that at the time of the fall, he was holding on the ladder with two hands and did not cause the fall himself by losing his balance. On this record, there is no reasonable and logical inference that…anyone…present in the residence at the time of the accident, was negligent. Someone might have been negligent, but we do not and likely never will know whether that was the case.”

     

    Don’t count on being as lucky as the Culps. If you are considering hiring a contractor to perform work in your home, review their license and insurance status. If the license deems the contractor exempt from carrying workers’ compensation insurance because there are no employees, make sure no one other than the contractor himself performs work at the property. Otherwise, immediately halt the work and demand written proof of workers’ compensation insurance. Doing so will reduce the possibility of being deemed a statutory employer and possibly held liable for injuries sustained by workers on your property.

     

    Vebr v. Culp (2015) 14 C.D.O.S. 11845

    (12/15)

  5. Physical Division of Property Does Not Necessarily Equate to Division Under the Subdivision Map Act

    Maria Tanzillo2015-12-0912:05 amComments Off on Physical Division of Property Does Not Necessarily Equate to Division Under the Subdivision Map Act
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    Save Mount Diablo v. Contra Costa County involved the question of whether an imminent domain taking which physically splits an existing parcel into several non-adjacent pieces constitutes a subdivision of the original parcel under the Subdivision Map Act, thus allowing a would-be developer to forego the often onerous requirements of the Subdivision Map Act.

     

    The property in question consisted of a large undeveloped tract off Vasco Road in Eastern Contra Costa County. Historically, the tract had been recorded as a single parcel and used for agricultural purposes, but in the mid-1990s the Contra Costa Water District (“District”) acquired two narrow intersecting strips of land by eminent domain for an underground pipeline and to relocate Vasco Road, respectively. The District’s acquisition of the strips in fee left a remaining property consisting of four irregularly shaped parts, each physically separated from the other parts by one of the strips owned by the District.

     

    Nunn, the property owner who had purchased the property after the District’s acquisition of the strips, first attempted to subdivide the land using the parcel map process outlined in the Subdivision Map Act. After those efforts proved unsuccessful, Nunn changed course and instead sought a certificate of compliance from the County. While the County initially denied the request at the planning staff level, the matter was brought before the Planning Commission, which reversed the staff’s decision. The County Board of Supervisors eventually agreed with the Planning Commission and issued four certificates of compliance (i.e., one for each physically separated portion of the property) certifying that the four newly created parcels complied with the Subdivision Map Act.

     

    Save Mount Diablo (“SMD”) filed suit, petitioning the Court for a Writ of Mandate requiring the County to set aside the four certificates of compliance. The trial court granted SMD’s petition and the Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, affirmed. The Court first examined the purpose of, and procedures mandated under, the Subdivision Map Act’s requirements for creation of a new legal parcel. Next, the Court considered Nunn’s main argument, that the District’s physical division of the Property by acquiring the strips traversing the Property constituted a “division” under the act. While Nunn contended that the District had effectively divided the Property because the result was four non-contiguous “parcels,” the Court disagreed.

     

    While the Court agreed that the District’s acquisition of the strips physically divided the Property, such that a person would need to traverse the District’s property in order to travel from one portion of the Property to another, the physical division of the property by imminent domain did not constitute a division of the Property under the Subdivision Map Act. On this issue, the Court found that a physical division of property was not determinative, but that the key issue was whether the newly created parcels complied with the Subdivision Map Act. The Court noted that a division within the meaning of the Subdivision Map Act is not established merely because parts of a property do not touch. In reaching its holding, the Court looked a California Attorney General opinion which advanced the notion that the term “contiguous” could be used to not only denote two things which are in physical contact, but could also be used in this context describe two things which are “nearby.” The Court ultimately held that despite being separated by strips running across the Property, the portions of the Property were still contiguous and, therefore, no division had taken place.

     

    The takeaway from this case: The Court was likely influenced by equitable considerations, as evidenced by the reference to Nunn’s predecessor’s receipt of almost $1 million from the District to compensate for the taking of the two strips of land and the fact that the remaining pieces of the Property were still easily accessible.

     

    Save Mount Diablo v. Contra Costa County (Nunn) (2015) 14 C.D.O.S. 11084

    (12/15)

  6. Courts May Not Consider Prejudice to Liable Party in Granting Rescission of Purchase Contract

    Maria Tanzillo2015-12-0912:04 amComments Off on Courts May Not Consider Prejudice to Liable Party in Granting Rescission of Purchase Contract
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    After the Wongs bought a $2.35 million home, they discovered that they and 12 of their neighbors were connected to a private sewer system rather than the city of San Carlos’s public system.  The Wongs had remodeled the home, expending about $300,000.  They sued the sellers (Wong v. Stoler) for non-disclosure, seeking, among other things, rescission.  They also sued the real estate agents involved, and settled with them for $200,000.  The trial court found the sellers recklessly misrepresented that the house was connected to a public sewer system, but it declined to effectuate the rescission, which would have returned the home to sellers and refunded the purchase amount to the Wongs.  The court reasoned that doing so would place an undue burden on the sellers, who had already used the sales proceeds to purchase a new home and finance improvements, and that it would be too complicated to unwind the deal.  Instead, the court ordered the sellers to pay the Wongs for sewer maintenance and repair costs beyond the $200,000 settlement until 10 years had passed or the Wongs sold the house, whichever came first.

     

    Rescission extinguishes the contract and restores the parties to their former positions, or as near as possible to their positions before entering into the contract.  If the court agrees there are grounds for rescission, the rescinding party is entitled to recover “complete relief,” including damages and the return of benefits provided.  In real estate cases, this means the seller must refund the purchase price to the buyer in exchange for return of the property.  If the court finds the contract has not been rescinded, it may grant other relief appropriate under the circumstances.

     

    Here, the Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, reversed the San Mateo County Superior Court, finding that the contract was rescinded and the court improperly considered prejudice to the sellers. In refusing to effectuate rescission, the remedy fashioned by the trial court was not “complete.”  The trial court also improperly relied upon the hardship rescission would cause to the sellers, who had just been found liable for negligent misrepresentation, a species of fraud.  The need for rescission was effectively the fault of sellers, who as a result of their failure to disclose “must sustain the necessary inconveniences thereby entailed.”  Moreover, although untangling the sale might not be easy, there were not insurmountable obstacles to doing so.  Thus, the case was remanded to effectuate the rescission and award any other consequential damages (such as real estate commissions, escrow payments, interest on sums paid to the other party, and costs of improvements) needed to return the Wongs to the status quo. The court was also directed to determine whether the Wongs were entitled to attorney’s fees as part of their complete relief.

     

    Wong v. Stoler (2015) 14 C.D.O.S. 6633

    (12/15)

  7. Court Liens Away From Coverage in Title Insurance Case

    Maria Tanzillo2015-06-26June 26, 20151:06 amComments Off on Court Liens Away From Coverage in Title Insurance Case
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    Most real estate investors, and real property attorneys for that matter, think they know a lien when they see one. In a late December decision which was recently certified for publication (so it can now be cited as precedent in California), the California Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District reminded one and all that the determination of whether a recorded document constitutes a defect, lien or encumbrance against title may require deeper analysis.

     

    In Stockton Mortgage v. Tope, the Court reviewed the San Joaquin County trial court’s granting of First American Title Insurance Company’s summary judgment motion. First American had been sued by Stockton Mortgage under various theories for refusal to defend and indemnify Stockton Mortgage in a lawsuit brought by real estate investors. Stockton Mortgage contended that a “Notice of Abatement Action” recorded against the property by the County Environmental Health Department in 2004 pursuant to Health & Safety Code §17985 was covered by First American’s 2005 title insurance policy. The Notice at issue addressed the property’s substandard physical conditions, including 26 separate structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing violations.

     

    Alliance Title, acting as escrow for the transaction, attempted to resolve the issue, paying the County’s then current enforcement costs of $2,005. The County refused to issue a release because the underlying violations had yet to be cleared but escrow closed anyway.

     

    In one of the principal issues decided by the case, the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s granting of First American’s summary judgment on the basis that the Notice related to physical condition of the property, which related to the value of the property rather than the marketability of its title. In other words, the Notice was not a lien or encumbrance because the property could be transferred without doubt as to who owns or has an interest in it. The Court reminded that “one can hold perfect title to land that is valueless; one can have marketable title to land while the land itself is unmarketable.” The Court relied heavily on a 2002 case involving similar issues. (Elysian Inv. Group v. Stewart Title.)

     

    Importantly, the Court also followed longstanding authority which holds that no liability exists for statements issued in a Preliminary Report as it is neither an insurance contract nor a representation of the title. (Ins. Code §12340.11.)

     

    While this case did not change existing law, it is notable that the Court was able to distinguish the obligations, and perhaps the mistakes, of the escrow holder versus the title insurer.

     

    Stockton Mortgage, Inc. v. Tope (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 437

    (06/15)

  8. Damages for Wrongful Foreclosure Not Necessarily Limited to Lost Equity

    Maria Tanzillo2015-06-261:03 amComments Off on Damages for Wrongful Foreclosure Not Necessarily Limited to Lost Equity
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    The recent case of Miles v. Deutsche Bank involves the measure of damages for wrongful foreclosure. In 2005, plaintiff refinanced the loan on his home in Riverside with an adjustable rate mortgage serviced by HomeEq. Plaintiff made regular payments until the rate increased in 2007 and then sought a loan modification. In early 2008, HomeEq agreed to modify the loan terms in exchange for a lump sum payment. Both parties signed the modification agreement and plaintiff made the first payment, but HomeEq then refused to honor the agreement.

     

    Plaintiff continued for a time to make monthly payments but HomeEq kept revising the agreement terms and demanding more lump sum payments to modify the loan. When plaintiff insisted on the terms of the original agreement, HomeEq recorded a notice of default and then a notice of trustee’s sale. Plaintiff obtained a court order temporarily preventing the sale of the home in 2009, but defendants proceeded with the sale and evicted plaintiff.

     

    Plaintiff sued HomeEq and Deutsche Bank, which owned the loan. The trial court in Riverside County without explanation sustained defendants’ demurrer to causes of action for breach of contract, fraud and negligent misrepresentation. The court also granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the remaining cause of action for wrongful foreclosure, finding that plaintiff had no equity in the property and thus could not prove damages. The Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, reversed both rulings.

     

    The court first rejected the argument that plaintiff’s failure to attach a copy of the contract or plead its terms verbatim was fatal to the breach of contract claim. The correct rule is that a plaintiff may plead the legal effect of the contract rather than its precise language.

     

    On the fraud and negligent misrepresentation claims, defendants argued they could not lie where, as here, the representations pertained to future events and thus there could be no prior knowledge that assertions were untrue. The court rejected the argument, finding that such claims could be based on making promises, here to modify the loan, but having no intent to actually perform. The court also rejected the argument that the claims lacked specificity for failing to identify the specific misrepresentations and the persons who made them, finding that such information was more likely in the possession of defendants.

     

    With regard to the wrongful foreclosure claim, which requires “an illegal, fraudulent or willfully oppressive sale”, the court disagreed with the trial court’s conclusion that a plaintiff with no equity in the home cannot prove damages. Because wrongful foreclosure is a tort, the measure of damages includes “all the detriment proximately caused thereby” (see Civil Code § 3333), which in addition to lost equity the court noted might also include moving expenses, damage to credit, loss of rental income, personal injury including emotional distress, property damage and, upon a proper showing, punitive damages. The court made clear, however, that it was not suggesting any of these damages would be actually recoverable in the case, and noted that plaintiff’s damages, if any, might be entirely offset by the benefit of being free of an underwater loan.

     

    After the events giving rise to this lawsuit, the legislature enacted a statutory cause of action to recover damages for wrongful foreclosure, codified at Civil Code sections 2924.12(b) and 2923.6(c)(3), but the court took no position on whether this impacts the common law tort action.

     

    Plaintiffs’ Bar may attempt to rely on this case to seek broad damages in all real estate tort actions, but given other applicable case law, the scope of this particular ruling is arguably limited to instances where a party illegally, fraudulently or with willful oppression exercises a right to foreclose on property, evict an occupant, or both.

     

    Miles v. Deutsche Bank Nat’l Trust Co. (2015) 236 Cal.App.4th 394

    (06/15)

  9. Whether an Issue Is Arbitrable Is Determined Solely by Language in Arbitration Agreement

    Maria Tanzillo2015-06-2612:59 amComments Off on Whether an Issue Is Arbitrable Is Determined Solely by Language in Arbitration Agreement
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    The Bunker Hill v. U.S. Bank case involved a rather dry, but nonetheless important issue which may have an impact on real-world situations: when arbitration may be compelled pursuant to an arbitration agreement between two parties, and more specifically, what kinds of issues may be arbitrated.

     

    Landlord Bunker Hill owned land in Los Angeles County.  It leased the land to U.S. Bank, who owns five low-rise buildings on the parcel.  The parties are governed by a 99-year ground lease, which expires in 2077.  When the lease is terminated (either in 2077 or at some point before then), the buildings and other improvements on the property become the property of Bunker Hill.  The lease also allows U.S. Bank to sublet the property, which it did.

     

    A dispute arose between the parties over the amount of rent, which was adjusted in April of 2013.  They went to arbitration pursuant to an arbitration provision in the lease.  During the arbitration, a related issue arose: whether, upon termination of the lease, the subleases would terminate or whether Bunker Hill would take title to them.  That issue was not resolved during the arbitration, but the parties continued to correspond about it.  After a while, U.S. Bank invoked the arbitration provision again and demanded arbitration to resolve the issue.

     

    After a few months of conferring, U.S. Bank made several acknowledgements which, in its view, made arbitration on the sublease issue unnecessary.  Bunker Hill pressed its position that arbitration was necessary to eliminate uncertainty which may arise when the lease ends.  U.S. Bank responded that the issue was “purely hypothetical.”

     

    Bunker Hill filed a petition to compel arbitration with the court, stating that there was presently a dispute between the parties regarding their respective rights and obligations under the ground lease.  U.S. Bank opposed on the grounds that there was no justiciable controversy, and therefore, in essence, there was nothing to arbitrate.  The trial court agreed with U.S. Bank and denied the motion.  Bunker Hill appealed.

     

    The appellate court held that the usual requirements of justifiability and ripeness, which are required before a court can hear a case, do not necessarily apply in arbitration.  The language in the arbitration agreement or provision is what governs what can and cannot be arbitrated.  Contracting parties are free to negotiate and restrict the powers of an arbitrator and the “universe of issues that he or she may resolve,” as the powers of the arbitrator are derived from and limited by the arbitration agreement.  In this case, the provision broadly obligated the parties to arbitrate “any and all disputes, controversies or claims arising under or relating to the Ground Lease.”  As the lease did not define these terms, the court interpreted them in their “ordinary and popular sense,” and concluded that the sublease issue was plainly included, as it was an “unresolved dispute which both arises under and relates to the ground lease.”

     

    Bunker Hill Park Ltd. v. U.S. Bank, N.A. (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 1315

    (06/15)

  10. No Duty to Disclose Claim of Easement to Prospective Purchaser of Adjacent Property

    Maria Tanzillo2015-06-2612:55 amComments Off on No Duty to Disclose Claim of Easement to Prospective Purchaser of Adjacent Property
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    The Hoffman v. 162 North Wolfe case involved claimed prescriptive easements over commercial property in Sunnyvale. In March 2010, Hoffmans purchased property at 170 North Wolfe (“170”). At the time of the purchase, Hoffmans were tenants of 170 and were thus familiar with that property and the adjacent property at 162 North Wolfe (“162”). After close of escrow, the owner of the adjacent property, 162 LLC, notified Hoffmans that they claimed a landscape easement and prescriptive easement rights of ingress and egress over 170. Thereafter, 162 LLC sued Hoffmans to quiet title to the landscape easement and prescriptive easement rights.

     

    In an interesting twist, Hoffmans cross-complained against 162 LLC for fraud, alleging (among other things) that 162 LLC should have disclosed their claims or interest with respect to the disputed area and that its members had falsely told them that they had no claims. Hoffmans claimed that eight months before close of escrow they complained to Jonathon Owens, one of 162 LLC’s members, that vehicles servicing 162 were crossing over onto 170, and that Owens said he “would take care of it.” Notwithstanding this alleged conversation, the vehicles continued to cross onto 170 but the Hoffmans failed to raise the issue again.

     

    The Santa Clara County trial court granted summary adjudication of Hoffmans’ on grounds that, without a preexisting relationship, 162 LLC had no duty to affirmatively disclose anything to Hoffmans. On both causes of action, the trial court found that the Hoffmans hadn’t justifiably relied on 162 LLC’s actions or inactions. The Court of Appeal for the 6th District upheld the trial court’s ruling.

     

    On the concealment (fraudulent non-disclosure) cause of action, the Court of Appeal rejected Hoffmans’ claim that the parties’ mutual interest in purchasing 170 constituted a “preexisting relationship” sufficient to warrant a duty of disclosure. The Court found “no evidence in the record that 162 LLC or its members had any relationship with the Hoffmans.”

     

    The Court went on to find that even if 162 LLC had owed Hoffmans a duty to disclose their easement claims prior to close of escrow, the Hoffmans’ fraud claims failed because they could not establish reliance. In order to satisfy the reliance element of actionable fraud, the purported reliance must be reasonable or justified. The Court first found that Steven Hoffman’s status, sophistication and experience was relevant to the determination of reasonable reliance. Hoffman was an “experienced real estate agent who had owned several businesses and owned several pieces of real property.” The Court explained that it was unreasonable as a matter of law for someone of Hoffman’s sophistication and experience to take no action, and fail to even make any further inquiry, while observing the tenants of 162 drive over the disputed area for eight months which was a “common occurrence” as the Hoffmans admitted at deposition.

     

    On the fraud claim, while the Court appeared quite dubious of the Hoffmans’ argument that Owens’ statement that he “would take care of it” constituted an actionable promise, since it might be too vague to be enforceable even if it constituted a promise, the Hoffmans could not in any event establish reasonable reliance as a matter of law based on the analysis above.

     

    This case is perhaps most interesting for what it did not do – the Court resisted the attempt to extend disclosure rules to third parties without any preexisting relationship. Requiring the owners of neighboring properties to essentially become part of their neighbor’s real estate transaction would have had a long-reaching, and potentially devastating, impact on almost every real estate transaction in California.

     

    Hoffman v. 162 North Wolfe (2014) 228 Cal.App.4th 1178.

    (06/15)