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