A. GENERAL OVERVIEW OF QUIET TITLE ACTIONS UNDER CALIFORNIA LAW.
When two or more persons have adverse claims to the same property, any of the claimants may initiate a quiet title action. The purpose of the action is to eliminate an adverse claim and to establish, perfect or “quiet” the title of the property in one or more of the claimants as of a certain point in time.
The quiet title action may be brought to establish any kind of title or interest in real or personal property, whether legal or equitable. It may be brought to establish a leasehold interest (Kennecott Corp. v. Union Oil Co. 196 Cal. App. 3d 1179, 242 Cal. Rptr. 403 (4th Dist. 1987); German-American Sav. Bank v. Gollmer, 155 Cal. 683, 686, 102 P. 932 (1909), an equitable interest in land (Linthicum v. Butterfield, 175 Cal. App. 4th 259, 95 cal. Rptr. 3d 538 (2d Dist. 2009), or an easement or license on the land (Golden West Baseball Co. v. City of Anaheim, 25 Cal. App. 4th 11, 31 Cal. Rptr. 2d 378 (4th Dist. 1994), Dieterich Internat. Truck Sales Inc. v. J.S.& J. Services, Inc. 3 Cal. App. 4th 1601, 5 Cal. Rptr. 2d 388 (4th Dist. 1992); Twain Harte Homeowners Assn. V. Patterson, 193 Cal. App. 3d 184, 239 Cal. Rptr. 316 (5th Dist. 1987), or title by adverse possession if it can prove each of the necessary elements to perfect title (See Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 761.020 (b)).
B. BASIC LEGAL PROCEDURES FOR CALIFORNIA QUIET TITLE ACTIONS.
The fundamental procedures, parties, and pleading requirements for California quiet title actions are located in California Code of Civil Procedure Section 760.010 to 764.080. The purpose of a quiet title action is to establish title against adverse claims to real property or any interest in the property. See Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 760.020.
The remedy of quiet title can be combined with other causes of action or other remedies. Examples include declaratory relief, equitable subrogation, or title fraud. In an action or proceeding in which establishing or quieting title to property is in issue, the court may, in its discretion and on motion of any party, require that the issue be resolved pursuant to the code of civil procedure provisions relating to quiet title actions. See Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 760.030.
A quiet title action must be brought in the superior court of the county in which the real property is located. This is usually in the general, unlimited civil jurisdiction department of the local superior court. Sometimes a quiet title claim may be adjudicate in the family law court or probate law subdivision of the superior court. Once the action is before the court, the court has power to determine title issues. See Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 760.040, 760.050.
The complaint to quiet title must be verified under penalty of perjury and with personal knowledge of the information contained therein, and must contain all of the following information, pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure 761.020:
(1) A description of the property that is the subject of the action. This must include both the legal description and the street address or common designation, if any;
(2) The title of the plaintiff as to which a determination of quiet title is sought. If the complaint is based on adverse possession, the complaint must allege the specific facts constituting the elements of adverse possession;
(3) The adverse claims to plaintiff’s title; and
(4) The date as of which the determination is sought as of a date other than the date the complaint is filed, and the complaint must include a statement of the reasons why a determination as of that date is sought.
(5) A prayer for the determination of plaintiff’s title against the adverse claims.
An answer in a quiet title action must also be verified, and must describe any claim that the defendant has to the real property, as well as any facts tending to controvert the material allegations of the complaint and new matter constituting a defense. See Cal. Code of Civil Procedure section 761.030. If the answer includes a disclaimer of any claim or if the defendant allows judgment to be entered without answering, the plaintiff cannot recover costs. Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 761.030.
The plaintiff must name as defendants all persons known or unknown claiming an interest in the property. See Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 762.010, 762.020. Any person who claims an interest in the property can join in the action, whether or not named as a defendant. See Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 762.050.
Since logically you cannot personally serve persons “unknown,” and you may want to get a default entered by the clerk or the Court against any and all persons unknown, if the plaintiff is suing persons unknown, you should serve “persons unknown” by the method of publication. Where service is by publication on unnamed defendants, the plaintiff is required to post a notice on the property and to record a lis pendens. See Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 763.020.
A notice of pendency of action document (also known as Lis Pendens) is required to be recorded in the local county recorder’s office, served on all parties by certified mail return receipt, and filed in Court in any quiet title action. Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 761.010.
A judgment rendered by a court in an action to quiet title is binding and conclusive on all persons known or unknown who were parties to the litigation and who have a claim to the property. Cal Code of Civil Procedure Section 764.030. The judgment will not affect title of a person who was not a party to the action if their claim was of record or if the claim was actually known, or should reasonably have been known, to the plaintiff. See Cal. Code of Civil Procedure Section 764.045.
An action to quiet title is an equitable action; there is no right to a jury trial. See Estate of Phelps (1990, 2nd Dist) 223 Cal. Capp 3d 332, 273 Cal. Rptr 2. Quiet title is generally categorized as an equitable claim, and equitable defenses may be asserted against it.
C. THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS FOR QUIET TITLE ACTIONS:
There is no specific statute of limitations for an action to quiet title.
Although an action to quiet title is an equitable action, the court will look to the theory of relief underlying the claim to determine what state of limitations applies. See Lang v. Roche, 201 Cal. App. 4th 254, 133 Cal. Rptr. 3d 675 (2d Dist. 2011); Ankoana v. Walker-Smith (1996, 1st Dist) 44 Cal. App. 4th 610, 52 Cal. Rptr. 2d. 39; Muktarian v. Barmby, 63 Cal. 2d 558, 47 Cal. Rptr. 483, 407 P. 2d 659 (1965).
However, there are certain exceptions or caveats that are very important to note when analyzing the statute of limitations issue. When the adverse claimant asserts his or her claim sufficiently to bring it to the attention of the plaintiff ( see Crestmar Owners Ass’n v. Stapakis, 157 Cal. App. 4th 1223, 69 Cal. Rptr. 3d 231 (2d Dist. 2007) , the plaintiff must file a quiet title action within five years of the assertion of the adverse claim (Cal. C.C.P. Section 318, 319, 320, 321 (adverse possession), or within three years, depending on the nature of the adverse claims (Cal. C.C.P. Section 338- encompassing actions for injury to real property), or one year for tax sales, or for one year for tax sales (Revenue and Taxation Code Section 3725; Mayer v. L & B Real Estate, 43 Cal. 4th 1231, 78 Cal. Rptr. 3d 62, 185 P. 3d 43 (2008).
As a general rule, the period of limitations for an action to quiet title does not run while the plaintiff is in exclusive and undisputed possession of the property. Mayer v. L & B Real Estate, 43 Cal. 4th 1231, 78 Cal. Rptr. 3d 62, 185 P. 3d 43 (2008), Muktarian v. Barmby, 63 Cal. 2d 558, 47 Cal. Rptr. 483, 407 P. 2d 659 (1965), Salazar v. Thomas, 236 Cal. App. 4th 467, 477, 481, 186 Cal. Rptr. 3d 689 (5th Dist. 2015).
For plaintiffs other than a state of the United States, the statute of limitations applicable to the federal Quiet Title Act is 12 years from the date of accrual, defined as “the date the plaintiff or his predecessor in interest knew or should have known of the claim of the United States.” 28 U.S.C.A. Section 2409a(g), Kane County, Utah v. U.S., 772 F.3d 1205 (10th Cir. 2014); Kingman Reef Atoll Investments, L.L.C. v. U.S., 541 F. 3d 1189 (9th Cir. 2008).
D. TYPES OF ACTIONS FOR QUIET TITLE
The quiet title cause of action is quite versatile and applies to many different situation. Actions may be brought in a variety of other situations under specific statutory authority. An action may be commenced:
1. To re-establish ownership after a landslide, subsidence, or displacement.
See Cal. Code of Civ. Procedure Section 379, 762.020, 762.060
2. re-establish title by a person in possession in the case of destruction of public records. See Cal. Code of Civ. Procedure 751.01 to 751.28;
3. To establish the identity of a person in the chain of title. See Cal. Code of Civ. Procedure 770.010 to 770.080;
4. To clear title to a proposed dedication of property for public improvement. See Cal. Code of Civ. Procedure 771.010 to 771.020;
5. To terminate a right of entry or occupation of a lease for the production of oil and gas. See Cal. Code of Civ. Procedure 772.010 to 772.060;
6. To determine adverse interests in property arising out of any public improvement assessment. See Cal. Code of Civ. Procedure 801.1 to 801.15
7. To quiet title against the state with respect to tax-deeded property. See Revenue & Taxation Code Section 3727.
8. By a redemptioner, to quiet title against the state to tax deeded property. See Cal. Revenue & Taxation Code 4113.
9. To determine adverse claims by a purchaser of tax deeded property. See Cal. Revenue & Taxation Code 3950 to 3972.
10. By a person claiming title to property in the bed of a navigable stream under a patent of title and adjoining tide and submerged land. Public Resource Code 6461 to 6465.
11. To remove a cloud on title through the cancellation of an instrument. See Cal. Civil Code Section 3412.
12. To adjudicate a disputed title to real property in which the United States claims an interest. 28 U.S.C.A. Section 1346(f), 2409a..
E. PROVING UP A "DEFAULT " JUDGMENT IN QUIET TITLE ACTIONS
Two recent California Appellate Court cases confirm that default judgments may be prohibited in quiet title actions because C.C.P. § 764.010 requires an evidentiary hearing to establish “plaintiff’s title” and “hear evidence offered respecting the claims of any of the defendants.” Harbour Vista, LLC v. HSBC Mortgage Services, Inc. (2011) 201 Cal.App.4th 1496, [4th Dist.]; Nickell v. Matlock (2012) 206 Cal.App.4th 934, [2nd Dist.]. If the defendants have not responded to the complaint, and the clerk has entered a default against the defendants, you will probably need to have live court witness testimony at any “prove up” type of hearing, and the Court has some discretion to hear evidence presented by defendants.
Secondary Sources For Reference:
Thompson West - Cal Civil Practice- Real Property Litigation Proceedings, Actions involving Title
Miller and Starr, Real Property, Title Actions