August 25, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Putative Adverse Possessor’s Property Rights are Superior to Everyone Else’s Except Actual Owner

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Lensky v. DiDomenico on Thursday, June 16, 2016.

Adverse Possession—Quiet Title—Putative Adverse Possessor.

In 1998, Lensky purchased a one-acre parcel of property from the Valdezes. Title insurance could not be provided because all of the structures and improvements that Lensky had purchased from the Valdezes were “off the deed” and actually located on adjacent land rather than on the deeded property. In 2001, Lensky filed a quiet title action, claiming fee simple ownership to the approximately 23 acres adjacent to the property he had purchased from the Valdezes by adverse possession. Litigation continued for a number of years. The trial court ultimately found in favor of defendants and ordered Lensky to remove certain structures that restricted access to the subject property. It further ordered Lensky and his associates to refrain from confronting defendants as they entered or left the subject property.

On appeal, Lensky contended that the trial court erred in finding that he had no rights as a putative adverse possessor. He argued that the Court of Appeals’ prior decision affirming his lack of legal title to the subject property fully adjudicated his prior claim to the property as an adverse possessor, but that it had no prospective effect. He also argued that his continued possession of the subject property as a putative adverse possessor gives him an interest in the property (including the right to restrict access to it) that is superior to everyone else’s interest except that of the rightful owner. The Court agreed, determining that neither the trial court’s prior order nor the division’s decision upholding that order addressed the parties’ possessory rights or Lensky’s ongoing right to possess the property, and neither prohibited him from continuing to attempt to adversely possess the property.

The trial court’s order prohibiting Lensky from excluding defendants from the subject property was reversed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Insufficient Notice of Tax Lien Renders Tax Deed Voidable

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Sandstrom v. Solen on Thursday, February 25, 2016.

Validity of a Tax Deed—Void or Voidable—Redemption Rights of Tenants in Common—Summary Judgment—Duty of Diligent Inquiry.

Bradford appealed the summary judgment concluding that the Arapahoe County Treasurer (Treasurer) properly invalidated a tax deed in his favor. Bradford also appealed the grant of summary judgment quieting title to the subject property in favor of Solen and Ibbotson.

The subject parcel was assessed as a 50% undivided interest in mineral rights beneath surface property owned by Bradford. That undivided interest was conveyed as two undivided interests to Solon and his sister Ibbotson. Because of an error on the part of the assessor, the Treasurer had billed the parcel by mailing tax bills to Solon only. The taxes went unpaid for tax years 2004 through 2007. In 2005, Bradford purchased the 2004 tax lien.

On August 30, 2008, Bradford applied for a tax deed for the parcel. Before a deed is issued to a purchaser, CRS § 39-11-128(1)(a) requires the treasurer to serve a notice of the purchase of a tax lien on all persons having an interest or title of record in or to the property if “upon diligent inquiry” the residence of such persons can be determined. Here, the Treasurer sent notice to Solen of the application for tax deed but did not obtain title work for the parcel or check the county clerk and recorder’s records. On February 26, 2009, the Treasurer issued a tax deed transferring the entire undivided one-half interest in the mineral estate to Bradford.

In 2013, an oil and gas lessee of Ibbotson’s notified the Treasurer that she claimed ownership of the parcel. On August 26, 2013, the Treasurer issued and recorded a declaration of invalid treasurer’s deed that purportedly invalidated Bradford’s tax deed. In December 2013, the Treasurer filed this action seeking a declaratory judgment that the declaration of invalid treasurer’s deed was a valid document, thereby canceling title in Bradford. The Treasurer’s complaint admitted that she had failed to conduct diligent inquiry prior to issuing the tax deed. Bradford counterclaimed against the Treasurer and cross-claimed against Solen and Ibbotson for a decree quieting title in the parcel. The district court entered summary judgment in favor of the Treasurer, Solen, and Ibbotsen.

On appeal, Bradford argued the district court erred in finding that the tax deed issued to her was invalid and void. The Court of Appeals concluded that the tax deed was voidable for failure to provide Ibbotson with notice. Because the statutory requirements of CRS § 29-11-128(1) were not met, the district court properly voided the tax deed.

Bradford also argued that it was error to conclude that as tenants in common, Ibbotson and Solen were entitled to quiet title in the parcel and that because Solen received notice of the requested tax deed, he was estopped from challenging her title under the tax deed. The Court disagreed, noting that a tenancy in common is a form of ownership in which each cotenant owns a separate fractional share of undivided property. The parcel was assessed as a single parcel, and Solen and Ibbotson each owned an undivided interest in the entire parcel. The tax deed purported to convey the entire parcel, and therefore either cotenant had the right to notice and to redeem the entire parcel. It is irrelevant whether Solen is estopped because Ibbotson was willing and ready to redeem if she had received notice.

Bradford also contested Solen’s standing, but the Court found that Solen had standing.

The Court affirmed the order.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Express or Implicit Dispute of Title Necessary to Trigger Quiet Title Act’s “Disputed Title” Requirement

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Kane County, Utah v. United States on Tuesday, December 2, 2014.

In April 2008, Kane County, Utah brought an action under the Quiet Title Act (QTA), 28 U.S.C. § 2409a, to quiet title to five roads in southern Utah. It later amended its complaint to cover 15 roads or road segments. The county asserted the rights-of-way pursuant to R.S. 2477, which reserved a right-of-way for construction of highways over public lands not reserved for public uses. R.S. 2477 was repealed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1977 (FLPMA)  but existing rights-of-way were preserved. The State of Utah intervened in the county’s action as co-plaintiff. After a 9-day bench trial, the district court issued two orders. In the first order, the district court held that it had subject matter jurisdiction under the QTA as to all 15 roads at issue. The second order made findings of fact and addressed the merits, finding that Kane County and Utah had proven R.S. 2477 rights-of-way on 12 of the 15 roads and setting proper widths for the rights-of-way. Both orders were challenged on appeal.

Kane County and Utah argued that the district court erred by finding that Public Water Reserve (PWR) 107 reserved two parcels of land from the operation of R.S. 2477. They also challenged the district court’s requirement of proof by clear and convincing evidence of the R.S. 2477 rights-of-way. The United States also appealed, claiming that the district court lacked jurisdiction over the county’s claims regarding several roads because of the absence of a disputed title to real property. The United States also contended the district court erred in setting widths for the rights-of-way on three of the roads.

The Tenth Circuit first examined the subject matter jurisdiction claims of the United States and amici. For a court to have jurisdiction over a QTA claim, the plaintiff must show that (1) the United States “claims an interest” in the property at issue, and (2) title to the property is “disputed.” The Tenth Circuit, as a matter of first impression, evaluated what requirements satisfy the QTA’s “disputed title” requirement. The Tenth Circuit rejected the Ninth Circuit’s “cloud on title” standard and instead held that, to satisfy the QTA’s “disputed title” element, the plaintiff must show that the United States has either expressly disputed title or taken action that implicitly disputes it. Actions that produce ambiguity are not enough to satisfy the disputed title element.

Turning its attention to the roads at issue, the Tenth Circuit found that the district court did not have jurisdiction over the Sand Dunes Road and the Hancock Road. These roads were omitted from a BLM map, but later the map was amended to show the roads. The district court ruled this created an ambiguity as to the legal status of the roads, but the Tenth Circuit found the ambiguity was insufficient to satisfy the QTA’s disputed title element and therefore the district court lacked jurisdiction. The Tenth Circuit also found the district court lacked jurisdiction as to the four cave roads. The district court’s treatment of the United States’ denial of allegations as sufficient to establish jurisdiction was in error.

Amici had argued the plaintiffs lacked R.S. 2477 jurisdiction over another road, the North Swag Road, because the QTA’s limitations period had expired. The Tenth Circuit found that the limitations period was not triggered because no adverse action had occurred.

The Tenth Circuit then turned its attention to the district court’s conclusion that PWR 107 had served to “reserve” two parcels of land across which Swallow Park Road runs from operation of R.S. 2477. The Tenth Circuit analyzed PWR 107, finding that it was intended to provide public access to certain water springs, and noted that it would be “nonsensical” to hold that the provision of public access to the springs expressly excluded the construction of roadways under R.S. 2477 on which the public could access the water springs. The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s determination that plaintiffs could not establish a right-of-way on the part of Swallow Park Road running through the two reserved parcels of land.

Finally, the United States argued that the district court erred by not designating right-of-way widths on three roadways on the uses established in 1977, and by improperly allowing room for improvements on the roadways. The Tenth Circuit agreed on both points. The district court was required to inquire as to the reasonable and necessary uses of the road, and expansions are only allowable when reasonable and necessary in light of pre-1977 uses of the roadways. Similarly, the district court exceeded its authority by allowing room for improvements. The Tenth Circuit likened this to putting the cart before the horse, finding instead that if the roadways needed improvements the land management agency must be consulted and allowed an opportunity to determine if the improvements are reasonable and necessary.

The judgment of the district court was affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Abuse of Discretion for Trial Court to Deny Correction of Minor Error

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Reisbeck, LLC v. Levis on Thursday, December 4, 2014.

Quiet Title—CRCP 60(a).

Plaintiffs Reisbeck, LLCand Robert Jersin are the record owners of real property in Adams County (property). Reisbeck owns an undivided 85% interest and Jersin owns an undivided 15% interest in the property.

In 1947, defendant Arthur Levis obtained a right-of-way across the property for a “rail spur.” However, no rail spur was ever constructed on the property. To clear the record encumbrance, Reisbeck’s counsel commenced an action under CRCP 105 to quiet title to the property in Reisbeck and Jersin against any claims of Levis and all unknown persons claiming any interest in the property. Jersin was joined as an involuntary party plaintiff.

Defendants were served by publication, and no answers or responsive pleadings were filed. Reisbeck’s counsel moved for entry of default. The judgment form submitted named “Reisbeck, LLC” as plaintiff. However, Reisbeck, LLC does not exist; its proper name is Reisbeck Subdivision, LLC. The district court granted the motion and entered default judgment in plaintiffs’ favor. Following entry of judgment, Reisbeck’s counsel discovered the name error. He filed a motion under CRCP 60(a), seeking relief and asking the court to amend the judgment and correct the name. The court denied the request.

On appeal, plaintiffs argued it was an abuse of discretion to deny the request for relief. The Court of Appeals agreed. CRCP 60(a) is a safety valve allowing the district court to correct, at any time, an honestly mistaken judgment that does not represent the understanding and expectations of the court and the parties. Here, there was nothing in the record indicating that the error by counsel was anything other than an honest mistake. The corrected judgment would represent the parties’ expectation in pursuing the quiet title action and the court’s intention in issuing the judgment. No different or additional liability would be imposed on any existing defendant and no party previously not named would need to be added. The district court’s order was reversed and the case was remanded to amend the judgment.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Oil and Gas Lessee Had Standing to Bring Claim Because of Legally Protected Property Interest in Mineral Estate Under Lease

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Maralex Resources, Inc. v. Chamberlain, Public Trustee of Garfield County on Thursday, January 2, 2014.

Lessee—Oil and Gas Lease—Prescriptive Easement—Adverse Use—Quiet Title—Standing.

Since 1996, Maralex Resources, Inc. (Maralex) has been the lessee under oil and gas leases issued by the United States. Under the leases, Maralex operates and maintains various oil and gas wells located on land owned by the federal government. To access the wells, Maralex and its predecessors in interest historically have traversed two roads located on what is now Nona Jean Powell’s property, which is adjacent to the federal land. After issues arose between Maralex and Powell regarding access to the roads on Powell’s property, Maralex filed an action seeking a declaration that it is the owner, by prescription, of access easements across Powell’s property. Maralex also sought a decree quieting title for its continued use of the easements. The trial court concluded that Maralex lacked standing to assert a prescriptive easement claim. In addition, despite concluding that it lacked jurisdiction over Maralex’s claims, the court considered and resolved the merits of the suit “to promote judicial economy and to avoid multiple appeals.” The court found that Maralex’s use of the roads was permissive and not adverse, and that Maralex did not establish the existence of the asserted prescriptive easements.

On appeal, Maralex contended that the trial court erred in concluding that it lacked standing. The Court of Appeals agreed. An oil and gas lessee has a legally protected property interest in the mineral estate covered by the leases. Thus, the trial court erred in finding Maralex did not have standing to maintain its prescriptive easement claim.

Maralex also argued that the trial court erred in finding that Maralex did not establish a prescriptive easement across Powell’s property. The parties did not dispute that Maralex and its predecessors openly and continuously used the roads on Powell’s property for the statutory period. However, because Powell previously permitted the use, which included giving Maralex a key to the locked gate to enter the property, the use was not adverse, which is required to establish a prescriptive easement. The trial court’s finding that Maralex’s use was permissive was sufficiently supported by the record. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Statute of Limitations Tolled for Cross-Claims In Complicated Foreclosure and Quiet Title Proceeding

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas v. Samora on Thursday, May 23, 2013.

Statute of Limitations—Equitable Tolling—Attorney Fees—Fraud in the Factum—Holder in Due Course—Spurious Lien.

Defendant Veronica E. Samora appealed the trial court’s judgment in favor of Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas (Deutsche Bank). Samora also appealed the trial court’s dismissal of her claims against Saxon Mortgage, Inc. (Saxon). The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment and the case was remanded with directions.

On June 30, 1997, Samora purchased real property at 4555 W. 33rd Avenue in Denver (property), financing the purchase with a note and deed of trust. In 2003, Samora fell behind on payments on the note and foreclosure proceedings were commenced. It was disputed whether Samora was aware of the foreclosure action.

In October 2003, Samora approached Randy Gonzales, a mortgage broker, to refinance the property to lower her monthly payments. In October, Samora executed a new promissory note and deed of trust in favor of BNC Mortgage, Inc., which was then transferred to Chase Bank.

On October 21, 2003, Gonzales and Kenneth Medina, his uncle, transferred title to the property into their names by forging Samora’s signature on a quitclaim deed. Medina then obtained a loan for $32,000 from a third party, which he secured by another note and deed of trust. Medina later executed a quitclaim deed conveying the property solely to Gonzales.

Samora was unaware of the foregoing transactions. In May 2004, she sought a second refinancing of the property to obtain an even lower interest rate. Chase Bank told her the property belonged to Gonzales. When Samora confronted him, he acted surprised to learn that title to the property was in his name. On September 9, 2004, Gonzales signed and filed a quitclaim deed conveying the property back to Samora.

Samora continued to work with Gonzales and Medina on the second refinance. When Medina determined Samora was ineligible for refinancing, he sold the property to his girlfriend, Amanda Wasia, who would then lease the property back to Samora. Samora was unaware of this.

In September 2004, Gonzales completed a loan application for Wasia with Saxon. The loan application provided a false income and stated that she would be using the property as her primary residence. Wasia did not qualify for the loan. Matthew Libby, a loan officer with Saxon, suggested to Medina and Gonzales that they submit a falsified gift letter stating that Wasia was Samora’s granddaughter and that Samora was gifting the equity in her home to Wasia. Based on this, Wasia obtained a loan from Saxon for $172,000.

On September 20, 2004, Medina told Samora her loan was approved and had her come to his office to sign the documents. When she arrived, he placed a document in front of her with the top covered by his hand and told her to sign. She noticed it was titled “Warranty Deed” and that Wasia, whom she had never heard of, was on the deed. When she asked Medina about this, he stated that Wasia was a co-signer and on the deed for her protection. She signed it and it was recorded on October 4, 2004.

Also on the same day, Wasia executed a note and deed of trust in favor of Saxon for the $172,000 loan. The proceeds were used in part to pay off Samora’s existing loan on the Property. Saxon endorsed the note in blank, and the note and deed of trust were deposited in the trust res of Saxon Asset Securities Trust 2004-3 (Trust). Deutsche Bank was the indentured trustee of the Trust.

In 2005, this whole scheme fell apart. After investigation by the Denver District Attorney’s Office, Gonzales, Wasia, Medina, and Libby were indicted by a grand jury for crimes, including fraud. They all pleaded guilty and, as part of the plea agreement, each executed a quitclaim deed in favor of Samora.

No payments were made on the note during the criminal proceedings. In October 2006, Deutsche Bank commenced foreclosure proceedings. Based on the fraud committed by the parties and the complexity of the underlying transactions, the magistrate denied the requested foreclosure.

In July 2007, Deutsche Bank filed this CRCP 105 action to quiet title in the Trust. A default judgment was entered, which Samora appealed and a division of this Court reversed (Samora I). After reversal, Deutsche Bank amended its complaint to include a claim for unjust enrichment. Samora filed an amended answer on November 2, 2009, alleging for the first time counterclaims against Deutsche Bank and cross-claims against Saxon.

Saxon filed a motion to dismiss based on the two-year statute of limitations applicable to the cross-claims. On February 17, 2012, the trial court granted the motion to dismiss. A trial to the court was held on Deutsche Bank’s and Samora’s claims and counterclaims, and the court found in favor of Deutsche Bank.

On appeal, Samora argued it was error to grant Saxon’s motion to dismiss based on the statute of limitations. The Court disagreed. Samora filed its cross-claims on November 2, 2009. They sounded in tort and therefore had to be brought within two years after the cause of action accrued. Similarly, its spurious documents and lien claims had to be brought within two years of accrual. Accrual of such claims occurs on “the date both the injury and its cause are known or should have been known by the exercise of reasonable diligence.” Samora argued accrual occurred in October 2006 when Deutsche Bank started its foreclosure proceedings. The Court found that Samora was injured when she executed the deed to Wasia in September 2004, which made it possible for Wasia to execute the note and deed of trust. In December 2005, indictments were issued against Medina, Gonzales, Libby, and Wasia based on their scheme to transfer title to the property. The Court found that Samora either knew of the indictments or should have known of them based on her participation in pursuing these actions against the perpetrators.

Samora argued the doctrine of equitable tolling should have prevented the application of the statute of limitations. The Court disagreed. Equitable tolling of a statute of limitations is restricted to situations in which the defendant has wrongfully impeded the plaintiff’s ability to bring the claim or truly extraordinary circumstances prevented the plaintiff from filing the claim despite diligent efforts. The Court found neither of these circumstances was present.

Saxon was awarded reasonable attorney fees pursuant to CRS § 13-17-201, and the Court held it was entitled to reasonable attorney fees for defending this appeal. The Court remanded the case to the trial court for a determination of reasonable attorney fees.

Samora then argued it was reversible error for the trial court to find that she failed to establish fraud in the factumin the execution of the warranty deed. Fraud in the factum results in an instrument that is void and not merely voidable. The Court agreed with Samora that the trial court erred in using an objective standard of “ordinary prudence,” rather than a subjective standard based on her education, age, and other considerations to determine whether she was excusably ignorant in signing the warranty deed. However, the Court concluded that Samora failed to establish fraud in the factum because she was not fraudulently deceived about the nature of the document she signed and because she had a reasonable opportunity to obtain knowledge; therefore, she was not excusably ignorant. Samora knew the nature of the document she signed; she was deceived by Medina’s fraudulent misrepresentations about the use of the warranty deed. As a result, the deed was voidable but not void. In addition, the Court agreed with the trial court that Samora was not excusably ignorant.

As a result of the warranty deed being voidable and not void, to defeat Deutsche Bank’s claim to quiet title in the trust, Samora needed to show that Deutsche Bank as trustee was not advancing a claim by the trust as a holder in due course of the note and deed of trust. Samora argued that the interrelated Saxon companies and the trust shared such a “close connectedness” that the trust’s status as a holder in due course should be defeated. The trial court simply concluded that Deutsche Bank was a holder in due course.

Samora argued the focus should have been on the status of the trust, and the Court agreed. However, Samora introduced no evidence that Saxon and the other Saxon entities shared employees, officers, directors, or other members, or that any one entity controlled the actions of another. Absent such evidence, the Court was unwilling to decide that corporate status was enough to establish a close relationship causing the conduct of Saxon to be imputed to the Trust.

Finally, Samora contended that it was error not to find that the deed of trust was a spurious document under CRS § 38-35-201(3). A deed of trust is a lien. The Court agreed with Deutsche Bank that the deed of trust should have been examined under CRS § 38-35-201(4) as a spurious lien, not as a spurious document. Samora executed a voidable warranty deed in favor of Wasia. When Wasia executed the note and deed of trust, she was the legal owner of the property and the deed of trust was not a spurious lien. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here.