Protecting the County of Los Angeles in a Land Rights Lawsuit

We successfully defended the County of Los Angeles against a $20 million lawsuit brought by a Malibu landowner embroiled in a quiet title action.

In 2017, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) filed a quiet title action against all private parties who had claimed ownership of a plot of land in Malibu dating back to 1970. The multi-acre parcel sat on the ocean side of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), and the current titleholder was pursuing entitlements to build three homes on the site. Concerned that Caltrans might obtain title and take possession of the land, the titleholder sued the State and the County seeking $20 million in compensation if the property was turned over to Caltrans.

Caltrans claimed that the State had acquired the property in two transactions from private parties in the 1940s. In 1965, the County undertook an infrastructure project in the area and assessed the affected parcels. The assessments went unpaid for five years. In 1970, the County issued a Treasurer’s Deed to the individual who came forward to pay the overdue assessment (similar to a foreclosure sale). The property was thereafter sold many times until 2012, when the current title holder acquired the title.

Complicating the case further, a homeowners association (HOA) claimed it had both prescriptive and express easements over part of the property. The State had twice relocated the PCH inland due to landslide activity and the continued threat of further earth movement. To reduce the threat of landslides, the HOA had installed and maintained 29 dewatering wells that pump out 1.8 million gallons of underground water per year. Upholding the easements would limit the current owner’s ability to develop the land.

Additionally, it was unclear whether Caltrans owned all or only a portion of the parcel in question. Discovery was difficult because records of the County and the State were not locatable after more than 50 years.

To resolve the lawsuit for the County, we conducted extensive title/factual research, secured local experts and developed winning dispositive motions. Employing a motion for judgment on the pleadings, we secured the dismissal of several claims, which prompted the filing of an amended complaint to which the County could then demur. The Court sustained the County’s second demurrer, dismissing the complaint against the County without leave to amend. The Court entered a judgment of dismissal on November 9, 2021. The matter involved complicated title issues, remedies under Tax. Code §§ 3728, 3729 and 3731, applicability of governmental immunity under Govt. Code § 860.2, concepts of eminent domain and unconventional contractual theories.

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