Real Estate Litigation
“Buy land, they aren’t making any more of it.” -Mark Twain
Real property, according to the law, is unique. The ownership or use of real property is essential to the running of most businesses, agriculture (the operation of a farm, the operation of an orchard, the operation of a vineyard, the operation of a winery, timber), the operation of a factory, etc. Land is used as the primary collateral to secure loans. Real property, in the form of homeownership, is often the largest asset a family may ever acquire. Real property is bought and sold. Real property is exchanged. Real property is leased. Real property is transferred upon death.
The O’Brien Watters & Davis, LLP, practice areas include both real estate and real estate litigation. Real estate litigation defies any particular categorization; in fact, the O’Brien Watters & Davis, LLP real estate litigation practice is broad and encompasses many different areas of law, including family law, elder financial abuse, fraud, estate planning, probate, contract, construction, partnership, land use planning and development, business succession planning, mergers and acquisitions, purchase and sale, mortgage and banking, environmental, including CEQA, neighbor disputes, and the like, as well as representation of real estate brokers and agents.
For example, in a divorce action (dissolution of marriage), the family court is required to characterize, value and allocate the marital property including any real property. (In Re Marriage of Cream (1993) 13 Cal.App.4th 81.) “Characterization” refers to whether the property is separate or community (California is a community property state). “Valuation” deals with determining the fair market value of the property. “Allocation” refers to which party will be awarded which property. So in a divorce action, there may be fights over all three issues. The firm has handled many high-end divorce cases, including those with multi-million dollar estates.
In the area of elder financial abuse (see California Welfare & Institutions Code §15657.5(a)), there are those who would cheat elders out of their accumulated wealth, including taking their land. They must be held accountable. So far, the attorneys from O’Brien Watters & Davis, LLP, have the leading appellate decision in the area of elder financial abuse, Bonfigli v. Strachan (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1302. In that case, the elder couple had given an option to a developer to purchase their property for $900,000. After the option expired, the developers used an expired power of attorney to apply for a lot-line adjustment with the City of Santa Rosa for a big chunk of the previously optioned parcel owned by the elders. Once that was approved, the developers signed grant deeds to their development company but never paid the elder land owners anything. The second jury trial resulted in a substantial verdict against the developers, including punitive damages and a large of award of attorneys’ fees (available to successful plaintiffs per Welfare & Institutions Code §15657.5(a)). Considerable persistence, dedication, skill and effort were necessary to win this case including turning the other side’s appraisal expert at trial.
The firm has also successfully defended real estate brokers and agents along with the sellers of real estate who have been sued for fraud.
The firm has successfully sued sellers of commercial real estate for fraud and obtained multi-million dollar jury verdicts. (See, for example, the 2014 jury trial result in the Cardoza v. Reed case venued in Sonoma County.)
The firm has also defeated claims of fraud in the sale of businesses (which owned real property) while representing the former owners/sellers of Mendocino Mineral Water Company and obtaining a recovery on their cross-complaint after a 34-day trial. (Moller-Racke v. Hill case venued in Sonoma County) We have also successfully defended an acting president against claims of fraud in the sale of a winery, in Alary v. Stimson Lane, in the Sonoma County Superior Court.
We’ve tried cases involving disputes over land ownership, lawsuits for specific performance, and grape leases and grape contracts. Deirdre Taber Kingsbury recently completed the evidentiary phase of a court trial over an alleged fraudulent transfer of a vineyard property located in Sonoma County.
Will and trust contests often determine who will end up with significant real property. The Santa Rosa attorneys of O’Brien Watters & Davis, LLP, have successfully handled many such contests including those with substantial assets at stake.
The firm has handled boundary-line disputes, fights over easements, and disputes over ownership of real estate in quiet title actions.
We’ve also handled cases involving neighbor and neighborhood disputes, including private nuisances such as a drug house. We’ve handled fights with lenders over loans secured by real estate. (One of our attorneys, Noreen Evans, while a California State Senator, authored the Homeowners Bill of Rights (SB900)). This is the first such statute in the nation providing rights to homeowners whose homes are in foreclosure.
Our real estate litigation practice is very fortunate to be able to have access to a number of attorneys who are recognized experts in real estate law. For example, John R. O’Brien is a 46-year veteran real estate lawyer. Noreen M. Evans, a former City of Santa Rosa Planning Commissioner, Santa Rosa City Councilwoman, State Assemblywoman and State Senator, who has worked as a local elected official, authored legislation amending CEQA as well as represented clients in CEQA cases and appeals, is an expert in CEQA. David J. Leonard is also very active in the real estate practice area.
The firm has been involved in zoning, zoning appeals, and entitlement such as permits. We’ve handled disputes dealing with tentative maps, final maps, minor and major subdivisions. We’ve represented real estate developers in disputes with partners over ownership interests in the business that owns and/or develops real estate. We were involved in a number of cases arising out of the ill-fated Courtside Village project in West Santa Rosa.
We’ve also handled partition actions, fights between co-tenants or co-owners and similar matters as well as various other kinds of cases involving real estate.
Our Santa Rosa attorneys have handled litigation in pretty much every major category of cases involving real estate disputes.
Land and disputes over land are featured prominently in numerous movies such as “Chinatown”, “There Will Be Blood,” (“I drink your milkshake”), and the current TV series, “Blood and Oil,” to name a few.
Land has been the subject of many disputes, no doubt, since man began roaming the earth. In the Book of Genesis, Chapter 13:5-13, Abraham and Lot settled their dispute by Abraham giving Lot the first choice to select the land he wanted (the first partition action?). Land and what’s on it, under it, or running through it, has been the object of war, such as the long-standing dispute between Palestine and Israel which threatens to take us into WWIII. In 1938, Austria was the first country to be annexed by Germany, at the start of WWII. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, resulting in the first Gulf War. More recently, Russia has annexed Crimea, long a part of the Ukraine, resulting in much strife.
Land has been acquired at the national level, as the result of revolution, war, or by purchase. For example, the Treaty of Paris of 1783 (following the American Revolution) established the original borders of the United States. In 1803, the United States made the Louisiana Purchase from France for the sum of $15,000,000. This is the largest acquisition of territory in U.S. history. In 1845, Texas was annexed leading to the Mexican-American War. In 1848, Mexico ceded most of the southwest and California to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In 1898, as a result of the Spanish American War, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the United States in the 1898 Treaty of Paris. In 1867, Alaska, which, in 1959, ultimately became the 49th state in the union, was purchased for $7.2 million from Russia, becoming the third largest land acquisition in U.S. history.
Thus, it is not surprising that, on a smaller scale, there are so many disputes over land by individuals, businesses or government. They often end up in the courts for resolution.
This area of practice is headed up by Michael G. Watters and Deirdre Taber Kingsbury.