What is a Quiet Title Action?

Underwood-Blog-Images-300x300A “quiet title” action is a lawsuit where a property owner seeks to eliminate, establish, resolve, and “quiet” any other claims on the same property by anyone else. Once complete, the lawsuit will result in a perfect title enforceable in the courts. A quiet title action is thus an effective tool to establish and settle ownership over real estate.

Quiet title judgments are particularly powerful, however, and therefore involve more stringent requirements than other lawsuits in the real estate field. At Underwood Law, our attorneys are familiar with handling the complexities of quiet title actions and are here to help navigate you through this unique lawsuit.

What does a Quiet Title Action do?

There are several types of lawsuits that involve title to property that should be distinguished from quiet title actions.

First, there are cancellation of instrument claims. These lawsuits seek to cancel an instrument, such as a deed or other writing involving property, because it was procured through fraud or because it is void for some other reason.

Second, there are claims to remove cloud on title. These, too, are different from quiet title lawsuits because actions to remove cloud are, like instrument cancellations, aimed at particular instruments or pieces of evidence. (Reiner v. Daniel (1989) 211 Cal.App.3d 682, 689.)

Quiet title lawsuits, however, target any and all other adverse interests in a particular piece of property. “A quiet title claim is appropriate to establish an interest in real property as against all existing adverse claims or clouds on title.” (Paterra v. Hansen (2021) 64 Cal.App.5th 507, 532.) This is why every quiet title action seeks to also sue unnamed defendants who are designated as any and all persons claiming an interest in the property at issue.

If the party suing is successful in their action, then their title, established by the court, is binding, even on nonparties to the suit, and “good against the world.” (Nickell v. Matlock (2012) 206 Cal.App.4th 934, 944.)

What are the special requirements for bringing a quiet title suit?

Quiet Title actions are often characterized as stringent because of their many unique requirements.

The differences between quiet title claims and other lawsuits begin at the outset of the case because quiet title complaints must be verified. When a regular complaint contains an allegation that turns out not to be true, the consequences are, relatively speaking, minimal. But a verified complaint constitutes an oath under the law that each allegation within is true except in matters pleading on information and belief. (City of Santa Cruz v. Mun. Ct. (1989) 49 Cal.3d 74, 88.) With verified complaints, plaintiffs run the risk of perjury if the allegations are false.

Once the complaint is filed, plaintiffs must then serve those “unknown” persons claiming an interest in the property through publication. This is not easy to achieve, as the courts necessarily require litigants to show reasonable diligence to locate potential defendants. (Donel, Inc. v. Badalian (1978) 87 Cal.App.3d 327, 332.)

Should the plaintiff overcome this hurdle, they are then required to file a lis pendens, which is a special lien on the property for any judgment once the lawsuit is complete. Additionally, they must comply with extra requirements for service by publication, which involves including a proper legal description of the property. (Humphrey v. Bewley (2021) 69 Cal.App.5th 571, 578.)

Lastly, and most importantly, the plaintiff must establish evidence of their own title to entitle them to judgment rather than by default. (CCP § 764.010.) A quiet title judgment will not be binding and conclusive if any of these requirements are absent.

Can a party obtain a quiet title judgment by default?

No! There is an absolute ban on a judgment by default in a quiet title action. (Paterra, 64 Cal.App.5th at 533.)

Normally, when a plaintiff sues a defendant, they can go to court and request a default judgment if the defendant fails to respond or appear in any way. If there aren’t problems with the service of process, then this judgment is binding.

This is not the case with quiet title actions. By the unambiguous language of the Code of Civil Procedure, section 764.010, “the court shall not enter judgment by default, but shall in all cases require evidence of plaintiff’s title.”

The reason for this unusual restriction is again rooted in the power of the quiet title judgment. “Quiet title actions are exempt from a judgment by default because once a quiet title judgment on any grounds becomes final, it is good against the world as of the time of judgment.” (Nickell, 206 Cal.App.4th at 947.)

Is an “open-court” evidentiary hearing required for quiet title actions?

In all likelihood, yes. This question is still a hotly debated topic in the appellate courts. As stated above, even if no defendant makes an appearance in a quiet title suit, the plaintiff is still required to make an affirmative evidentiary showing establishing their title to the property in question. 

Yet, the forum for such an evidentiary showing was once uncertain. In an early 2000’s case, Yeung v. Soos (2004) 119 Cal.App.4th 576 held that the quiet title statute did not actually prohibit default judgments but instead merely required a higher evidentiary showing at a prove-up hearing.

Today, most appellate courts look at the decision unfavorably. After all, in a quiet title action, the plaintiff must prove her title and that this title is superior to the claims of each party asserting an adverse interest. A court’s failure to hear evidence on these points constitutes a void judgment, meaning it cannot be enforced. Litigants should thus be wary of the proper procedure when seeking to quiet title.

How can the Attorneys at Underwood Law Firm Assist You?

Quiet title actions are one of the more unique types of lawsuits related to property. And their unusual procedures speak volumes about the power of their judgments. Lawsuits are already difficult enough to navigate for the regular individual. Quiet title proceedings make clear that hiring the right attorney is often the best thing any potential litigant can do.

As each case is unique, property owners would be well-served to seek experienced counsel familiar with quiet title actions and the complexities of their procedure. At Underwood Law, our knowledgeable attorneys are here to help. If you are concerned about whether you can quiet title to your property, wondering how to achieve service by publication, or if you just have questions, please do not hesitate to contact our office.

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