What Is The Statute of Limitations On a Quiet Title Action? (CCP § 338)

underwood-quiet-title-action-statute-limitations-300x300The Legislature has not established a specific statute of limitations for actions to quiet title. (Salazar v. Thomas (2015) 236 Cal.App.4th 467, 476.) Instead, the statute of limitations is based on the underlying theory of relief for the action. (Id.) For example, if the underlying theory is relief for trespass or injury to real property, then the applicable statute of limitations would be three years. (Code of Civil Procedure § 338.) 

Generally, for most legal claims, there is a time period called the statute of limitations where a plaintiff could sue under that claim. The statute of limitations provides for a certain amount of time, which varies depending on the claim, during which the party must bring forth the lawsuit. If a party sues after the statute of limitations has passed, then the legal claim is barred, and the lawsuit cannot proceed.

Statute of limitations are an essential aspect of litigation that parties must know. One point of contention for any statute of limitations is when the clock starts running for the statute of limitations. This can be difficult to figure out, especially for real property related claims. 

Statute of Limitations in Quiet Title Actions

For quiet title actions, there is no specific statute of limitations. (Walters v. Boosinger (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 421, 428.) Otherwise, no statute of limitations runs against a plaintiff seeking to quiet title while he is in possession of the property. (Ankoanda v. Walker-Smith (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 610.)

In Ankoanda, Nobantu Ankoanda bought a residence and Paula Dee Walker-Smith lived in that residence. (Id., at 612.) Later on, a grant deed was executed making Ankoanda, Walker-Smith, and another person joint tenants. (Id., at 614.) Ankoanda eventually sued Walker-Smith and the other person for quiet title. (Id.) The trial court ruled in favor of Ankoanda, and Walker-Smith appealed. (Id.) The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment. (Id.)

Walker-Smith argued that Ankoanda’s complaint was barred by the three-year statute of limitations, based on the underlying theory of fraud or mistake. (Id., at 615.)  The Court of Appeal agreed, ruling that the three-year statute of limitations applied to the situation and barred Ankoanda’s complaint. (Id.) 

Generally, no statute of limitations runs against a plaintiff seeking quiet title while the plaintiff exclusively possesses the property. In Muktarian v. Barmby (1965) 63 Cal.2d 558, William Barmby sued his son for quiet title to real property. (Id., at 559.) The trial court ruled that the quiet title action was barred by the three-year statute of limitations for relief on the grounds of fraud or mistake. (Id.) Barmby appealed, and the case made its way up to the California Supreme Court. (Id.)

Barmby and his son had purportedly executed a grant deed conveying the property to Barmby’s son. (Id.) The grant deed, however, conflicted with Barmby’s actual intentions and was erroneous. (Id.) Even after the grant deed was executed, Barmby remained in undisputed possession of the property and paid all the taxes for the property. (Id., at 560.) The Supreme Court ruled that no statute of limitations can run against a plaintiff while he possessed the property. (Id.) The Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s judgment. (Id.)

What is tricky for real property claims is when the clock for the statute of limitations begins running. This is especially true when there are multiple adverse claims against the property.

Kumar v. Ramsey: When the Clock Starts Ticking

The complexity of determining when the clock starts for the statute of limitations in quiet title actions is illustrated in Kumar v. Ramsey (2021) 71 Cal.App.5th 1110. Roy Kumar bought real property in Lake Tahoe in 2008. (Id., at 1114.) Before Kumar bought the property, multiple transactions between Jana Ney Walker and another party involving the property took place, including a land coverage transfer agreement. (Id., at 1115.) 

Before Kumar bought the property, he conducted a title search that showed him the documents on these transactions. (Id.) Kumar found a Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) tracking sheet indicating that the land coverage had been reduced to 6,959 feet, which Kumar believed was included in his purchase. (Id.)

Kumar’s attorney, Gregory Ott, wrote multiple letters to the TRPA about Kumar wanting to prevent any further coverage transfers, starting in 2009 and through 2011. (Id., at 1116.) Ott also wrote to another party and Walker’s attorney about Kumar’s position on opposing future coverage transfers. (Id.) 

The land coverage issue did not come up again until November 2013, when another party’s attorney, Robert Huckaby, wrote to the TRPA, arguing that there was untransferred coverage not properly severed from the sale, and Kumar should have been left with just 42 feet of coverage. (Id., at 1117.) In 2014, the TRPA advised Ott and Huckaby to work together to find a resolution. (Id.) The dispute over coverage rights did not come up again until 2016. (Id.)

In May 2016, Kelly Ramsey contracted with another party to buy some of another party’s land coverage. (Id., at 1118.) Kumar argued that another party’s transfer was illegal because she did not have coverage rights. (Id.) The TRPA approved the coverage transfer, which Kumar appealed. (Id.) The TRPA found that the coverage transfer to Ramsey was proper and the TRPA rejected Kumar’s appeal. (Id.) 

In November 2018, Kumar sued another party and Ramsey. (Id.) The trial court found that the statute of limitations barred Kumar’s claim. (Id., at 1119-1120.) Kumar appealed, and the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment. (Id.)

In this situation, the applicable statute of limitations was four years, which was for cancelling an instrument. (Id., at 1122.) For quiet title actions, the statute of limitations starts when the plaintiff is no longer in “undisturbed possession” of the property. (Id., at 1122-1123.) 

The trial court had ruled that Kumar’s knowledge of the coverage documents when he bought the property triggered the statute of limitations since Kumar’s possession was disputed. (Id., at 1123.) The Court of Appeal disagreed, holding that Kumar’s knowledge of the coverage rights were insufficient to trigger the statute of limitations because of the documents’ questionable legality. (Id., at 1123-1124.) 

Alternatively, the trial court held that the statute of limitations was triggered in 2009, when Kumar started sending letters about the reserved coverage. (Id., at 1124.) In Kumar’s letters, however, he wrote that he believed his title was not in legal jeopardy, and that he would challenge future attempts to transfer coverage rights. (Id.) Another party did not attempt to sell coverage rights. (Id., at 1125.) The Court of Appeal concluded it was reasonable for Kumar to believe that his possession of the property was undisturbed at this time, so the statute of limitations did not start. (Id.)

Kumar demonstrates how complex determining the statute of limitations for quiet title actions can be. The main reason for this difficulty is studying when the clock for the statute of limitations starts. To do this, the court must determine when the plaintiff’s property possession was disturbed, which can be very challenging. 

An Example

“Shawn” is looking for a new home to buy. He finds a nice home in Los Angeles that he wants to buy. Shawn runs a title search on the house, and finds out that the previous owner, “Julie”, had foreclosed on the property. Shawn decides to buy the home.

After four years, Julie contacts Shawn, claiming that she still has an interest in the home. Julie claims that she properly paid off her mortgage, and the bank tricked her into selling her home. Wanting some peace and quiet, Shawn sues Julie for quiet title.

Julie argues that Shawn’s claim is barred by the statute of limitations, since the underlying theory would be fraud or mistake, which has a three-year statute of limitations. Julie also argues the statute of limitations began when Shawn saw the title report and purchased the property.

Shawn argues that the statute of limitations never began running because his possession of the property remained undisturbed for four years until Julie contacted him. Shawn also argues that possession was not in dispute when he bought the property because he believed that Julie had foreclosed on the property.

Here, Shawn is correct. Under California case law, Shawn’s possession of the property remained undisturbed after his purchase, and it was only disturbed when Julie contacted him four years later. The clock for the statute of limitations would not have started running for a quiet title claim.

How Underwood Law Firm Can Help You

Under California law, the statute of limitations for quiet title actions is dependent on the underlying theory of relief. This means that the statute of limitations for quiet title actions can have a wide range of years. It is also vital for parties to understand exactly when the statute of limitations begins running, which can be tricky in real estate litigation. 

Here at Underwood Law Firm, our knowledgeable attorneys are here to help navigate the complex web of case law and statutes surrounding partitions. If you are trying to plan a partition order, or just have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to our office.

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