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Mountain View Partition Lawyers

The land for the City of Mountain View was originally granted to Francisco Estrada and his wife, Inez Castro in 1842, the city itself was originally founded in 1854 by Jacob Shumway, a store keeper and the town’s first postmaster. According to Redfin, In June 2023, Mountain View home prices were up 3.9% compared to last year, selling for a median price of $1.9M. On average, homes in Mountain View sell after 9 days on the market compared to 16 days last year. There were 52 homes sold in June this year, down from 58 last year. As a town with great historical roots, residents of Mountain View often own property with others due to inheritance, which can lead to disputes between co-owners. Frequently, there are at least four common types of partitions actions for which a Mountain View Partition Attorney can provide sound counsel:

  • Investor-Investor shared ownership of property;
  • Boyfriend-Girlfriend share ownership of property;
  • Brother-Sister shared ownership of property; and
  • Parent-child shared ownership of property
What Is a Partition Action in California?

Partitions are lawsuits that split up the property between multiple co-owners so that each can take their equity out of the home. The prototypical partition are between siblings, former romantic partners, or business partners. Both own parts of the property, but only one wants to end the relationship and take their money out. Partitions enable this to happen, usually ending with a court-ordered sale of the subject property. 

Basically, any person who is an owner of real estate can bring a partition action in California. Code of Civil Procedure section 872.710, subdivision (a), states "A partition action may be commenced and maintained by any…owner of…such property." California Civil Code section 872.210 provides a property owner with the "absolute right to partition" absent a valid waiver. Thus, a partition action can be brought by anyone who no longer wants to own jointly owned real estate, other than spousal property.

Generally, a partition action cannot be stopped absent a valid waiver. The instances in which a court has found a valid waiver have generally involved some sort of written contract or adverse possession of property. As such, many parties try to stop a partition action through mediation, or a buy-out agreement. In most instances, the parties to a partition action can benefit from creative lawyering by those who are familiar with the different options for resolving real estate disputes. The best Mountain View Partition Lawyer will be able to share information on this process with you.

What Are the Steps in a Partition Action?

Under the Partition of Real Property Act, the court instead appoints an appraiser to do the heavy lifting. The new statute states that the court “shall determine the fair market value of the property by ordering an appraisal.” (CCP § 874.316.) The court doesn’t have to be the one to order the appraisal, but this is only if all the co-owners agree to a different method of valuation. 

If, however, an appraisal occurs, it shall be conducted by a disinterested third-party real estate appraiser licensed to determine the fair market value of properties. After the appraisal is conducted, parties may file objections to the value and can even offer additional evidence of value to the court. 

After the valuation is complete, parties will be introduced to the key feature of the new statute: the buy-out option. If a co-owner requests a partition by sale, then the court will notify the other co-owners that they may buy all the interests of the cotenant that requested the partition. (CCP § 874.317.) 

This is, essentially, a right of first refusal. The co-owners who don’t want the property sold now have the option to simply buy out the requesting party. Additionally, the buy-out price will be based on the property’s valuation, determined earlier in the litigation. And if one or more parties exercise the buy-out, then the court will reapportion ownership percentages based on the price paid.  A top Mountain View Partition lawyer will be familiar with the process.

Can You Mediate a Partition Action?

A partition action can always be resolved informally at any time prior to the first day of trial, or entry of judgment. In fact, in numerous instances, just filing the partition itself leads the other party to seek a resolution between them. We always encourage the parties to talk throughout every phase of the process, as that can lead to the best outcomes for everyone.

From our perspective, every piece of litigation is just part of a larger “negotiation.” In any negotiation, the party who has the best leverage is usually able to achieve a more favorable outcome. The lawsuit provides the client with more leverage because they have more options available to them than without the prospect of a resolution from a judge. As such, all that a lawsuit does is provide one party with more leverage in the negotiation about how to resolve the dispute. For this reason, the best way to informally resolve a dispute is to combine discussions with active litigation, so that the matter can be quickly resolved without unnecessary expense. Throughout the process, our attorneys are in touch with our clients about their options and the prospects for informal resolution through mediation or negotiation. A knowledgeable Mountain View Partition Attorney will be able to give you good advice on these issues.

What Are Claims for “Contribution”?

Under the law, a property owner can make a claim for contribution for anything that they have expended for the common benefit of all the parties as it relates to their jointly-owned property. Code of Civil Procedure section 874.410 states that “the court may, in all cases, order allowance, accounting, contribution, or other compensatory adjustment among the parties according to the principles of equity.” For example, the credits can include expenditure in excess of the co-tenants fractional share for necessary repairs and improvements that enhance the value of the property. (Wallace v. Daley (1990) 220 Cal.App.3d 1028, 1035-1036.) Similarly, payments for interest, taxes, and insurance made by any co-tenant could be the subject of a reimbursement claim. (Hunter v. Schultz (1966) 240 Cal.App.2d 24.) An experienced Mountain View Partition Attorney will be intimately familiar with these matters.

A Partition Case Study: Belmonte v. Serwer (2005)

The California Code of Civil Procedure § 874.010 provides a list of what the costs of partition include, the first being reasonable attorney’s fees incurred or paid by a party for the common benefit. The following paragraphs discuss how the Court of Appeal determines whether a trial court’s award of attorney’s fees was correctly found to be “for the common benefit” of the parties in Belmonte v. Serwer (2005) 2005 WL 2008483.

In Serwer, the plaintiff Michelle Belmonte filed a complaint for partnership dissolution and other relief. Serwer answered and cross-complained requesting partition, partnership dissolution, and appointment of a receiver, as well as other relief.

In 1996, Belmonte and Serwer formed an oral partnership to purchase and manage real property. After some time, issues arose between the parties about the conduct of the partnership business, and the relations between the partners became “bitter and antagonistic”. Belmonte claimed that Serwer refused to cooperate with the efforts to rent or sell the property and repeatedly threatened to keep the property vacant and allow it to go into foreclosure.

Belmonte retained Steven Hoffman to represent her, and in July 2003, he filed the complaint for partnership dissolution. Amongst other things, the complaint sought an order appointing Belmonte as liquidating partner with authority to wind up the partnership’s affairs. In August 2003, Serwer answered and cross-complained.

The court appointed a receiver, Jason Baron, in February 2004. Baron listed and sold the property in June 2004, and the following month filed his final account with the court. He reported that partnership funds of approximately $34,000 remained after payment of most expenses. He also mentioned the parties’ long-standing dispute and noted the existence of unsatisfied demands by Belmonte’s attorney for payment of his fees.

As such, Baron requested payment of his own unpaid fees and expenses, payment of the fees requested by Belmonte’s attorney, and an order distributing the balance of the partnership funds. In July 2004, Belmonte moved the court for an order directing the receiver to pay her attorney’s fees and costs, with interest, in an amount totaling nearly $17,000. The motion was supported by Belmonte’s own declaration and by that of attorney Hoffman, who submitted detailed billing statements covering the period of June 2002 through June 2004.

In August 2004, a hearing on Belmonte’s motion was conducted. There, the court initially questioned whether the fees were incurred for the partners’ common benefit, mainly because of its understanding that counsel’s representation of Belmonte was “adversarial” to Serwer. The court also voiced concern over Server’s foreclosure threats.

The trial court instructed Baron to disburse $16,949.34 from the receivership bank account to Belmonte’s attorney, Hoffman. The court stated: “The court concluded that if Mr. Hoffman had not performed his professional services, that the partnership would have suffered a serious substantial loss per Mr. Serwer’s threat to let the property lapse into foreclosure.”

Serwer appealed. The main issue before the Court of Appeal for the Sixth District was the propriety of the court’s order for payment of Hoffman’s fees. The Court of Appeal began its analysis by noting the statutory provisions by which the trial court made its order. To qualify under these provisions, the fees must have incurred in a partition action, for the common benefit of the owners of the property sought to be partitioned. (Finney v. Gomez (2003) 111 Cal.App.4th 527, 548-549).

California Code of Civil Procedure 874.010 states that the cost of partition include (a) reasonable attorney’s fees incurred or paid by a party for the common benefit. Another section, 874.110, provides that (a) the costs of partition as apportioned by the court may be ordered paid in whole or in part prior to judgment and (b) any costs that remain unpaid shall be included and specified in the judgment.

In determining the amount of attorney fees, the Court of Appeal quoted the Supreme Court of California which had recently affirmed, “the trial court has broad authority to determine the amount of a reasonable fee.” (PLCM Group, Inc. v. Drexler (2000) 22 Cal.4th 1084, 1095.). In PLCM Group, the court also noted that the fee setting inquiry in California begins with the “lodestar”. The lodestar figure is the number of hours reasonably expended multiplied by the reasonable hourly rate. This figure may be adjusted based on consideration of factors specific to the case, such as the nature of the litigation, its difficulty, the amount involved, the skill required in its handling, the skill employed, the attention given, the success or failure, and other circumstances. (Contractors Labor Pool, Inc. v. Westway Contractors, Inc. (1997) 53 Cal.App.4th 152). The Court of Appeal concluded that the lodestar method was the correct method for calculating an award of statutory fees, unless the statute provided otherwise.

Serwer’s contention was that the trial court lacked the authority to award fees to Belmonte’s counsel since she did not file an action for partition. Further, Serwer argued that the court should have awarded his attorney fees since he did seek a partition. To the second point, the Court of Appeal found that the record did not contain any evidence that Serwer either incurred or sought attorney fees, so it considered that point forfeited.

Serwer relied on Muller v. Martin (1953) 116 Cal.App.2d 431 for his attack of the award of Belmonte’s attorney fees. In Muller, the trial court awarded the defendant’s counsel fees but denied the plaintiff’s fee claim. The Court of Appeal determined that Muller did not support Serwer’s contention because of the court’s three grounds for denying fees to the plaintiff there, only the first - the identity of the party seeking partition - bolstered the defendants claim. Additionally, in that case the court explicitly endorsed the statement that “the section provides only that counsel fees may be included in the costs of partition expended by either plaintiff or defendant for the common benefit of all the parties to the action, and that they must be paid by the parties respectively entitled to share in the land divided.” (Chavez v. Scully (1923) 62 Cal.App. 6, 7-8).

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court’s authority to order fees is not limited by a party’s status as partition plaintiff or defendant. It relied on the statute, which allows any party to recover reasonable counsel fees for services that result in the common benefit to the owners of the land that is to be partitioned.

Serwer’s next argument was that the services rendered by Belmonte’s attorney were not for the common benefit, but rather related to “purely contentious” issues. The Court of Appeal did not agree. The Court of Appeal again cited the California Supreme court who had long ago clarified that “counsel fees may be allowed under the statute for services rendered for the common benefit even in contested partition suits.” (Capuccio v. Caire (1932) 215 Cal. 518, 528-529.) The Court of Appeal noted that the trial court determined that the parties derived a common benefit from the services of Steven Hoffman and found that the trial court’s finding was supported by the record.

Lastly, Serwer argued that the trial court never made a determination of the reasonableness of Hoffman’s fees. He claimed that the trial court had to consider various factors but failed to demonstrate consideration for such factors. The Court of Appeal concluded that those contentions lacked merit. Specifically, it notes that “the trial court is not obliged to make a formal finding in the absence of a request.” (Dunk v. Ford Motor Co. (1996) 48 Cal.App.4th 1794, 1807). Serwer did not challenge any particular service by Hoffman as not “rendered for the common benefit”. Additionally, the record made it clear that the trial court properly weighed the requested fees.

The fee award was based on the hours that Hoffman expended on the case multiplied by his hourly rate, all as shown in the detailed billing records that he supplied. The Court of Appeal noted this as a straightforward lodestar calculation. The Court further noted that while the trial court may adjust the lodestar figure based on consideration of factors, it was not required to do so. Therefore, the trial court order would not be disturbed unless the appellant court was convinced that there was a clear abuse of discretion.

A trial court has authority to order statutory fees and to calculate such fees resulting in an award that is reasonable in amount. Here, the trial court was authorized even though it was the defendant seeking a partition as the party seeking a partition is not a determining factor in awarding such fees. The determining factor is whether the work performed by counsel seeking the fees served the parties’ common benefit. The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court in finding that the work was for the common benefit and affirmed the order.

How the Underwood Law Firm Can Help

A court’s determination of ownership interests in a property depends on the facts and circumstances of each particular case. Factors such as agreements and who pays for certain expenses for the property can ultimately affect the outcome of a partition case. If you are considering partition as an option, or find yourself defending one, then you may benefit from good legal advice on the topic. Please contact Underwood Law Firm, P.C., for an initial consultation.

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