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Tentative Ruling
Judge Thomas Anderle
Department 3 SB-Anacapa
1100 Anacapa Street P.O. Box 21107 Santa Barbara, CA 93121-1107

CIVIL LAW & MOTION

Lori Sellers vs Huguette Clark et al

Case No: 1439670
Hearing Date: Tue Apr 29, 2014 9:30

Nature of Proceedings: Demurrer

Demurrer to Complaint to Quiet Title to Real Property

 

RULING:

 

Defendants’ demurrer to the complaint is sustained without leave to amend.  The action is ordered dismissed.

 

BACKGROUND:

 

This is an action to quiet title to real property located at 1407 East Cabrillo Boulevard, Santa Barbara, California 93103.  The landmark property, known as “Bellosguardo,” has been the subject of considerable publicity in recent years, including a best-selling book in 2013 entitled Empty Mansions: the Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.  Bellosguardo was owned by Huguette Clark, a person of extraordinary wealth, who died in New York in 2011 at the age of 104.  Under the terms of Ms. Clark’s will, which was probated in New York in 2013, Bellosguardo and all of its furnishings were left to the Bellosguardo Foundation, a private non-profit foundation established for the purpose of fostering and promoting the arts.  

 

Plaintiff Lori Ann Sellers, a pro se litigant, alleges that in 1985, during a chance encounter with Ms. Clark in Santa Barbara, Ms. Clark gave Bellosguardo to her as a gift.  According to the complaint, plaintiff, Ms. Clark, and a friend of Ms. Clark’s, Madame Pierre, spoke for about an hour, during which time Ms. Clark told plaintiff that they had much in common and that plaintiff reminded her of her own mother who had passed away in 1963.  Ms. Clark allegedly took a strong liking to plaintiff and her ten-month old son, Matthew, and invited them to come live with her in New York.  When plaintiff declined the invitation, Ms. Clark told plaintiff that she still wanted to take care of her and her son.  Ms. Clark then allegedly tore a page from a book she was holding and, using a pencil belonging to plaintiff’s son, wrote on the paper the words “Cabrillo Mansion yours!” and signed her name.  Plaintiff claims that the three-word inscription means that Ms. Clark intended to convey Bellosguardo to her and that she is the rightful owner of the property.

 

The defendants in the action are the Estate of Huguette M. Clark; the administrator of Ms. Clark’s Estate, Thomas LeViness; and the attorney for the Estate, Farrell Fritz.  These defendants now demur to the complaint on the grounds that the quiet title claim is time-barred, barred by laches, and otherwise fails to state a cause of action.

 

ANALYSIS:

 

A general demurrer will be sustained if “[t]he pleading does not state facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action.”  Code Civ. Proc. §430.10, subd. (e). The objective of a general demurrer is to test the legal sufficiency of the pleading to determine whether the plaintiff has alleged facts sufficient to establish every element of the cause of action at issue.  Cantu v. Resolution Trust Corporation (1992) 4 Cal.App.4th 857, 879.  In reviewing the sufficiency of a cause of action against a general demurrer, the court assumes the truth of all facts properly pleaded by the plaintiff, but not the truth of “contentions, deductions, or conclusions of law or fact, and may disregard allegations that are contrary to the law or to facts which may be judicially noticed.”  Black v. Department of Mental Health (2000) 83 Cal.App.4th 739, 745.

 

Defendants challenge plaintiff’s quiet title action, arguing that the claim is barred by the statute of limitations.  Where a plaintiff brings an action to quiet title to real property, the underlying theory of recovery determines which limitations period applies.  Leeper v. Beltrami (1959) 53 Cal.2d 195, 214.  Here, plaintiff seeks specific performance of a written obligation to convey title to real property and such an action is governed by a four-year statute of limitations.  Code Civ. Proc. §337, subd. (1); see, Reiner v. Hermann (1947) 79 Cal.App.2d 543, 548 (action to obtain legal title to real property by enforcing written promise to give property to plaintiff is subject to four-year statute of limitations); Palmer v. Los Angeles, Ocean Park, and Santa Monica Railway Company (1921) 55 Cal.App. 519, 522 (plaintiff in action to enforce written agreement has four years in which to bring the claim otherwise the claim is barred).  In an action for specific performance, the four-year statutory period begins to run on the date performance of the agreement was allegedly due.  Palmer, at 522.

 

The Court will sustain the demurrer based on the statute of limitations.  Plaintiff alleges that Ms. Clark conveyed Bellosguardo to her by way of a “gift” in 1985.  (Compl., p. 2:15-19.)  As evidence of the gift, plaintiff has attached to her complaint a torn piece of paper on which Ms. Clark allegedly wrote the words “Cabrillo Mansion yours!” and then signed her name, “Huguette Clark.”  (Compl., Attach. 1B.)  Assuming for purposes of this demurrer that plaintiff’s allegations are true, the statute of limitations on her claim for specific performance began to run in 1985 and expired in 1989, nearly 25 years before she filed her complaint.  While plaintiff asserts that she was only “22 years old . . . and naive” when she encountered Ms. Clark (Compl., p. 2:21), this does not excuse her delay in filing suit.  Nor does the fact that someone in “records” allegedly told plaintiff that the conveyance “had to be a legal form and not a page from a book.”  (Compl., p. 1:27-28.)  In order to invoke the doctrine of delayed discovery as a defense to the statute of limitations, a plaintiff must plead facts showing (1) the time and manner of discovery of the claim and (2) the inability to have made an earlier discovery despite reasonable diligence.  Saliter v. Pierce Brothers Mortuaries (1978) 81 Cal.App.3d 292, 297.  Plaintiff has not done this.  Indeed, plaintiff’s own allegations demonstrate that she has been aware for almost 30 years that Ms. Clarke gave her a handwritten note that purportedly conveyed the “Cabrillo Mansion” to her.

 

The Court also finds that plaintiff’s complaint is barred by laches.  The equitable defense of laches is intended “to promote justice by preventing surprises through the revival of claims that have been allowed to slumber until evidence has been lost, memories have faded, and witnesses have disappeared.”  Brown v. State Personnel Board (1985) 166 Cal.App.3d 1151, 1161.  When it is apparent from the face of the complaint that there has been an unreasonable delay in bringing the action, plus prejudice to the defendant as a result of the delay, the defense of laches may properly be asserted by demurrer.  Stafford v. Ballinger (1962) 199 Cal.App.2d 289, 296 (affirming order of trial court sustaining demurrer to complaint where plaintiff delayed bringing quiet title action for 17 years).  In this case, plaintiff waited almost 30 years to file her complaint.  The lack of diligence in pursing the action has resulted in actual prejudice to defendants as Ms. Clark is now deceased and can no longer explain the alleged encounter with plaintiff in 1985.  Ms. Clark died on May 24, 2011, as reflected in the documents attached to the complaint.  (Comp., Attach. 1E.)  Even if Ms. Clark were still alive, her memory of the events would likely have faded over the three decades since she made the alleged “gift.”  See, Garrity v. Miller (1928) 204 Cal. 454, 458 (defense of laches held justified where the “reason [for] the original transactions ha[s] become so obscured by time as to render the ascertainment of the exact facts impossible”).

 

Plaintiff’s action fails for the additional reason that the handwritten note that is attached to the complaint fails to satisfy the statute of frauds.  Under the statute of frauds, an agreement to convey an interest in real property is invalid unless “in writing and subscribed by the party to be charged or by the party’s agent.”  Civ. Code §1624, subd. (3); see, Malerbi & Associates v. Seivert (1961) 191 Cal.App.2d 760, 763 (when it appears on the face of the complaint that the agreement sued on does not meet the requirements of the statute of frauds, the invalidity of the agreement may be asserted by demurrer).  A writing satisfies the statute of frauds “if it identifies the subject of the parties’ agreement, shows that they made a contract, and states the essential terms with reasonable certainty.”  Sterling v. Taylor (2007) 40 Cal.4th 757, 766.  The writing in this case does not come close to meeting these requirements.  The handwritten note contains no street address or other description by which the property can be identified other than “Cabrillo Mansion.”  (Comp., Attach. 1B.)  This is insufficient to satisfy the statute of frauds.  Plaintiff concedes that the true name of the property is Bellosguardo.  (Comp., Attach. 1D, p. 2.)  The note also lacks the essential terms of an agreement to convey Bellosguardo to plaintiff.  The phrase “Cabrillo Mansion yours!” is ambiguous and hardly suggests that Ms. Clark was intending to give, transfer, or otherwise convey real property worth millions of dollars to plaintiff.

 

Lastly, the handwritten note does not meet the requirements of a valid deed.  A grant of an estate in real property must be in writing and must (1) identify the grantor and the grantee, (2) reasonably describe the property, and (3) contain a granting clause.  Code Civ. Proc. §§ 1091, 1092; see, Scott v. Woodworth (1917) 34 Cal.App. 400, 409 (to be valid, a deed must contain a description of the property intended to be conveyed that allows the property to be readily located by reference to the description).  Here, the handwritten note does not identify plaintiff as the grantee (plaintiff alleges that her former name “Lori Hedding” appears in the top left corner of the document, but plaintiff’s former name does not appear in the copy of the document that was filed with the Court) nor does it reasonably describe Bellosguardo.  There is also no granting clause in the note as the phrase “Cabrillo Mansion yours!” does not manifest an intent on the part of Ms. Clark to convey title to the property.

 

Based on the foregoing, the Court will sustain defendants’ demurrer to the complaint.  The demurrer is sustained without leave to amend as the complaint discloses absolute defenses to the claim.  A demurrer is properly sustained without leave to amend where there is no “reasonable possibility that the defect can be cured by amendment.”  Blank v. Kirwan (1985) 39 Cal.3d 311, 318.  The action is ordered dismissed.

 

 
 
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