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Vanderkous v. Conley

September 2, 2010


(Contra Costa County Super. Ct. No. C0602619) Trial Judge: Honorable Judith S. Craddick.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Siggins, J.


Richard Vanderkous, as trustee of the Richard Vanderkous Trust, sued Nanette Ujdur Conley seeking to quiet his title to certain real property. In its statement of decision the court found that, while Vanderkous had legal title to the property, Conley retained an equitable interest. Title was thus quieted in Vanderkous and Conley was directed to execute a quitclaim deed in his favor. But Vanderkous, in return, was directed to pay Conley the full market value of the property as compensation for her equitable interest. Following issuance of the statement of decision, Vanderkous filed a request for dismissal of the entire action with prejudice. When Conley appeared in court for a hearing to value her interest and thus set the measure of Vanderkous's payment, the court set aside the dismissal, valued Conley's interest, and entered judgment in her favor. Vanderkous later successfully moved to set the judgment aside pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 473,*fn1 and after further proceedings the trial court entered the judgment that is now before us.

Vanderkous says the court erred by proceeding after he requested that the case be dismissed with prejudice. Because his dismissal was effective, Vanderkous also says the court erred when it awarded Conley attorney fees on his motion to vacate the initial judgment under section 473. In any event, he argues that Conley was not entitled to recover compensation for her interest in the property because she never filed a cross-complaint seeking affirmative relief, and the valuation of her interest as reflected in the court's final judgment was not supported by substantial evidence.

We conclude that Vanderkous's request to dismiss the action was untimely and of no effect because it was filed after the case was submitted for decision. Though a hearing to value Conley's interest was pending when the dismissal was filed, that hearing did not have the effect of vacating submission of the action. Even in the absence of a cross-complaint, the court had the authority in the exercise of its equitable powers to compensate Conley for her interest in the property and the measure of her compensation is supported by substantial evidence. The award of attorney fees Conley incurred to oppose Vanderkous's section 473 motion was also proper. We therefore affirm.


Vanderkous and Conley lived together in a home on an eight-acre parcel of land owned by Vanderkous in Martinez. The couple split up in 1999. As part of the settlement of their affairs, Vanderkous sold Conley a portion of the property that included their home. Following a dispute over performance of the settlement, a September 2001 arbitration award directed Conley to cooperate with Vanderkous to effectuate a lot line adjustment that would result in the home, a detached garage and a setback area on a single lot to be owned by Conley with the remainder of the eight acres as a single parcel to be retained by Vanderkous. Vanderkous was also to have access and utility easements over the garage area for the benefit of his retained parcel.

The easements were executed by Conley and recorded. But the garage and surrounding property were never transferred because neither Vanderkous nor his attorney recorded either the lot line adjustment or the grant deed to Conley for the garage and setback area. Even though Conley granted easements to Vanderkous, she did so without having legal title to the garage and setback area.

Conley's home was destroyed by fire in February 2004, and she was unable to rebuild it because without the lot line adjustment she did not have a legally buildable lot. She stopped making her loan payments and lost the home in a foreclosure sale in May 2006.

Meanwhile, Vanderkous received approval to record a subdivision map covering his adjacent property in July 2005. But the title company that was to record the map refused to do so because the grants of easement by Conley created a cloud on Vanderkous's title. The garage and setback area was included in the proposed subdivision, but its ownership was unclear because the grants of easement suggested Conley had a legal interest in the property. When Vanderkous was unable to secure a quitclaim deed from Conley relinquishing any interest she may have in the garage and setback area, he filed his complaint for declaratory relief and to quiet his title.

The complaint alleged Vanderkous was unable to record his subdivision map or obtain title insurance, "because of a cloud of title arising over the erroneous description of [Conley's] property, which recites the proposed but failed lot line adjustment, in the now recorded Grant of Easement." Conley denied the allegations of the complaint, asserted affirmative defenses, and prayed for judgment in her favor and "such other and further relief as the Court may deem just and proper."

Following a three-day court trial and closing briefs from both sides, the matter was deemed submitted on March 10, 2008. On May 30, 2008, the court filed its statement of decision and ordered Conley to execute a quitclaim deed in favor of Vanderkous. The court also reformed the legal descriptions set forth in the easements to delete any implication that Conley had any ownership interest in the property, and quieted Vanderkous's title to the property against any claims by Conley.

But the court also found that Conley had obtained equitable ownership of the garage area, and ordered Vanderkous to compensate her for her quitclaim in an amount equal to the full fair market value of the garage area, to be appraised as a legally conforming lot, reduced by certain expenses Vanderkous had incurred.*fn2 If the parties could not agree on the amount Vanderkous was to pay Conley, each party was ordered to submit an appraisal for the court's final determination.

Conley submitted an appraisal that valued the garage area at $410,000. In accordance with the court's directions, the appraiser assumed the garage area "is a conforming legal lot with all necessary right of ways and easements for access and utility services, and can be improved as a single family residential property." Vanderkous submitted an appraisal that valued the property at $75,000, but also requested a continuance in order to submit a revised appraisal as of the date Conley lost the property through foreclosure rather than the date of the fire. Vanderkous also ...

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