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The Alberta Hale Land Trust, Inc v. Brian Bonneau et al

January 18, 2012

THE ALBERTA HALE LAND TRUST, INC., PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
BRIAN BONNEAU ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND RESPONDENTS.



(Super. Ct. No. 05-CV-3880)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nicholson , Acting P. J.

Albert Hale Land Trust v. Bonneau

CA3

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

This is a dispute over whether easements or constructive trusts should be imposed on land owned by the defendants, who were trustees of the plaintiff's predecessor. The trial court found no basis for imposing easements or constructive trusts and entered judgment in favor of the defendants. The trial court also awarded attorney fees to one of the defendants.

On appeal, we conclude that the trial court did not err in denying the plaintiff's attempts to impose easements or constructive trusts. However, we find there is no support for the attorney fees award. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment but reverse the award of attorney fees.

FACTS

The following facts are taken from the trial court's statement of decision.

Alberta Hale owned several parcels of land near Volcano where she grazed cattle. She expressed to others her desire that the area around Volcano remain in its natural state. Hale also grazed cattle on land owned by Beazer Cement Company (Beazer). Four properties later purchased from Beazer became the subject of this lawsuit: Indian Hill, Sutter Creek Ranch, South Branch, and the 125-acre parcel.

Hale grazed and watered cattle on portions of the four Beazer properties during her lifetime, but the use was more accidental than open and notorious. In 1990, however, Hale posted signs on the properties announcing to prospective buyers that she was claiming water and grazing rights on those properties. Hale's use of the properties was not open, notorious, and hostile to the owner for an uninterrupted period of five or more years.

Hale died September 14, 1992, leaving ownership of her land in the Alberta Hale trust (Trust). The Trust appointed Kevin Bonneau as trustee, and he appointed Brian Bonneau and Elsie Giannini as co-trustees. By the Trust terms, the trustee was to be liable to the Trust for acts or omissions in bad faith. The Trust owned real and personal property worth about $500,000 with about $300,000 available for investment and property acquisition. The Trust provided that, to the extent possible, the real property was to be maintained as an agricultural preserve.

The Trust later transferred its assets to a charitable corporation (the Alberta Hale Land Trust, Inc.), also under the direction of the parties to this case. We need not distinguish between the Trust and the successor corporation.

Although Hale grazed cattle on the four properties during her lifetime, there was no evidence that the Trust or other successors to Hale continued to use the four properties for grazing cattle after Hale's death. In 1997, the Trust built a fence to prevent cattle from wandering onto the Indian Hill property.

In 1994, the Trust attempted to purchase the 125-acre parcel from Beazer. At the same time, Kevin and Brian offered to purchase the Indian Hill, South Branch, and Sutter Creek Ranch properties from Beazer. The purchases fell through, however, because the Trust was not willing to quitclaim to Beazer any interest the Trust might claim in other Beazer properties. Beazer desired the quitclaim as a result of Hale's earlier posting of signs claiming an interest in the Beazer properties.

Later in 1994, the Bonneaus and the Trust structured a deal to purchase the properties from Beazer and avoid the quitclaim provision. The statement of decision describes the transaction as follows:

"On May 5, 1994, Brian Bonneau ostensibly on his own behalf, but actually on behalf of the [Trust] and his wife Susan and his brother Kevin, offered to purchase the 125 acre parcel for the [Trust] for the sum of $217,350 and the three afore mentioned [sic] parcels [Indian Hill, South Branch, and Sutter Creek Ranch] for the price of $253,650, a total transaction of $471,000. The [Trust] contributed its $217,350 share from the [Trust] assets and the remaining amount of the purchase was supplied from funds gathered by Brian and Kevin from separate sources. The use of Brian as sole purchaser avoided the quitclaim condition which had doomed the previous attempt to buy the properties. The purchase was completed on September 13, 1994 and the deed for all four parcels named Brian, Susan and Kevin Bonneau as owners, in a tenancy in common. In October of 1994, the 125 acre parcel, paid for from [Trust] funds, was transferred to the [Trust], and the three parcels known as Indian Hill, Sutter Creek Ranch, and South Branch were transferred to Brian, Susan and Kevin as tenants in common. . . . During the period of negotiations for the purchase of the four parcels, Elsie Giannini was made aware of the details of the transactions and the interest of the Bonneau brothers in the purchase, as were the board of directors of the [Trust]. The 125 acre parcel purchased for the [Trust] was described as the choicest of the purchased parcels and also created a connection with two separated parcels belonging to the [Trust]. It should be noted that the [Trust] did not possess sufficient funds to purchase more than the previously described 125 acre parcel."

Hale had expressed a desire to keep her real property in a natural state; however, there was no term or agreement in Hale's will or in the Trust instruments or anywhere else in the record that the Indian Hill, South Branch, and Sutter Creek Ranch parcels would be subject to a conservation easement, requiring that they be kept in their natural state.

PARTITION ACTION

As of 2002, the Trust owned the 125-acre parcel, and Brian and Kevin jointly owned the Indian Hill, South Branch, and Sutter Creek Ranch parcels.*fn1 Kevin testified in this case that he and Brian had placed conservation easements on the South Branch and Sutter Creek Ranch parcels in 1995 and 1999, respectively.

In 2002, Brian and Kevin had a falling out, and Brian initiated an action to partition the jointly-owned properties. As a result of the partition action, Brian was awarded the Indian Hill parcel, the only parcel that did not have a conservation easement, and Kevin was awarded the South Branch and Sutter Creek Ranch parcels.

PROCEDURE

The Trust initiated an action against Brian and Kevin in 2005. The operative complaint is the fourth amended complaint, which alleged six causes of action, referring to the parcels owned by Kevin and Brian Bonneau: (1) quiet title to an easement by prescription, (2) quiet title to an easement by grant, (3) quiet title by grant, (4) declaratory relief concerning the existence of the easements, (5) conversion, and (6) declaratory relief concerning the existence of a conservation easement on the Indian Hill parcel.

Conclusions of Law

The case was tried without a jury, and the trial court issued a statement of decision finding in favor of Kevin and Brian on the following issues: (1) a prescriptive easement to graze and water cattle, (2) a conservation easement by agreement, and (3) a constructive trust.

1. Prescriptive Rights to Graze and Water Cattle

The court rejected the Trust's assertion that an easement to graze and water cattle had been created on the Indian Hill, South Branch, and Sutter Creek Ranch parcels by prescription. There was no open, hostile, and notorious use of those parcels for an uninterrupted five-year period. And, even if prescriptive rights ...


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