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Joannou v. City of Rancho Palos Verdes

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Eighth Division

September 12, 2013

ANDREA JOANNOU et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
CITY OF RANCHO PALOS VERDES et al., Defendants and Respondents.

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County No. BC445457. Alan S. Rosenfield, Judge.

Law Offices of Douglas W. Beck & Associates and Douglas W. Beck for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Richards, Watson & Gershon, Mitchell E. Abbott and Andrew J. Brady for Defendants and Respondents.


Plaintiffs Andrea Joannou and 25 Oak, LLC, appeal from the summary judgment entered in favor of defendant City of Rancho Palos Verdes in their action to apply the Cullen Earthquake Act (Code Civ. Proc., § 751.50, et seq.) to quiet title in them to city-owned land where homes they bought were deposited over the course of many years by a slow moving landslide. We affirm because the Cullen Act does not apply to lot line displacements resulting from ongoing and gradual earth movements.


In 1956, road construction by Los Angeles County in a then unincorporated area of the Palos Verdes Hills known as Portugese Bend accidentally reactivated a sub-surface prehistoric slide area. That incident sent just under one square mile of hillside property on an ongoing, slow-motion, downhill journey that inexorably leads to a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As a result, homes built in the area have moved along with the land, in some cases outside their original lot lines and on to neighboring parcels. Homeowners in the area have turned to innovative methods of anchoring their homes in place even as the landslide moves down the hill. Some landowners in the affected area have also accommodated each other over the years by treating the earth movements as a de facto readjustment of their respective property lines.

The City of Rancho Palos Verdes incorporated in 1972 and includes the Portugese Bend area. The City then acquired title to the right of way for Palos Verdes Drive South, which cuts through the landslide area. In 1987, the City took title to a piece of land (Lot 1) in the slide area that sits directly south of the roadway of Palos Verdes Drive. Sometime between 1956 and 1987, two homes that were originally located north of the roadway on Lots 40 and 41 migrated approximately 300 feet south of the roadway and on to Lot 1. Those homes are now located at 40 and 41 Cherryhill Lane.

In 2005, Joannou bought the house on 40 Cherryhill Lane. Although the house was in poor condition, it was still occupied by the seller. Joannou spent $30, 000 to remodel the house and intended to have a new foundation built. Joannou put up a fence to keep trespassers out while repairs were made to the home, which apparently drew the attention of city building inspectors. The inspectors “red-tagged” as unsafe Joannou’s home and the one that had moved along with it from Lot 41 to 41 Cherryhill Lane.

The City contended that Joannou had no right to occupy Lot 1. Over the next three years, Joannou and the City tried to negotiate an agreement that would allow her to lease a portion of Lot 1 from the City for a limited time and then repair and reside in the home on Cherryhill Lane. As part of this process, Joannou incurred approximately $100, 000 in consulting fees from surveyors, civil engineers, geologists, and other experts in preparation for re-anchoring the Cherryhill Lane home on Lot 1. Ultimately, Joannou’s negotiations with the City were unsuccessful.

Joannou sued the City to quiet title to a portion of Lot 1 under the Cullen Earthquake Act (Code Civ. Proc., §§ 751.50 – 751.65 (the Cullen Act or the Act)), which allows for the equitable adjustment of property lines that have been displaced by certain earth movements.[1] Joining her as a plaintiff was 25 Oak, LLC, which bought the house at 41 Cherryhill Lane in 2009. The owners of several nearby parcels also were named as defendants, including the owners of Lots 47 and 48, which the slide had relocated to the original position of Lots 40 and 41.[2] The second cause of action sought to quiet title to Lots 40 and 41 against the owners of Lots 47 and 48 and in favor of Joannou and 25 Oak should their Cullen Act action be unsuccessful.

The City moved for summary judgment on largely undisputed facts. The trial court granted summary adjudication of the first cause of action, concluding that the Cullen Act applied to only sudden earth movements that constituted disasters, not to gradual earth movements like the Portugese Bend Slide. The City was granted summary adjudication of the second cause of action because it claimed no right or title to the land where the houses on Lots 40 and 41 originally were located. After judgment was entered for the City, Joannou and 25 Oak appealed, contending that the Cullen Act applied to their claim.[3]


1. Standard of Review and Rules of Statutory Interpretation

This appeal is from a summary judgment where the sole issue is one of statutory interpretation based on undisputed facts. Accordingly, we exercise independent review and apply the ordinary rules for construing statutory language. (MacIsaac v. Waste Management Collection & Recycling, Inc. (2005) 134 Cal.App.4th 1076, 1081-1082.)

Under the rules of statutory construction, our primary task is to determine the Legislature’s intent. The first step in the interpretive process is to examine the Legislature’s chosen language, which is the best indicator of legislative intent. Unless the statute supplies a definition of specific terms, we give the words used a plain and commonsense meaning. If the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, there is no need for judicial construction. (Alejo v. Torlakson (2013) 212 Cal.App.4th 768, 787 (Alejo).) We need not follow the plain meaning of a statute when doing so would frustrate its purpose or lead to absurd results. Therefore, even though the words chosen by the Legislature are the best indicator of its intent, we do not view the language in isolation. Instead, we construe the words of a statute in context with an eye to fulfilling the statutory purpose. (Ibid.)

A statute is unambiguous if a party’s proposed interpretation is the only reasonable interpretation. However, if there is more than one reasonable interpretation of statutory language, then an ambiguity exists. (Mt. Hawley Insurance Co. v. Lopez (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 1385, 1398 (Mt. Hawley Insurance).) If so, we resort to secondary rules of construction. These include: maxims of construction, which express familiar insights about conventional language usage; the legislative history; and the wider historical circumstances of a statute’s enactment.[4] (Alejo, supra, 212 Cal.App.4th at p. 787.)

If the ambiguity is not resolved by these secondary rules of construction, we then apply reason, practicality, and common sense. (Alejo, supra, 212 Cal.App.4th at p. 788.) When doing so, we must consider the potential consequences of a particular interpretation. This includes not just the words chosen by the Legislature, but also matters such as context, the problem to be remedied, the history of the times, legislation on the same subject, public policy and contemporaneous construction. (Ibid.) These other matters are important because they elevate our analysis from an abstract exercise in semantics to the only reason we engage in the process at all – to determine the Legislature’s intent in order to carry out the purpose of the law. (Ibid.)

2 .The Cullen Earthquake Act

The Legislature enacted the Cullen Act in 1972 in response to the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake, which disturbed existing property lines by shifting the land in some areas by several feet. (Dept. of Conservation, Enrolled Bill Rep. on Assem. Bill No. 2329 (1972 Reg. Sess.) [date illegible].) The Cullen Act provides that “[i]f the boundaries of land owned either by public or private entities have been disturbed by earth movements such as, but not limited to, slides, subsidence, lateral or vertical displacements or similar disasters caused by man, or by earthquake or other acts of God, so that such lands are in a location different from that at which they were located prior to the disaster, ...

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