What is the Statute of Limitations in California Quiet Title Lawsuits?

One of the most contentious and financially consequential types of real estate litigation actions is a quiet title action, which are often far from being quiet affairs. A quiet title action is one in which one party who has an interest in a piece of real estate brings a lawsuit against another party claiming to have an interest in that property, in which the requesting party (the plaintiff) is asking the court to rule that the other party (the defendant) does not actually have the claimed interest. If successful, the court will rule that the defendant does not have the property interest, and will officially grant the plaintiff a ruling which will allow that plaintiff to ignore the defendant’s claimed interest, whether they stay on the property or are attempting to sell it. The parties in a quiet title action can be parties who both claim to own and thus have the right to possess the property, or one party might merely have a limited interest, such as a lease on the property, an easement, or a lien via a mortgage. As with any claim, California courts will require that a party bring a quiet title action with the applicable statute of limitations.

The CA Statute of Limitations Depends on the Underlying Claim

California actually does not have a specific statute of limitations for quiet title actions but courts have provided guidance on when such claims must be brought. Instead, the courts have said that they will look at the underlying legal cause of action that the quiet title claim is based on in determining what time limit will apply.

In the 2015 case of Salazar v. Thomas, the California Court of Appeals ruled that the likely statute of limitations that would apply to various underlying causes of actions were:

  • 5 years when the claim was based on adverse possession
  • 4 years when the claim is based on cancellation of an instrument
  • 3 years when the claim is based on fraud or mistake

Thus, potential plaintiffs in a quiet title action will need to base the timing of the filing of a suit on the legal theory they are pursuing, but another critical question is determining exactly when the clock starts ticking on the applicable statute of limitations.

Possessors Generally Are Not Barred by the Statute of Limitations

An interesting aspect of quiet title actions in California is that any party claiming an interest in property can file a lawsuit, and thus act as a plaintiff, regardless of the type of interest. Thus, a plaintiff might be a mortgage holder seeking a judicial declaration of the mortgage itself, a party seeking judicial recognition of an easement, or the putative owner/possessor of the property itself.

The courts have ruled that, in general, those parties that actually possess the property are not barred by any statute of limitations. Thus, if a party bought a piece of property from a seller 20 years ago, and the initial seller is now claiming they still own the property, the party can bring a quiet title action against the seller despite decades having gone past.

This rule, however, only applies when the possessor has been in “undisturbed possession” of the property, essentially meaning that the defendant has not made a claim on the property at an earlier point. It is not entirely clear in all situations when this does and does not apply, but the courts have said that having a tenant on the property will not affect the possessor’s right to later bring a quiet title suit based on a statute of limitations argument. The courts have also said that a notice of default brought by a mortgage holder will not qualify as disturbing the possession, because that is not the same as the mortgage holder claiming possession.

Other situations may be less clear under the current case law. In all cases, speak with an experienced California real estate attorney in either bringing or responding to quiet title action.

Contact the Quiet Title Attorneys at Wagenseller Law Firm

At Wagenseller Law Firm in downtown Los Angeles, we provide full legal services to individuals and businesses in business and real estate litigation matters. Contact the Wagenseller Law Firm today to schedule a consultation to discuss your commercial contract matter.