BANK OF AMERICA, N.A. v. MITCHELL No. B233924.
204 Cal.App.4th 1199 (2012)
139 Cal. Rptr. 3d 562
BANK OF AMERICA, N.A., Plaintiff and Appellant, v. MICHAEL MITCHELL, Defendant and Respondent.
Court of Appeals of California, Second District, Division Four.
April 10, 2012.
The Dreyfuss Firm and Bruce Dannemeyer for Plaintiff and Appellant.
Law Offices of Ulric E. J. Usher, Ulric E. J. Usher and Richard Kavonian for Defendant and Respondent.
Appellant Bank of America's (Bank) predecessor in interest loaned respondent Michael Mitchell (Mitchell) $315,000 to purchase a home, secured by two notes and first and second deeds of trust. When Mitchell defaulted on the loan, the lender foreclosed and sold the property. The lender then assigned the second deed of trust to the Bank, which initiated the present action to recover the indebtedness evidenced by the note. Mitchell demurred, and the court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend, concluding that the Bank's action was barred by California's antideficiency law. The Bank appeals from the judgment of dismissal and from the subsequent award of prevailing party attorney fees to Mitchell. We affirm.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
The Bank filed the present action on September 16, 2010, and it filed the operative first amended complaint (complaint), asserting causes of action for
Mitchell demurred. Concurrently with his demurrer, he sought judicial notice of several documents, including two deeds of trust, a notice of trustee's sale, and a trustee's deed upon sale. On the basis of these documents, he contended that on September 14, 2006, GreenPoint made him two loans to purchase the property, with a note and deed of trust for each loan recorded against the property. The first note and deed of trust were for $252,000, and the second note and deed of trust were for $63,000. Both deeds of trust were recorded on September 21, 2006. Mitchell defaulted on the notes sometime in 2008. A notice of default was recorded, and the property was sold at trustee sale for $53,955.01 on November 6, 2009. More than a year later, on November 18, 2010, GreenPoint assigned the second deed of trust to Bank of America, which subsequently filed the present action to recover on the second note and deed of trust. Mitchell contended that the action was barred by California's antideficiency legislation, which bars a deficiency judgment following nonjudicial foreclosure of real property.
The trial court granted Mitchell's request for judicial notice and sustained the demurrer without leave to amend on January 27, 2011, concluding that the Bank's breach of contract and common counts claims seek recovery of the balance owed on the obligation secured by the second deed of trust and, thus, are barred by the antideficiency statutes as a matter of law. On April 7, 2011, the court awarded Mitchell prevailing party attorney fees of $8,400 and costs of $534.72.
Judgment for Mitchell was entered on July 8, 2011. The Bank appealed from the award of attorney fees on June 17, 2011, and from the judgment on August 8, 2011. We ordered the two appeals consolidated on October 13, 2011.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
"A demurrer tests the legal sufficiency of the factual allegations in a complaint. We independently review the sustaining of a demurrer and determine de novo whether the complaint alleges facts sufficient to state a cause of
"If we determine the facts as pleaded do not state a cause of action, we then consider whether the court abused its discretion in denying leave to amend the complaint. (McClain v. Octagon Plaza, LLC [(2008)] 159 Cal.App.4th [784,] 791-792 [71 Cal.Rptr.3d 885].) It is an abuse of discretion for the trial court to sustain a demurrer without leave to amend if the plaintiff demonstrates a reasonable possibility that the defect can be cured by amendment. (Schifando v. City of Los Angeles[, supra,] 31 Cal.4th [at p.] 1081. . . .)" (Estate of Dito (2011) 198 Cal.App.4th 791, 800-801 [130 Cal.Rptr.3d 279].)
Attorney fee awards normally are reviewed for abuse of discretion. In the present case, however, the Bank contends that the trial court lacked the authority as a matter of law to award attorney fees in any amount. Accordingly, our review is de novo. (Connerly v. Sate Personnel Bd. (2006) 37 Cal.4th 1169, 1175 [39 Cal.Rptr.3d 788, 129 P.3d 1].)
I. The Trial Court Properly Sustained the Demurrer Without Leave to Amend
A. Code of Civil Procedure Section 580d
Code of Civil Procedure section 580d (section 580d) prohibits a creditor from seeking a judgment for a deficiency on all notes "secured by a deed of
The trial court entered judgment for Roseleaf. Chierighino appealed, contending that Roseleaf's action was barred by section 580d, but the Supreme Court disagreed and affirmed. It explained that the purpose of section 580d was to "put judicial enforcement [of powers of sale] on a parity with private enforcement." (Roseleaf, supra, 59 Cal.2d at p. 43.) That purpose, the court said, would not be served by applying section 580d against a nonselling junior lienor: "Even without the section the junior has fewer rights after a senior private sale than after a senior judicial sale. He may redeem from a senior judicial sale (Code Civ. Proc., § 701), or he may obtain a deficiency judgment. [Citations.] After a senior private sale, the junior has no right to redeem. This disparity of rights would be aggravated were he also denied a right to a deficiency judgment by section 580d. There is no purpose in denying the junior his single remedy after a senior private sale while leaving
In Simon, supra, 4 Cal.App.4th 63, the court held that the rule articulated in Roseleaf did not apply to protect a junior lienor who also held the senior lien. There, Bank of America (Lender) lent the Simons $1,575,000, for which the Simons gave it two separate promissory notes. Each note was secured by a separate deed of trust naming the Bank as beneficiary and describing the same real property (the property). Subsequently, the Simons defaulted on the senior note and the Lender foreclosed. The Lender purchased the property at the nonjudicial foreclosure sale and then filed an action to recover the unpaid balance of the junior note. (Id. at p. 66.)
B. Simon and Roseleaf Bar a Deficiency Judgment in the Present Case
The Bank urges that Simon is distinguishable because in that case, the lender ultimately purchased the property for a credit bid at its own foreclosure sale, whereas in this case, the property was sold to a third party. The Bank thus contends that "[u]nder Simon if (a) both loans are held by the same lender and (b) that lender acquires the property at the foreclosure sale, the risk of manipulation by the lender is too great, so no deficiency is allowed. But if either is missing, the risk of manipulation is reduced, and a deficiency should be allowed." Like the trial court, we reject the contention that the lender must have acquired the property at the foreclosure sale for Simon to apply. Although Simon noted the lender's purchase at the foreclosure sale, that purchase was not material to its holding. Instead, the court's focus was on the lender's dual position as holder of the first and second deeds of trust, and its consequent ability to protect its own interest. (Simon, supra, 4 Cal.App.4th at p. 72 ["[The Lender] was not a third party sold-out junior lienholder as was the case in Roseleaf. As the holder of both the first and second liens, [the Lender] was fully able to protect its secured position. It was not required to protect its junior lien from its own foreclosure of the senior lien by the investment of additional funds. Its position of dual lienholder eliminated any possibility that [the Lender], after foreclosure and sale of the liened property under its first lien, might end up with no interest in the secured property, the principal rationale of the court's decision in Roseleaf."].)
The Bank further contends that the present case is distinguishable from Simon because the presence of a third party purchaser at the foreclosure sale
For all the foregoing reasons, section 580d bars the deficiency judgment the Bank seeks in the present case and, thus, the trial court properly sustained the demurrer. Because the Bank suggests no way in which the legal defects identified could be cured by amendment, the demurrer was properly sustained without leave to amend.
II. The Trial Court Properly Awarded Mitchell Attorney Fees
A. Relevant Facts
Following the trial court's order sustaining Mitchell's demurrer without leave to amend, Mitchell filed a motion for attorney fees pursuant to Civil Code section 1717. Two days later, on February 10, 2011, the Bank filed a request for dismissal with prejudice. It then filed opposition to the motion for attorney fees, contending that there could be no prevailing party within the meaning of Civil Code section 1717 because it had voluntarily dismissed its action.
On March 8, 2011, the trial court vacated the dismissal and granted Mitchell's motion for attorney fees. It explained that because it had sustained a demurrer to the Bank's complaint without leave to amend, the Bank did not have a right pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 581 to voluntarily dismiss the action, and the dismissal had been entered in error. It awarded Mitchell attorney fees of $8,400 and costs of $534.72.
The Bank contends that the trial court lacked authority to award Mitchell attorney fees. It urges that under Code of Civil Procedure section 581, it had an absolute right to dismiss its case voluntarily, so long as it did so with prejudice. Because it did so, there was no prevailing party pursuant to Civil Code section 1717, subdivision (b)(2), and thus the trial court lacked authority to award Mitchell contractual attorney fees.
A plaintiff's right to voluntarily dismiss an action before commencement of trial is not absolute, however. (Lewis C. Nelson & Sons, Inc. v. Lynx Iron Corp., supra, 174 Cal.App.4th at pp. 76-77; Zapanta v. Universal Care, Inc. (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 1167, 1171 [132 Cal.Rptr.2d 842].) "Code of Civil Procedure section 581 recognizes exceptions to the right; other limitations have evolved through the courts' construction of the term `commencement of trial.' These exceptions generally arise where the action has proceeded to a determinative adjudication, or to a decision that is tantamount to an adjudication." (Harris v. Billings (1993) 16 Cal.App.4th 1396, 1402 [20 Cal.Rptr.2d 718].)
In the present case, the trial court sustained defendant's demurrer without leave to amend on January 27, 2011. Although the trial court had not yet entered a judgment of dismissal when the Bank filed a request for voluntary dismissal on February 10, 2011, as in Goldtree and Wells, the trial court had already made a determinative adjudication on the legal merits of the Bank's claim. Accordingly, as in those cases, the Bank no longer had the right to voluntarily dismiss under Code of Civil Procedure section 581.
The Bank contends that the present case is distinguishable from Goldtree and Wells because here it sought to dismiss with prejudice, while in those cases the attempted dismissal was without prejudice. We do not agree. The
Following a trial, the court filed a statement of decision that ordered the defendant to execute a quitclaim deed in favor of the plaintiff, and ordered the plaintiff to compensate the defendant in an amount equal to the full market value of the garage area. If the parties could not agree on the amount the plaintiff was to pay the defendant, each party was ordered to submit an appraisal for the court's final determination. The defendant submitted an appraisal that valued the garage area at $410,000, and the plaintiff submitted an appraisal that valued the property at $75,000, but also requested a continuance and an evidentiary hearing on the value of the property. The day before the evidentiary hearing, the plaintiff filed a request for dismissal with prejudice with the clerk. The trial court ruled that the plaintiff's attempt to dismiss was void ab initio and ordered the plaintiff to pay the defendant $199,246 plus attorney fees and costs. (Vanderkous, supra, 188 Cal.App.4th at p. 116.)
The present case is analogous. As in Vanderkous, the Bank sought to dismiss after the court made a dispositive ruling against it, not before. To allow the Bank to dismiss at that late stage would permit procedural gamesmanship inconsistent with the trial court's authority to provide for the orderly conduct of proceedings before it.
We do not agree with the Bank that its right to dismiss is supported by this division's decision in Marina Glencoe, L.P. v. Neue Sentimental Film AG (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 874 [85 Cal.Rptr.3d 800] (Marina Glencoe). There, after the plaintiff presented its evidence on the single bifurcated issue of alter ego liability, the defendant moved for judgment. The court heard argument on the motion but did not rule; the following day, before a ruling on the pending motion, the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the action with prejudice. The defendant moved for prevailing party attorney fees, and the court denied the motion, concluding that the defendant was not entitled to such fees under Civil Code section 1717. The defendant appealed. We affirmed, noting that because the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed with prejudice, "[i]ts intent was to end the litigation, not to manipulate the judicial process to avoid its inevitable end. This was entirely proper." (168 Cal.App.4th at p. 878.)
The present case is distinguishable from Marina Glencoe. In Marina Glencoe, the plaintiff dismissed its action before the trial court ruled on a dispositive motion, and thus judgment in the defendant's favor was not inevitable. In the present case, in contrast, the trial court had already sustained Mitchell's demurrer without leave to amend, and thus judgment against the Bank had already "ripened to the point of inevitability." (Marina Glencoe, supra, 168 Cal.App.4th at p. 878.) Accordingly, unlike in Marina Glencoe, the Bank no longer had the right to voluntarily dismiss its action, either with or without prejudice.
We affirm the judgment of dismissal and award of attorney fees. Mitchell shall recover his appellate costs.
Willhite, Acting P. J., and Manella, J., concurred.
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