In Hoopes v. Dolan, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, Cal.App. 1 Dist., Nov. 12, 2008), a California Court of Appeal considered whether a tenant could enforce exclusive parking rights under the terms of his lease when the tenant for years conducted himself as if the parking rights were shared with another tenant. The Court of Appeal concluded that the tenant could not assert exclusive parking rights under the terms of his lease because he conducted himself as if he and the other tenant had shared parking rights.
John and Margaret Dolan own a piece of commercial property in Castro Valley, California. On the property is a café named Dell Café. From 1994 to 1999 the Dolans leased Dell Café to Nasri and Diyana Jweinat. The lease agreement between the Dolans and the Jweinats expressly provided for non-exclusive parking rights between the Jweinats and the Dolans, or any other tenant. In 1996, the Dolans leased another portion of the premises to Eric Hoopes who promptly established a truck rental business. In Hoopes’ letters of intent proposing to lease the premises, he mentioned his intent to use the premises for truck rental, a retail store, and storage facilities, but made no mention of parking. In June 1996 a five-year lease was signed by the Dolans and Hoopes which also made no mention of parking.
In November 1996, after some confusion over parking between the Jweinats and Hoopes, John Dolan wrote a memorandum to Hoopes explaining that the parking for both tenants was non-exclusive. Hoopes never contacted the Dolans about the memorandum and the Jweinats said that Hoopes no longer claimed exclusive use of the parking after November 1996. In 1999 Dolan signed a lease for Dell Café with Said and Feada Nabhan. The lease expressly provided for shared parking by the tenants. In 2001, Hoopes renewed his lease. In 2004 Hoopes again started complaining about the parking following an incident with a Dell Café customer. Hoopes spray painted the concrete in the parking lot and posted signs indicating certain parking spaces for the exclusive use of customers to his truck business. In August of 2004 Hoopes sent a letter to Dolan claiming that he had exclusive parking rights.
In February 2005, Hoopes sued the Dolans and the Nabhans. Most of the claims were directed at the Dolans whereby Hoopes claimed that the general language of his lease agreement gave him unqualified use of the “premises,” and therefore the Dell Café tenants were limited to a few parking spaces directly in front of the café. The Dolans and Nabhans asserted a number of defenses including equitable estoppel. In this context, it means that regardless of any contract claims Hoopes may have against Dolan, if Hoopes conducted himself in a way inconsistent with asserting exclusive parking rights, then Hoopes is not entitled to come into court and now try to assert them. The trial court held a jury trial on the issues in connection with the lease, and the jury found in favor of Hoopes. However, after the jury trial, the court found that the doctrine of equitable estoppel applied to Hoopes’ conduct, and therefore entered judgment in favor of the Dolans and the Nabhans. Hoopes appealed.
The Court of Appeal began by explaining that it was unusual for trial courts in California to first allow a jury to hear evidence and make a decision in a case when there are certain issues that the court must decide without a jury’s help. In this instance, the Court of Appeal observed that a trial court would typically decide the issue of equitable estoppel before holding a jury trial on the issue of Hoopes’ lease. This is because if the trial court, as it did here, finds that equitable estoppel should apply, then there is no need for a jury trial which is a more time consuming and expensive process than allowing the judge to make a judicial determination about this specific defense raised by the Dolans and Nabhans.
Next, the Court of Appeal examined how the trial court applied the doctrine of equitable estoppel to the facts of this case. First, the court noted that Hoopes was apprised of the facts in connection with the parking issue. In November 1996, six months after Hoopes began his tenancy; he received a memorandum from John Dolan stating that the parking was shared with the Dell Café tenants. Second, the court observed that according to Dell Café tenants, after an initial misunderstanding, all the tenants shared the parking for years without dispute. Third, the court pointed out that Hoopes signed a new lease in 2001 and did not dispute his parking rights until 2004, after years of shared use.
Hoopes countered by arguing the doctrine of equitable estoppel requires some affirmative conduct on the party to be estopped from asserting claims. The court disagreed, and explained that “[a]cquiescence consisting of mere silence may also operate” to estop a party from asserting claims. In other words, because Hoopes stood by silently for years, never asserting his rights under his lease, he was not allowed to now assert those rights because of the doctrine of equitable estoppel. Moreover, the court said that the equitable estoppel defense was not only supported by Hoopes’ silence over the years and his conduct of sharing the parking, but it was also supported by his renewal of his lease after he was told the parking was shared. The Court of Appeal was satisfied with the trial court’s application of the doctrine despite the trial court’s unorthodox approach in holding the jury trial on the issues of the lease first.
In conclusion, the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment of the trial court that Hoopes was equitably estopped from his contract claims under his lease asserting exclusive parking rights because he never attempted to assert his rights over many years, and even renewed his lease in the interim.
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