In Claudino v. Pereira, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2008 WL 3319267, Cal.App. 3 Dist., Aug. 12, 2008), a California Court of Appeal considered whether a trial court erred when it admitted extrinsic evidence in an action to quite title arising out of a property line dispute. The Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court did not error in the admittance of extrinsic evidence because the maps, field notes, and records of the property line were ambiguous.
In 1868, California implemented legislation that authorized county judges to survey lands which inhabitants of any unincorporated town were entitled to claim under a federal act. The land claimed by inhabitants under the legislation was designated on “plats,” which were “considered public records” and were to be “accompanied by a copy of the field notes.” Plats are essentially maps, drawn to scale, which show the divisions of a piece of land. A surveyor numbered the blocks divided by roads and also numbered the lots or parcels within each block consecutively and recorded this information on the plats.
In 1870, the townsite of Campo Seco in Calaveras County was surveyed pursuant to the California legislation. In block 8, between lots 1 and 2, the common boundary is depicted on the plat as a straight line. However, the field notes for lot 2 describe the common boundary as commencing at the northwest corner, “in the gulch,” and proceeding “northwesterly, down said gulch.” The field notes for lot 1 describe the same boundary, but do not include the phrase “down said gulch.”
In July 2005, Alan Claudino, an owner of part of lot 1, sued for quiet title, as to the adjoining boundary between lots 1 and 2. Patricia Ann Pereira is a partial owner of lot 2, adjacent to Claudino’s property, and was the defendant in Claudino’s action.
The trial court allowed the testimony of Roger Pitto, a licensed land surveyor who testified on behalf of Claudino. Pitto testified that the language in the field notes which said “down said gulch” is “a precise call to a natural monument.” Pitto stated that this means that the field notes were defining the boundary as the center of the gulch. Pitto also cited the presence of a rock wall which runs down the center of the gulch. Pitto explained that rock walls, such as the one running down the center of the gulch, were used during the time of the original survey to depict the line of actual occupation. The actual line of occupation would reflect the original surveyor’s property line.
The trial court allowed the testimony of Judith Marvin, a historian, who also testified on behalf of Claudio. Marvin confirmed Pitto’s assertion regarding the rock walls significance as historic boundaries reflecting property lines. Marvin also testified that she found an 1860 assessment record for part of what is now lot 2, and the record describes it as bounded by the gulch.
Michael Jones, a land surveyor, testified at trial on behalf of Pereira. Jones testified that the gulch “could be a natural boundary.” Jones also cited a great number of documents and deeds that referred to the map, and not the notes, to define the property line. Jones also testified that “usually you defer to the map before you go back to the notes.” Jones explained that he interpreted the language of “down the gulch” as a directional call for the property line, rather than as a physical monument defining the property line.
The Court of Appeal began by dismissing one of Pereira’s initial arguments. Pereira insisted that the “evidence of the original occupancy is irrelevant because the plat is controlling even if the 1870 survey was mistaken about the extent of the original occupancy.” The court disagreed and distinguished Pereira’s cited authority because the land here was surveyed under the Townsite Acts. Typically, “a survey of public lands does not ascertain boundaries; it creates them.” However, under the Townsite Acts, the land “was surveyed to ascertain boundaries.” Therefore, evidence of original occupancy is relevant because the “survey was to describe the land, as already occupied, so that title could be confirmed to the occupants.”
Next, the court explained that under the Townsite Acts, evidence of a parcel of land is not determined by plats alone, but is instead determined by “plats, field notes and records . . ..” The court further stated that when there is a conflict, the field notes are the superior authority. Nevertheless, the court said that the field notes here do not definitively state that the boundary followed the centerline of the gulch because the field notes on lot 1 and lot 2 are not the same. Moreover, the straight line property line as indicated on the plat, contradicts the field notes. Consequently, the court explicated that extrinsic evidence should be used to help resolve this ambiguity.
Pereira argued that there is no ambiguity because there is no discrepancy between the plat and the field notes. Pereira cites the testimony of Jones who said that “down the gulch” is merely a directional call, which is confirmed by the plat. The court dismissed this argument, because Jones also testified that “down the gulch” could also refer to the gulch as a natural monument intended to depict the property line. The court concluded that ambiguity did exist, and the trial court correctly allowed extrinsic evidence in to help resolve the problem.
Pereira also argued there was no discrepancy between lot 1’s field notes and the plat. In addition, she argued the legal description in her grant deed to her property refers her to the plat. The court was not satisfied with either of these arguments because a proper legal description requires an examination of the field notes for both lots, in addition to the field notes and records pursuant to the Townsite Acts. Consequently, the Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court did not error in determining the disputed boundary.