Southfork Ranch, LLC v. Bunn, 2d Civ. No. B279391

CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Writing for the CourtPERREN, J.
PartiesSOUTHFORK RANCH, LLC, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants and Cross-Appellants, v. DAVID BUNN et al., Defendants, Respondents and Cross-Respondents.
Decision Date17 November 2020
Docket NumberC/w No. B280994,2d Civ. No. B279391

SOUTHFORK RANCH, LLC, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants and Cross-Appellants,
DAVID BUNN et al., Defendants, Respondents and Cross-Respondents.

2d Civ. No. B279391
C/w No. B280994


November 17, 2020


California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

(Super. Ct. No. 56-2014-00449856-CU-BC-VTA)
(Ventura County)

Appellants Southfork Ranch, LLC (Southfork) and R. Eric King and respondents David Bunn and Ellen Birrell (collectively Bunn & Birrell) farm on three adjoining parcels of land in Ventura County. The parcels, known as Parcels A, B and C, share a water facilities system on the Santa Clara River pursuant to the Southfork Ranch Declaration of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&R's). Among other things, the

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CC&R's created an easement on Parcel A, which allows the owners of Parcels B and C to cross that parcel to access their land. The CC&R's also permit the owners of Parcels B and C to receive water from the water facilities system located on Parcel A.

Southfork and King, the respective owners of Parcels B and C, have twice unsuccessfully sued Parcel A's owners, Bunn & Birrell, for alleged interference with their use of the Parcel A easements. This is their third attempt. Once again, they are unsuccessful.

Following trial, the court concluded appellants had "failed to introduce sufficient credible evidence" to prove their causes of action for interference with easement, trespass and declaratory relief. It also found Bunn & Birrell have equal rights to a share of the water generated by the new water facilities and ruled in their favor on their cross-complaint challenging appellants' construction of those facilities.

Over appellants' objections, the trial court awarded Bunn & Birrell a total of $866,229.50 in contract-based attorney fees and costs. (See Civ. Code, 1717.)1 Of this sum, $376,638.10 is attributable to one of the earlier Southfork cases. In addition, another respondent, The Nature Conservatory (TNC), was awarded $585,865.83 in fees and expenses.

In this consolidated appeal, appellants contest both the post-trial judgment in Bunn & Birrell's favor and the awards of fees and costs to respondents. As to the merits, appellants argue the trial court misinterpreted the CC&R's regarding the parties'

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water rights. They claim Bunn & Birrell repudiated any rights they had. Appellants further contend that the court applied the wrong burden of proof on their interference with easement claim and that it exceeded its defined powers by issuing a list of Declarations outlining the parties' rights and obligations under the CC&R's.2

As for the attorney fees, expert fees and costs awards, appellants challenge both the propriety and amount of the trial court's orders. They contend respondents' claims sound in tort, rather than contract, and that they needlessly over-litigated portions of the case and inappropriately allocated certain fees and expenses.

We conclude appellants have failed to demonstrate error in either aspect of this appeal. We do, however, modify the two orders awarding expert fees of $14,780.45 to Bunn & Birrell to clarify that those fees may only be collected once.


Adopted in 1992, the CC&R's created water access rights by easement for three contiguous parcels of land. Parcel A abuts the Santa Clara River, while Parcels B and C do not. Water for the three parcels was pumped from a well into tanks and

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dispersed through pipes. The water facilities were located on Parcel A.

After the CC&R's were adopted, floods destroyed the water well and eroded the riverbank along Parcel A. An amendment to the CC&R's, recorded in 1996, moved the well site upstream and established a new easement. At the same time, the then-owner of Parcel A constructed a revetment wall several hundred feet in length to protect the riverbank. Flooding in 1997-1998 destroyed 60 percent of that wall. A new wall, 9 to 14 feet high, was constructed in 1999 and groins of caged rocks were placed near its base.

Southfork purchased Parcel B in 1996, after the CC&R's had been amended. King bought Parcel C in 2000. Bunn & Birrell purchased Parcel A in 2005, while the County of Ventura (County) was suing the then-owner of Parcel A for constructing the unauthorized revetment wall. The County settled the lawsuit by stipulation in 2005. The judgment required Bunn & Birrell to repair and restore the wall structures along the river, to comply with watershed protection standards and to transfer 52 riparian acres of Parcel A to TNC. Part of Parcel A (now known as Parcel AAA) was transferred to TNC in 2009, the same year Bunn & Birrell completed the necessary restoration work.

A. Southfork I

In 2011, appellants brought actions against Bunn & Birrell and TNC in what we identify as Southfork I. Appellants requested the right to remove part of the revetment wall and groins and to force Bunn & Birrell to remove all obstructions preventing appellants from constructing a new well. Bunn & Birrell intervened in the action against TNC. Parcel A's water rights under the CC&R's were not at issue.

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Following trial in 2013, the trial court found that appellants cannot alter or remove the riverbank protection structures. The court denied appellant's motions for attorney fees. It found that "neither party prevailed sufficiently to justify" such an award. Southfork I became final when appellants abandoned their appeal from the judgment. No attorney fees and costs arising from that case are at issue.

B. Southfork II

Appellants filed Southfork II in 2014, alleging interference with easement and demanding removal of the revetment wall, groins and other obstructions. The complaint did not mention Southfork I. The trial court granted summary judgment in TNC's favor based upon res judicata principles. It also granted Bunn & Birrell's motion for judgment on the pleadings. We affirmed, agreeing that Southfork II was an improper collateral attack on the 2013 judgment. (Southfork II, supra, B267157.)

The trial court awarded TNC $511,103.60 in attorney fees and $74,762.23 in costs, for a total of $585,865.83. It awarded Bunn & Birrell $376,638,10 in attorney fees and $14,780.45 in expert fees.

C. The Current Litigation (Southfork III)4

In their second amended complaint, appellants again asserted interference with easement, alleging their use of and access to the roadway and water easements are obstructed by Bunn & Birrell's water pipes, avocado and citrus trees, shrubs, fencing, telephone lines, a fertilizer injector and concrete blocks. Bunn & Birrell cross-complained for breach of the CC&R's and declaratory relief. The trial court held a 17-day bench trial in 2015.

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The trial court determined appellants had failed to prove their causes of action. The statement of decision emphasized the parties' dependence on the river water and noted the CC&R's assure that each parcel has access to water through wells, tanks, pipelines, pumps and utility lines on Bunn & Birrell's land. The court found Southfork responsible for maintaining the water facilities, but clarified it is only entitled to reimbursement for costs based on each parcel's planted acreage. Southfork improperly charged Bunn & Birrell based on water usage and then refused their requests for records justifying the charges.

The trial court further found appellants had "decided years ago to develop and construct new wells in order to increase the amount of water taken from the river, without the consent or involvement of Bunn & Birrell." While this action was pending, appellants constructed the new well and tanks with the intent to exclude Bunn & Birrell from that system. The court enjoined appellants' activities in 2014, noting they had misled federal and state agencies about the construction and the plan to increase their water usage.

Prior to trial, appellants claimed the old well was failing and obtained court approval to continue construction on the new well. In fact, the new well was not operational at the time of trial because it lacked sufficient electrical power to function.

The trial court entered judgment for Bunn & Birrell at the close of appellants' case. It determined that appellants cannot install new water facilities on Parcel A for their exclusive use, and that they failed to introduce credible evidence showing the new well is permitted by government agencies or that the alleged obstructions are within the easement areas or interfere unreasonably with access to or use of the easements. For the

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same reason, the court found appellants had not proven their trespass claim.

The trial court also entered judgment for Bunn & Birrell on their cross-complaint. It made 28 Declarations regarding the parties' rights and responsibilities under the CC&R's. The Declarations govern the connections to the water facilities; the allocation of water and costs associated with maintaining the water facilities; the need for unanimous approval for new water facilities; use of the easements; appellants' need to obtain permits from regulatory agencies and to remove any unlawful construction; and appellants' obligation to make the new well operational. Declaration 29 directs the appointment of a receiver to enforce the court's rulings.

The trial court awarded Bunn & Birrell the $866,229.50 in attorney fees they requested. That amount includes $362,023.50 of the fees awarded to them in Southfork II.


Southfork and King appeal the orders awarding attorney fees and costs in Southfork II and III, as well as the judgment on the merits in Southfork III. We address the latter argument first.


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