Weeden v. Hoffman

Decision Date13 October 2021
Docket NumberD078112
Citation285 Cal.Rptr.3d 262,70 Cal.App.5th 269
Parties Ryan WEEDEN et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. William Lewis HOFFMAN, Defendant and Respondent.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Garrett & Tully, Robert Garrett, Ryan C. Squire and Candie Y. Chang, Pasadena, for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Reese Law Group and Joseph M. Pleasant, San Diego, for Defendant and Respondent.

AARON, J.

I.INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs Ryan and Genevieve Weeden appeal from a judgment entered in favor of defendant William Lewis Hoffman after the trial court granted Hoffman's anti-SLAPP motion with respect to the Weedens' complaint against Hoffman, which pleaded causes of action for quiet title, slander of title, and cancellation of an instrument.

According to the allegations of the complaint, Hoffman sent the Weedens a letter threatening a forced sale of real property that the Weedens had purchased, based on a judgment lien created when Hoffman recorded an abstract of judgment that he obtained in a long-standing divorce proceeding between Hoffman and his former wife, Pamela Mitchell. The Weedens sought to quiet title to the property by filing this action. In response, Hoffman filed an anti-SLAPP motion, arguing that the conduct underlying the Weedens' claims against him was protected activity under the anti-SLAPP law and the Weedens were unable to demonstrate a probability of prevailing on their claims.

The trial court agreed with Hoffman that the conduct underlying each of the Weedens' claims—Hoffman's recording of a judgment—constituted protected activity. The court further agreed with Hoffman that the Weedens could not demonstrate a probability of prevailing on any of their claims because the litigation privilege provided Hoffman with absolute immunity from liability. The trial court therefore granted Hoffman's anti-SLAPP motion, and, having struck the allegations goes to all three causes of action, entered judgment in favor of Hoffman on the Weedens' complaint.

We conclude that the Weedens' claims arise from protected activity, and that the trial court therefore properly shifted the burden to the Weedens to demonstrate a probability of prevailing on their claims.

However, we further conclude that the litigation privilege provides a defense to only one of the three pleaded causes of action. The litigation privilege shields a defendant from liability only for tort damages that are based on litigation-related communications; the Weedens' causes of action for quiet title and cancellation of an instrument do not seek to hold Hoffman liable for tort damages but, rather, seek to ascertain the interests of the parties with respect to a parcel of real property and to determine the validity of an instrument. The litigation privilege does not shield Hoffman from these claims.

We further conclude that the Weedens have sufficiently demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the merits; the documents attached as exhibits to the complaint demonstrate that the abstract of judgment that Hoffman recorded with the county clerk does not accurately reflect the terms of the judgment entered in the divorce proceeding, thereby undermining the validity of the abstract of judgment. The court therefore erred in granting Hoffman's anti-SLAPP motion with respect to the causes of action for quiet title and cancellation of an instrument. We reverse the judgment and remand the matter for further proceedings in the trial court.

II.FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
A. Factual background1
1. Hoffman's initial purchase of the property at issue and early encumbrance of the parcel

Hoffman and his then wife Pamela Mitchell purchased a parcel of real property located on Glade Place in Escondido, California (the Property) in January 1988. In 1992, Hoffman and Mitchell signed a deed of trust in favor of Hoffman's parents (1992 Deed of Trust), encumbering the Property in order to secure loans in the amount of $204,000.

Hoffman's father died in 1994, and Hoffman's mother executed an affidavit of death of joint tenants in January 1995. In January 1995, Hoffman's mother transferred and assigned the 1992 Deed of Trust to her trust, the Catherine E. Hoffman Revocable Living Trust. Hoffman's mother died in May 1995, and Hoffman became the sole trustee and beneficiary under his mother's trust. Hoffman, as trustee of his mother's trust, recorded a full reconveyance of the 1992 Deed of Trust in July 1996, thereby removing the lien from the Property.

2. Hoffman and Mitchell's divorce and Property-related activities

Hoffman and Mitchell began divorce proceedings in an action titled William Lewis Hoffman v. Pamela Ann Mitchell , case No. DN157807 (the Divorce Action) in 2009.

In May 2014, Hoffman signed a deed of trust in the principal amount of $100,000 securing his one-half interest in the Property in favor of his divorce attorney. In June 2014, while the Divorce Action was still pending, Hoffman attempted to reinstate the 1992 Deed of Trust by recording a rescission of the full reconveyance that he had recorded in 1996. The intended effect was apparently to reinstate the 1992 Deed of Trust in favor of the Catherine E. Hoffman Trust, of which Hoffman was the sole trustee and beneficiary.

In July 2014, Mitchell executed a severance of joint tenancy in order to sever Hoffman's and Mitchell's joint tenancy and create a tenancy in common.

On October 22, 2014, Hoffman executed and recorded a document titled "Rescission of Rescission of Reconveyance" (boldface and some capitalization omitted), in which he asserted that he was "rescind[ing] the Re[s]cission of Reconveyance" that he had recorded in June 2014. It appears that Hoffman was attempting to reverse the effect of his June 2014 recording of a rescission of his 1996 full reconveyance of the 1992 Deed of Trust, thereby once again removing from the Property the lien from the 1992 Deed of Trust.

Approximately a week later, on October 29, 2014, Hoffman and Mitchell entered into a stipulated judgment (the Stipulated Judgment) involving the division of assets, including the Property. With respect to the Property, Hoffman and Mitchell agreed that Mitchell would continue to reside in the Property until it was sold, the parties would list it for sale at $699,000, Mitchell would receive the first $275,000 from the sales proceeds, and Hoffman would "receive all remaining proceeds after the normal costs of sale and [Mitchell] are paid." The Stipulated Judgment further provided that Hoffman would "take all actions necessary to provide clear title to the Glade Place residence so that it can be sold." The Stipulated Judgment did not include a monetary award to Hoffman.

3. Mitchell's quiet title action against Hoffman and Hoffman's divorce attorney's trustee sale

Hoffman initiated foreclosure of the Property by recording a notice of default based on the 1992 Deed of Trust in December 2015. Hoffman recorded a notice of trustee's sale in March 2016.

In response to Hoffman's attempt to nonjudicially foreclose on the Property, on April 1, 2016, Mitchell filed a civil action against Hoffman to enjoin Hoffman's foreclosure efforts and for declaratory relief (the Mitchell Quiet Title Action). On April 5, 2016, the trial court in the Mitchell Quiet Title Action issued a temporary restraining order enjoining Hoffman from proceeding with the trustee's sale of the Property. The court set a further hearing for April 29.

On April 8, 2016, while the temporary restraining order was in effect, Hoffman moved forward with and completed a foreclosure sale, and proceeded to record a trustee's deed upon sale transferring title to the Property to the "Catherine E. Hoffman Trust."

According to the complaint in this matter, the court in the Mitchell Quiet Title Action issued an order rendering void and unenforceable the trustee's sale that Hoffman purported to undertake on April 8, 2016. On May 12, 2016, the court issued a preliminary injunction enjoining Hoffman from taking action to conduct any sale of the Property.

In July 2016, CNA Foreclosure Services, Inc., serving as the trustee under the deed of trust secured by Hoffman's one-half interest in the Property, recorded a notice of default based on Hoffman's failure to pay his divorce attorney. CNA Foreclosure Services, Inc. recorded a notice of sale in October 2016.

CNA Foreclosure Services, Inc. conducted a trustee's sale in November 2016, and granted to Glade Place, LLC, via a trustee's deed, Hoffman's half interest in the Property as a tenant in common, thereby foreclosing on the half interest in the Property that Hoffman had encumbered by the deed of trust in favor of his divorce attorney.

After a trial, in April 2018, the trial court in the Mitchell Quiet Title Action issued a statement of decision, finding in favor of Mitchell and Glade Place, LLC2 . The court determined that the 1992 Deed of Trust and the Catherine E. Hoffman Trust had been extinguished as of Hoffman's mother's death in May 1995, and that the 2016 trustee's deed upon sale resulting from Hoffman's foreclosure was void. The court further found that Hoffman's remaining one-half interest in the Property had been sold to Glade Place, LLC, and that Glade Place, LLC was a "bona fide purchaser."

On April 30, 2018, the court in the Mitchell Quiet Title Action entered judgment quieting title to the Property in favor of Mitchell and Glade Place, LLC and against both Hoffman as an individual and as the trustee of the Catherine E. Hoffman Trust.

4. Hoffman obtains an abstract of judgment ostensibly based on the 2014 stipulated judgment in the Divorce Action

Approximately two months after judgment in the Mitchell Quiet Title Action was entered, Hoffman recorded the Stipulated Judgment in the Divorce Action. Hoffman subsequently prepared, and submitted to the trial court for filing, an abstract of judgment (the 2018 Abstract of Judgment) that erroneously indicated that Hoffman had obtained a money judgment in the amount of $699,000...

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