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Civil, Family, and Administrative Appeals and Writs

Pritchett v. Rapp

In Pritchett v. Rapp (unpub. December 16, 2004, C045432), a real property easement case, the trial court entered judgment on a nonsuit against Ms. Conrad's clients, the plaintiffs, cross-defendants and appellants, holding that they had no interest in the easement. The appellate court held that the pleadings established that the plaintiffs had a right to the easement, therefore, standing was not an issue at trial.



This case involves a dispute over an easement. Plaintiffs Linda Pritchett and Irwin Rogers as co-trustees of the Irwin Rogers Family Trust of 1990 filed a complaint for declaratory relief, asserting defendants Peter and Lois Raap were denying them access to an easement that was the subject of a 1998 court order. Defendants, in turn, filed a cross-complaint, contending that plaintiffs had engaged in acts incompatible with the easement. The cross-complaint sought to extinguish the easement and recover damages for trespass.
The trial court resolved these disputes in favor of defendants by relying on a theory that had not been raised by the parties, namely, that no evidence had been presented to establish that plaintiffs had a right to this easement.
However, there is a reason why no evidence had been introduced on the issue of standing: standing was uncontroverted. Defendants' answer to the complaint admitted that plaintiffs had standing to pursue their claim. The trial court's rulings were contrary to this conclusive admission and therefore erroneous. We reverse the judgment and remand the case to the trial court.

Although plaintiffs raise several claims in this appeal, we need address only one. As we explain, the pleadings in this case established plaintiffs' right to the easement, and therefore standing was not at issue at trial. The court erred in predicating its decision on this perceived lack of proof.
Code of Civil Procedure section 431.20, subdivision (a) provides: “Every material allegation of the complaint or cross-complaint, not controverted by the answer, shall, for the purposes of the action, be taken as true.”

As noted earlier, plaintiffs' complaint alleged: “At all times mentioned herein, Plaintiffs have been the co-Trustees of the Irwin Rogers Family Trust of 1990, (the ‘Trust’) owner of an easement for the life of the life time beneficiary of said Trust, Barbara Rogers Poetter, appurtenant to a certain piece of unimproved land located in Tehama County, California....” (Italics added.) Defendants expressly admitted this allegation in their answer. In keeping with this admission, defendants alleged in their own cross-complaint that plaintiffs were bound by the 1998 judgment outlining the scope of the easement.
Under the terms of Code of Civil Procedure section 431.20, plaintiffs' allegation and defendants' admission conclusively established that plaintiffs were the “owner of an easement for the life of the lifetime beneficiary.” Defendants contend that this admission was not binding because the pleadings were not entered into evidence and therefore could not be considered by the trial court. That is not the case.
In Valerio v. Andrew Youngquist Construction (2002) 103 Cal.App.4th 1264, 1271, the court aptly summarized the effects of admissions in pleadings. “The admission of fact in a pleading is a ‘judicial admission.’ Witkin describes the effect of such an admission: ‘An admission in the pleadings is not treated procedurally as evidence; i.e., the pleading need not (and should not) be offered in evidence, but may be commented on in argument and relied on as part of the case. And it is fundamentally different from evidence: It is a waiver of proof of a fact by conceding its truth, and it has the effect of removing the matter from the issues. Under the doctrine of “conclusiveness of pleadings,” a pleader is bound by well pleaded material allegations or by failure to deny well pleaded material allegations. [Citations.]’ [Citation .]
“The law on this topic is well settled by venerable authority. Because an admission in the pleadings forbids the consideration of contrary evidence, any discussion of such evidence is irrelevant and immaterial. [ Citation.] ‘ “When a trial is had by the Court without a jury, a fact admitted by the pleadings should be treated as ‘found.’ ... If the court does find adversely to the admission, such finding should be disregarded in determining the question whether proper conclusion of law was drawn from the facts found and admitted by the pleadings.... In such case the facts alleged must be assumed to exist. Any finding adverse to the admitted facts drops from the record, and any legal conclusion which is not upheld by the admitted facts is erroneous.” [Citations.]' [Citation.] ‘When allegations in a complaint are admitted by the answer (a) no evidence need be offered in their support; (b) evidence is not admissible to prove their untruth; (c) no finding thereon is necessary; (d) a finding contrary thereto is error.’ “ (See also City of Lodi v. Randtron (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 337, 347-348, fn. 15; 4 Witkin, Cal. Procedure (4th ed. 1997) Pleading, §§ 415, p. 512 [general effects of judicial admissions], 417, p. 513 [effects of admissions of defendant]; 5 Witkin, supra, Pleading, § 980, p. 440 [express admission in answer prevents plaintiff from offering evidence on uncontested issue].)
These principles are dispositive here. Defendants' admission in their answer that plaintiffs owned the easement for the lifetime of Rogers established plaintiffs' standing to seek enforcement of the terms of that easement. Plaintiffs were not required to introduce evidence to establish this fact, and the trial court was required to accept that fact as true. The failure to do so was error.
Defendants contend that relief is unavailable to plaintiffs because the error was invited by plaintiffs when they told the court that no evidence had been presented relating to the trust's interest in the easement. The context of plaintiffs' comment is more nuanced than defendants portray. The court said to plaintiffs: “... I am giving you the opportunity to point to any evidence that would lead me to the conclusion that the trust, if there is a trust, has any right of entry onto the property or use of the easement.” Plaintiffs' counsel replied, “There is no such evidence in a Court order that provides the trust. The trustees would have the right of access, not the trust itself. It would have to be the trustees of the trust.” Counsel's comment related to semantics, nothing more.

Moreover, plaintiffs twice offered to provide the court with copies of the trust documents to establish their rights to easement, offers that the court rejected because plaintiffs had rested their case.
In sum, the record does not support defendants' claim of invited error.
Defendants do not raise a waiver argument, but we note that plaintiffs inexplicably failed to bring the pleadings to the court's attention despite repeated requests from the court for help on the standing issue. This lapse does not preclude appellate review because the effect of an admission in the pleadings presents a question of law. (See generally 9 Witkin, Cal. Procedure, supra, Appeal, § 398, p. 450.) However, the fact that review is available does not mean that plaintiffs are blameless. Had either party simply pointed out to the court that standing had been admitted and was uncontroverted, this entire appeal could have been avoided. Neither plaintiffs nor defendants did so. Under these circumstances, it is only appropriate that the parties bear their own costs on appeal.
The judgment is reversed and the matter is remanded to the trial court. The parties are to bear their own costs on appeal. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 27(a).)