Court Finds that International Property Owners Cannot Avoid California Jurisdiction

Collection Disputes, Legal Update, and Mortgage Issues by Peter N. Brewer, Esq.

In 2007, Maria Soto (“Maria”) obtained a loan from Diana Buchanan (“Buchanan”) secured against a property she owned along with her husband and two other people.  In 2011, after defaulting on the loan, Buchanan sued Maria to collect the debt.  Just after being served with the lawsuit, Maria transferred her interest in the property to her husband, Ramon Soto (“Ramon”).  Eventually, Buchanan won her lawsuit and obtained a judgment against Maria.

In addition to the collections suit, Buchanan filed another lawsuit against Maria and Ramon for fraudulently transferring Maria’s interest in the property to Ramon.  Although Buchanan attempted to serve Ramon with the paperwork for the lawsuit, she was unable to because Ramon had been sent to jail then deported back to Mexico.  In addition, Buchanan was unable to determine where Ramon lived as Maria refused to provide any information about Ramon except that he lived in rural Mexicali.  Accordingly, Buchanan petitioned the court to publish notice of the lawsuit instead of serving Ramon with the papers.  The court granted the motion and Buchanan eventually obtained a default against Ramon.  At trial, Maria argued that service was improper against Ramon and that a trial could not proceed without Ramon’s presence.  The Court rejected this argument finding that Ramon had been properly served with the lawsuit by publication and that Ramon was aware of the lawsuit as Ramon and Maria had discussed the lawsuit with each other.  The Court awarded a judgment in favor of Buchanan after a two day trial.

After the trial, Ramon finally appeared before the Court and requested that the judgment be overturned as he had not been properly served.  The Court denied his motion and Ramon appealed.

THE DECISION:

The Fourth Appellate District sustained the trial court’s decision and found that service was proper and that Ramon had sufficient contacts with jurisdiction to justify the trial court’s decision to move forward with the trial.  In Diana Buchanan v. Ramon Soto, the appellate court held that California law allows the court system to have jurisdiction over a non-resident for lawsuits relating to property located in California.  The Court found that because Ramon took advantage of California’s laws, he subjected himself to jurisdiction before California courts as relating to claims against California property.  The Court also found that the Hague Service Convention did not apply because Buchanan did not know where Ramon lived and Ramon had been attempting to avoid service of the lawsuit.

WHY THIS DECISION IS IMPORTANT:

This case clarifies the requirements for suing a party who owns property in California but lives abroad.  As more and more international investors purchase property in California, it is likely that there will be more lawsuits against individuals who do not live in the United States.  By providing guidance for the requirements of serving international investors, parties will be able to complete their lawsuits against non-resident owners of property.

COMMENT:

Here, both courts found that Ramon was a bad actor who intentionally avoided participating in the lawsuit even though he discussed the lawsuit with his wife while the case was pending.  It will be interesting to see if the courts continue to apply this ruling to instances where the defendant is not a bad actor and had legitimate reasons to not know about the lawsuit.

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