Unlawful Detainer proceedings are summary proceedings. As such, the court is not equipped to handle lengthy disputes over title and ownership. As a result, California case law suggests that unlawful detainer courts cannot deal with title disputes. This does not mean, however, that title is presumed to be proper with the plaintiff who brings an unlawful detainer action to recover possession. Indeed, the Plaitniff must still show that it is the real party in interest (has standing to pursue the unlawful detainer) by demonstrating it has a right to posssession.
The general Civil Code provisions related to proper parties in proceedings fully apply to unlawful detainers. CCP § 1165. The plaintiff must be the “real party in interest” with respect to the claim sued upon. CCP § 367, Dino v. Pelayo (2006) 145 CA4th 347, 353. The real party in interest is the person who holds title to the claim or property involved. Gantman v. United Pac. Ins. Co. (1991). In unlawful detainer actions the plaintiff’s right to possession is what qualifies the plaintiff as the “real party in interest.” CCP §§367, 1166(a)(2).
While it may be true that title disputes cannot be litigated in summary unlawful detainer proceedings. Matters that cannot be raised by cross-complaint can, however, be pursued in an independent civil action. And where an unlawful detainer defendant’s civil suit raises title issues, the court may either stay the unlawful detainer action or order it consolidated with the general jurisdiction matter. Wilson v. Gentile (1992) 8 CA4th 759, 761. A stay of the unlawful detainer action is appropriate because if the tenant prevails on the claim of title it will defeat the landlord’s right to recover possession of the premises. Id. at 761. Accordingly, where landlord and tenant are litigating title in an independent civil action and an unlawful detainer is simultaneously pending between them, the trial court has power to stay the unlawful detainer action. Asuncion v. Super. Ct. (1980) 108 CA3d 141. Indeed, the Court of Appeals, in Asuncion held that it may stay an unlawful detainer proceeding pending the resolution of the independent title action. The court held that it can:
“Stay the eviction proceedings until trial of the fraud action, based on the authority of Code of Civil Procedure 526 which permits a preliminary injunction to preserve the status quo on such grounds as irreparable injury, multiplicity of actions, or unconscionable relative hardship.” Id. at 146; citing Continental Baking Co. v. Katz (1968) 68 Cal. 2d 512, 528.
In Asuncion, the W.C. Financial, Inc. (“W.C.”) filed an unlawful detainer complaint following what they claimed was the lawful sale of the underlying real property. Id. at 142. The unlawful detainer defendants, Asuncion, in turn, filed a general civil complaint in the superior court against W.C. alleging fraud, usury, unfair business practices, truth and lending violations, undue influence, and other causes, and requesting title to the property be quieted in their favor. Id. at 143. The Court of Appeals recognized that “the summary unlawful detainer action is not a suitable vehicle to try complicated ownership issues as the Asuncions had alleged.” Id. at 144. The court further held, “ ‘the summary nature of unlawful detainer proceedings suggest that, as a practical matter, the likelihood of the defendant’s [W.C.] being prepared to litigate the factual issues involved in a fraudulent scheme to deprive him of his property, no matter how diligent defendant is, is not great’”. Ibid.; [citations omitted] The court further held “homeowners cannot be evicted, consistent with due process guarantees, without being permitted to raise the affirmative defenses which if proved would maintain their possession and ownership.” Id. at 146. (Emphasis Added) Such a procedure would be unfair. Ibid. When title to the property is at issue in unlawful detainer actions, and a title action is not within the jurisdiction of the unlawful detainer court, the unlawful detainer defendants must be afforded their due process. Ibid. The way to afford defendants their due process is to stay the eviction until the title issues can be resolved in the general jurisdiction superior court. Ibid.