Friday, April 01, 2005

Avril v. Sot (Cal. Ct. App. - April 1, 2005)

Facially, this may be a somewhat surprising case, but in the end, I think the Court of Appeal reaches an appropriate result.

A homeowner in a posh community in San Diego hires a exterminator service to get rid of "pests" that have infested his abode. After a brief investigation, the service concludes that there's a fair number of deer mice that have taken up residence in the house. The service proposes to exterminate them, the homeowner agrees, and they sign a contract. The next door neighbor, however, is apparently a leading member of the militant animal-rights wing of the RLA. Who promptly files a lawsuit under, inter alia, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to enjoin the extermination, purportedly on behalf of the deer mice. The trial court denies his request for an injunction and he appeals.

Justice Fuele reverses. He holds that the deer mice not only have standing under CEQA, but a meritorious claim as well. The homeowner argued -- persuasively, in my view -- that deer mice are incredibly common, and not endangered in the slightest. But Justice Fuele responds that CEQA adopts a localized test, and that in the gated community at issue, deer mice infestations were fairly rare, and that the mice were accordingly protected by law from being "molested, annoyed, or disturbed." Moreover, in a fairly bold stroke, the Court of Appeal further held that this provision not only required termination of the contract, but also that -- under the facts of this case -- the homeowner was also required to permanently vacate the residence. The court based this holding on the fact that defendant's activities (which basically consisted of living in the house, watching television, etc.) caused an "unacceptably high risk" of disrupting the sleep, feeding, and mating patterns of the deer mice, and hence were inconsistent with the requirements of CEQA. When the homeowner protested that was the rightful owner of the property, Justice Fuele responded that not only does the CEQA categorically trump whatever ownership rights he might possess, but further held -- based upon the findings of the exterminators, which included viewing several long-established nesting grounds -- that the plaintiff mice appeared to satisfy the requirements for adverse possession, particularly given that the homeowner knew or should have known of their presence and the homeowner's (unwise, in my mind) concession that their presence was "open, notorious, and hostile." When the homeowner argued that the deer mice had not paid taxes on the property (and hence did not satisfy the traditional California requirements for adverse possession), the Court of Appeal responded that this was hardly their fault, since the availability of credit to animals is fairly low (even for traditional subprime lenders), and concluded that the homeowner's payment of property taxes was legally "on behalf of" the mice.

So, in the end, the deer mice basically own this multi-million dollar home. Which is a fairly shocking result, at least upon first glance. But, in the end, in the modern era and on this day, I think that the Court of Appeal may reach the legally correct result. I'm sure the opinion is not one of the hundred best ever written, but it may nonetheless be worth a look.