Feb 16, 2017

Eviction Cases and Claims of Property Ownership in Superior Court

Arizona state law and Arizona case law are clear that eviction cases (formally known as Forcible Entry and/or Forcible detainers) are designed to only address the issue of possession and not any issues addressing the ownership of the property involved. The limited scope of a forcible entry and detainer action has been strictly defined by Arizona statute. A.R.S. § 12-1177(A) states in relevant part:
On the trial of an action of Forcible Entry or Forcible Detainer, the only issue shall be the right of actual possession and the merits of title shall not be inquired into.
Evidence offered to the Superior Court to show anything other than who is entitled to possess the property will be excluded from an eviction hearing. So, if a defendant wants to make a claim for ownership of the rental property then they must file a quiet title action and not raise the issue during an eviction hearing.

REQUISITE PROOF OF OWNERSHIP

The Superior Court's inquiry into property ownership is limited to the extent that Plaintiff holds title to the property in dispute. If the Plaintiff/Landlord's name appears on the trustees's deed then the Court should not inquire into ownership any further.

The issuance of the Trustee's Deed to Plaintiff is conclusive evidence that all statutory requirements for the Trustee's Sale were satisfied and that Plaintiff has the right to possession of the Property.

A.R.S. § 33-811(B) further provides:
...the Trustee's deed shall raise the presumption of compliance with the requirements of this chapter relating to the exercise of the power of sale and the sale of the trust property, including recording, mailing, publishing, and posting of the notice of sale and the conduct of the sale.
The Courts have held that litigation as to the validity of title "would convert a forcible detainer action into a quiet title action and defeat its purpose as a summary remedy." Curtis v. Morris, 186 Ariz. 534, 535, 925 P.2d 259, 260 (1996).

For example, in Merrifield v. Merrifield, 95 Ariz. 152, 154, 388 P.2d 153, 155 (1963), the plaintiff held title to property pursuant to quitclaim deed which was valid on its face. The lower court nonetheless inquired into the merits of that title and refused to find the defendant guilty of forcible entry and detainer. The Arizona Supreme Court reversed the lower court's ruling because plaintiff was entitled to possession as the title holder and pursuant to A.R.S. § 12-1177, the trial court was prohibited from considering the merits of the plaintiff's title. Accordingly, any evidence offered by Defendants to raise extrinsic issues or disprove Plaintiff's title must be excluded.

In another case demonstrating the Superior Courts inability to inquire into ownership in a forcible detainer (see Olds Bros. Lumber Co. v. Rushing, 64 Ariz. 199, 167 P.2d 394 (1946)), the Arizona Supreme Court stated: "[T]he statutes of this state make that very plain and indicate quite clearly that the right to actual possession is the only issue to be determined in such an action." Id. at 204, 397. The Court also discussed the legislative intent in limiting the scope of a forcible entry and detainer action stating:
The object of a forcible entry and detainer action is to afford a summary, speedy and adequate remedy for obtaining possession of premises withheld by tenants, and for this reason this objective would be entirely frustrated if the defendant were permitted to deny his landlord's title, or to interpose customary and usual defenses permissible in the ordinary action at law. And for the same reason, the merits of the title may not be inquired into in such an action, for if the merits of the title and other defenses above enumerated were permitted and the court heard testimony concerning them, then other and secondary issues would be presented to the court and the action would not afford a summary, speedy and adequate remedy for obtaining possession of the premises.
Id. at 204-05, 397. Because the trustee's deed is conclusive evidence of Plaintiff's title under A.R.S. § 33-811(B), and because the court is prohibited from inquiring into the merits of that title under A.R.S. § 12-1177(A), judgment must be rendered in favor of Plaintiff regardless of any defense of ownership the Defendants may raise.

OWNERSHIP DISPUTES AND EVICTIONS IN THE JUSTICE COURT

The ownership of property and their interaction with evictions can become very complex. The above article discusses issues of ownership disputes and evictions in the Superior Court, however, the rules that apply to ownership disputes and evictions in the Justice Court (where most evictions take place) are completely different. Follow this link to read about a blog post I wrote that discusses ownership disputes and evictions in the Justice Court.