Clerk Case Study: Martin’s Beach

Just over a week ago, we introduced Clerk — a new brief analysis tool powered by Judicata’s map of California law. Today, we’re excited to publish a “case study” on Clerk — the first of a series of blog posts where we run briefs from recent, newsworthy litigations through Clerk.

This inaugural post concerns a local case: Friends of Martin’s Beach v. Martin’s Beach 1 LLC.

It shows how Clerk would have helped the lawyers in Friends of Martin’s Beach:

  1. identify winning arguments that they missed (but which the judge ultimately relied on)
  2. support their arguments with cases that better advance their goals

The background

Law-wise, Friends of Martin’s Beach v. Martin’s Beach 1 LLC is an issue of private property rights, dedications, and public access to coastline under the 1976 California Coastal Act.

Story-wise, it’s a classic case of surfers v. “the man.”

Anything to catch the perfect wave.

Martin’s Beach is a short, picturesque stretch of shoreline located about 45 minutes south of San Francisco. It’s abutted by a small settlement of homes, with one road (Martin’s Beach Road) providing access to both the houses and the beach. Due to the geography of the area and the steep cliffs surrounding the beach, the road is the only access point for Martin’s Beach. It’s this road, and the public’s access to it, that is ultimately at issue here.

Since the 1930’s, the owners of the property that abutted Martin’s Beach would welcome surfers, picnickers and fishermen down Martin’s Beach Road — offering parking for a small fee [the nature and purpose of this fee is factually disputed, which proves important later].

Fast forward to 2008. Two mysterious LLCs, Martin’s Beach 1 and Martin’s Beach 2 (“the LLCs”), bought the land and after two years of keeping the gate to Martin’s Beach Road open, abruptly shut it in 2010. Visitors were greeted by no trespassing signs and padlocks.

The locked gate at Martin’s Beach Road.

The legal battle that ensued was all about whether or not the new owner could legally block public access to Martin’s Beach. The LLCs argued it was their right as the property owner; the surfers and other local residents felt otherwise. To date, there are three active lawsuits concerning access to Martin’s Beach — the one we discuss today (Friends of Martin’s Beach) and two others — one filed by Martin’s Beach 1 LLC and the other brought by Surfrider Foundation.

The Law

Dedications, Easements, and the 1976 California Coastal Act are at the crux of the Martin’s Beach litigations. With the Public Trust Doctrine at its foundation, one of the key functions of the Coastal Act (and the Coastal Commission it created) is to ensure continued public access to the coast:

The Legislature further finds and declares that the basic goals of the state for the coastal zone are to ... Maximize public access to and along the coast and maximize public recreational opportunities in the coastal zone consistent with sound resources conservation principles and constitutionally protected rights of private property owners.
(Pub. Resources Code, § 30001.5)

The methods by which most of this public access to beaches is secured is via easements on, or dedications of, private lands leading to public spaces. While the two other litigations address the issue of what is “development” under the California Coastal Act, this litigation (Friends of Martin’s Beach) concerns issues of dedication. If the courts determine that there was a dedication from the previous owners of the property to the public to access the beach, the LLCs would not be able to block access to the coastline.

The Litigation History

After purchasing the Martin’s Beach property, the LLCs fired first in the long line of litigations to follow. In 2009, San Mateo County notified the LLCs that a coastal development permit (CDP) would be required to block access to Martin’s Beach. In 2010, after unsuccessfully suing San Mateo County and the Coastal Commission to declare that they did not need a CDP, the LLCs closed access to the road anyway. In 2012, after 2 years of back-and-forth with the LLCs, a private group, Friends of Martin’s Beach (Friends), brought a suit against the LLCs for quiet title by public easement (by express dedication) allowing access to the beach. The instant issue of dedication is independent of the CDP issue (the subject of the other two pending litigations).

The Friends litigation has gone up and down through the courts. Most recently, the case has come down to an issue of whether or not there was a dedication of public access made over the previous hundred years. The LLCs argue no, Friends argues yes. The LLCs originally won on the dedication issue at trial court, but got reversed on appeal in 2016. After remand back to the trial court, the LLCs’ most recent argument was that the dedication issue is not an issue of fact, and can be resolved on the law alone. The vehicle for getting this sort of judgment on the law and avoiding trial is a motion for summary judgment, which the LLCs filed.

In their motion for summary judgment, the LLCs argue that undisputed facts establish that there was no dedication as a matter of law. Friends argues that the issue should be resolved at trial because there are disputed facts, and it is thus a matter of facts.

Clerk’s Analysis:

We reviewed the LLCs’ brief in support of their motion for summary judgment, Friends’ opposition brief, and the decision that ultimately denied the motion. Let’s explore what Clerk has to say about the litigation, and what the LLCs and Friends of Martin’s Beach could have done to improve their briefs.

Overall, the LLCs do a good job of citing to arguments that are favorable to defendants.

However, the relative weakness of the LLCs’ Supports and Case Vulnerability suggest that they were making stretch arguments — supporting their legal principles with dissimilar cases that are prone to being distinguished and disregarded.

Creative Arguments (matter of factly, it’s not a matter of law)

The main challenge for the LLCs was that this was a motion for summary judgment, asking that judgment be rendered as a matter of law. But there is scant support for deciding issues of dedication as a matter of law.

In fact, there is no support at all. In prior cases, this issue has always been decided as a matter of fact at trial. This trend is visible in the cases that Clerk identifies as the most factually similar. For that reason, the LLCs had a weak leg to stand on and didn’t rely on a single dedication case decided on a motion for summary judgment.

The LLCs tried to bridge this gap, relying instead on dedication cases where the defendant won at trial for its key supports and propositions. For example:

“Defendants are therefore entitled to judgement [sic] as a matter of law holding that no dedication occurred.” (See Friends of the Hastain Trail v. Coldwater Development LLC, supra, 1 Cal.App.5th at 1028 [“An owner may avoid dedication by affirmatively proving the public was granted a license to use the property.”].)

Friends of the Hastain Trail is a case involving judgment after trial. Other such cases that the LLCs relied on include: County of Orange v. Chandler-Sherman Corp., 54 Cal.App.3d 561, 126 Cal.Rptr. 765 (1976), Flavio v. McKenzie, 218 Cal.App.2d 549, 32 Cal.Rptr. 535 (1963) and Aptos Seascape Corp. v. County of Santa Cruz, 138 Cal.App.3d 484, 188 Cal.Rptr. 191 (1982).

But the opposition never raised the issue of the different procedural posture. Instead, Friends of Martin’s Beach attempted to distinguish Chandler-Sherman and Aptos Seascape Corp. on factual grounds:

“We are somewhat baffled by defendants’ citation to County of Orange v. Chandler- Sherman Corp. (1976) 54 Cal.App.3d 561 and Aptos Seascape Corp. v. County of Santa Cruz (1982) 138 Cal.App.3d 484 as supportive of their argument. Both cases correctly explain the requirements of dedication, but in neither case were there overt acts of dedication by the owner. Further, in neither case was there evidence of substantial public use. Rather, public use was sporadic and limited.”

The judge ultimately ignored this argument.

Fortunately for the opposition, though, the judge saw through the LLCs’ arguments to the underlying issue: that these decisions don’t support the grant of a motion for summary judgment because they were decided on judgment after trial (which means they were resolved as matters of fact).

Clerk just went live, so the parties didn’t have access to its analysis when this motion was being argued. Had they been able to use Clerk, though, they would have seen the underlying issue surfaced in just seconds.

Clerk immediately flags that the LLCs are not relying on dedication cases that match the procedural posture of the motion:

Note that all the cases with the same cause of action and outcome have a different posture.

Moreover, Clerk takes it one step further and identifies that not only does County of Orange v. Chandler-Sherman Corp., 54 Cal.App.3d 561, 126 Cal.Rptr. 765 (1976) arise on a different procedural posture, it is highly vulnerable to being distinguished:

Armed with this information, Friends of Martin’s Beach would have been set to present the argument that ultimately won: Chandler-Sherman and the other cases weren’t decided on a motion for summary judgment, so they don’t support judgment as a matter of law. Rather, they were decided at trial as matters of fact. The LLCs’ key precedent actually supports Friends’ desired outcome: denial of the motion for summary judgment.

Additionally, looking at the table of defendant-winning cases highlights another key takeaway. There are two cases that do arise on Summary Judgment, but they do not match the cause of action at hand.

Note that the cases match the posture and outcome, but do not have a matching cause of action.

The LLCs cite these two cases to demonstrate when a question of fact becomes a question of law:

“A question of fact, however, becomes a question of law appropriate for summary judgment where the evidence is undisputed and only one reasonable inference can be drawn. (See e.g., Chateau Chamberay Homeowners Ass’n v. Associated Intern. Ins. Co. (2001) 90 Cal.App.4th 335, 346 [granting summary adjudication on insurance bad faith claim because “[w]hile the reasonableness of an insurer’s claims-handling conduct is ordinarily a question of fact, it becomes a question of law where the evidence is undisputed and only one reasonable inference can be drawn from the evidence]; Martinez v. Scott Specialty Gases, Inc. (2000) 83 Cal.App.4th 1236, 1249 [“[W]aiver is ordinarily a question of fact but becomes a question of law where the facts can support only one conclusion.”].)”

Even though the opposition didn’t pick up on the difference in the causes of action, the court, once again, did and noted that the cases were inapposite:

Investigating The Outcomes

The two sides ended up relying on a web of cases that follow and oppose each other: Gion v. City of Santa Cruz (1970) 2 Cal.3d 29 and Friends of the Trails v. Blasius, 78 Cal.App.4th 810, 93 Cal.Rptr.2d 193 (2000) on one side, versus County of Orange v. Chandler-Sherman Corp. and Friends of the Hastain Trail v. Coldwater Dev. L.L.C. on the other. As often happens, their respective treatments and outcomes fit in opposite quadrants of an outcome matrix:

The LLCs don’t mention Gion, but Clerk identifies that Gion is a key case to consider.

Gion ended up being one of the main cases that Friends of Martin’s Beach relied on in its opposition brief.

Additionally, Clerk catches that the LLCs made a mistake when they cited Friends of the Trails v. Blasius in support of a couple legal principles that would be better supported by citations to Friends of the Hastain Trail:

This is because, as Mark Herrmann identifies in the Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, it is better to support legal arguments with cases that have the desired outcome:

When I discuss a case in a brief, I think carefully about the persuasive force of the precedent. I prefer to cite cases where the trial court did what my opponent is seeking here, and the appellate court reversed. Judges do not like to be reversed.… The second most persuasive precedent is a case in which the trial court did what I am asking the trial court to do in my case, and the appellate court affirmed.

Here, Friends of the Trails v. Blasius followed Gion and ruled for the plaintiff. So it is at odds with the outcome that the LLCs — the defendants — desire.

The LLCs would have been better off relying on Friends of the Hastain Trail v. Coldwater Dev. L.L.C. because it states the same legal principles and supports the outcome they want.

Conclusion

We’ve seen here how Clerk would have assisted the lawyers involved by helping them:

  1. make winning arguments
  2. support their arguments with cases that advance their desired outcome

Never before has software been capable of assisting lawyers with their most difficult task — strongly and successfully advocating for their clients.

Clerk brings data driven insights to litigation, a field that was previously beyond the scope of calculation, computers, and the great advances being made in artificial intelligence. The practice of law will be better for it.

Interested in using Clerk to evaluate your briefs or those of your opponents? Let us know!

Addendum:

While this litigation was pending, another litigation in the Martin’s Beach Saga, Surfrider Foundation v. Martin’s Beach 1 LLC, was resolved in the First District Court of Appeal. With the clipping of a padlock, Martin’s Beach is now open to visitors … for a small parking fee.