Judge: Richard Y. Lee, Case: 30-2021-01222398, Date: 2022-08-18 Tentative Ruling

The Motion to Strike brought by Defendant Anaheim Hills Planned Community Association is GRANTED in part, with 20 days leave to amend, and DENIED in part.  The Court grants the portion of the motion directed towards the prayers for punitive damages included in the Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Causes of Action, as well as the portion of the motion directed towards ¶53 at lines 2-4, with 15 days leave to amend. The remainder of the motion is DENIED.


Under Code of Civil Procedure section 436, the court may, upon a motion or at any time in its discretion, and upon terms it deems proper, strike out “...any irrelevant, false, or improper matter inserted in any pleading” or “all or any part of any pleading not drawn or filed in conformity with the laws of this state, a court rule, or an order of the court.” (Code Civ. Proc. § 436(a)-(b); See Quiroz v. Seventh Ave. Ctr. (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 1256, 1281.) Irrelevant matters include allegations not essential to a claim or defense, allegations not pertinent to nor supported by a sufficient claim or defense, or requesting relief not supported by the allegations of the complaint or cross-complaint. (Code Civ. Proc. § 431.10(b).)


A motion to strike is an appropriate mechanism for challenging the adequacy of punitive damages allegations. (Grieves v. Superior Court (1984) 157 Cal.App.3d 159, 164).


“In order to survive a motion to strike an allegation of punitive damages, the ultimate facts showing an entitlement to such relief must be pled by plaintiff. [Citations.] In passing on the correctness of a ruling on a motion to strike, judges read allegations of a pleading subject to a motion to strike as a whole, all parts in their context, and assume their truth. [Citations.] In ruling on a motion to strike, courts do not read allegations in isolation. [Citations.]” (Clauson v. Superior Court (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1253, 1255.) “Further, even though certain language pleads ultimate facts or conclusions of law, such language when read in context with the facts alleged as to defendants’ conduct may adequately plead the evil motive requisite to recovery of punitive damages.” (Monge v. Superior Court (1986) 176 Cal.App.3d 503, 510.)


To support exemplary damages, the complaint must allege facts of defendant’s oppression, fraud, or malice, as required by Civil Code section 3294. (Civil Code § 3294(a); College Hospital Inc. v. Superior Court (1994) 8 Cal. 4th 704, 721; Turman v. Turning Point of Central Calif., Inc. (2010) 191 Cal.App.4th 53, 63.) “Malice” is defined as conduct which is intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff or despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others. (Civil Code § 3294(c)(1).) “Oppression” is defined as despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights. (Civil Code § 3294(c)(2).)


Civil Code section 3294 requires proof of "oppression," "frau or "malice," each involving intentional, willful or conscious wrongdoing of a despicable or injurious nature. (College Hospital Inc. v. Superior Court (1994) 8 Cal. 4th 704, 721.) Absent an intent to injure the plaintiff, "malice" requires more than a "willful and conscious disregard" of the plaintiff's interests, an additional component of despicable conduct is necessary. (Id. at p. 725.)


“The adjective ‘despicable’ connotes conduct that is ... so vile, base, contemptible, miserable, wretched or loathsome that it would be looked down upon and despised by ordinary decent people. … [A] breach of a fiduciary duty alone without malice, fraud or oppression does not permit an award of punitive damages. [Citation.] The wrongdoer … must act with the intent to vex, injure, or annoy, or with a conscious disregard of the plaintiff's rights. … Punitive damages are appropriate if the defendant's acts are reprehensible, fraudulent or in blatant violation of law or policy. The mere carelessness or ignorance of the defendant does not justify the imposition of punitive damages. . . Punitive damages are proper only when the tortious conduct rises to levels of extreme indifference to the plaintiff's rights, a level which decent citizens should not have to tolerate…” (Lackner v. North (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 1188, 1210.)


Within this motion, Defendant AHPCA asserts Plaintiffs have failed to allege facts which support punitive damages and, instead, have merely alleged unintentional negligence.  A review of the allegations in the Complaint demonstrates that, while Plaintiffs have alleged a duty to maintain the subject tree and a failure to do so, Plaintiffs have not alleged any facts which demonstrate that Defendant knew the subject tree posed a danger, at the time it failed to take action. (See ¶17 of FAC). 


There are no allegations, for example, which indicate the tree was visibly in need of maintenance, prior to its fall.  Instead, the Complaint merely asserts that “[i]f a tree falls in a residential neighborhood, it is an obviously dangerous condition.” (¶17 of FAC).  Similarly, while the Complaint asserts the tree could only have fallen due to the lack of maintenance (¶66 of FAC), the statement is not supported by allegations of fact.


Absent factual allegations which indicate Defendant knew the tree was rotting and nonetheless failed to maintain the tree, Plaintiffs have not alleged “despicable conduct” or an intent to injure, sufficient to demonstrate “malice” or “oppression” for purposes of Civil Code §3294.


While Plaintiffs repeatedly refer to Defendant AHPCA’s failure to maintain the tree as “intentional” and “willful,” as noted by Defendant, a “conclusory characterization of defendant’s conduct as intentional, willful and fraudulent is a patently insufficient statement of ‘oppression, fraud, or malice’ . . . within the meaning of section 3294.” (Brousseau v. Jarrett (1977) 73 Cal.App.3d 864, 873.)


Similarly, while Plaintiffs cite Unruh v. Truck Ins. Exchange (1972) 7 Cal.3d 616 for the proposition that “malice” is properly pleaded by alleging the wrongful motive, intent or purpose” and “[a] general allegation of such intent is sufficient to support a claim for exemplary damages,” Plaintiffs have not in fact alleged any motive or intent to injure them. (Id. at 632 [superseded by statute on another ground as stated in Hendy v. Losse (1991) 54 Cal.3d 723, fn. 6]).


While the Opposition asserts “the Hollers expressly pleaded that the HOA failed to maintain the tree, and refused to repair the damage caused by the tree, because it wanted to pinch pennies and avoid the risk of any special assessment,” (Opposition: 14:13-15), this argument is unpersuasive as: (1) Plaintiffs do not cite any allegations of the above; and (2) Regardless, the above does not establish an intent to injure Plaintiffs.


While Plaintiffs earlier argued the above point, citing ¶26, ¶28, ¶37, ¶39 and ¶53 of the First Amended Complaint, the cited paragraphs make no reference to any desire to avoid a special assessment or any desire to save money.  Additionally, Plaintiffs cite no allegations which allege Defendant was aware of the risk the tree would fall, but opted against maintaining the tree to save money.


“[U]nintentional carelessness, while it may constitute negligence or even gross negligence, will not support an award of punitive damages.” (Nolin v. National Convenience Stores, Inc. (1979) 95 Cal.App.3d 279, 285-286).


Notably, within the opposition to this motion, Plaintiffs assert “[p]unitive damages aren’t on the table in this case because the HOA unintentionally let the tree go unmaintained…[p]unitive damages are on the table in this case because the HOA cruelly concocted excuses and dragged its heels to (1) escape its maintenance obligations, and (2) pass the financial responsibility for those repairs onto the Hollers or its co-defendant.” (Opposition: 7:9-12). 


Interestingly, in opposing this Motion, Plaintiffs focus their argument on allegations the “HOA” failed to repair the property. (See Opposition: 8:9-16, citing ¶24, ¶32, ¶41 and ¶51-¶52 of FAC).  Similarly, Plaintiffs direct the Court to allegations relating to the damages suffered by Plaintiffs, due to this failure. (See Opposition: 8:17-9:8, citing ¶36, ¶42, ¶44, ¶47 and ¶51 of FAC; See also Opposition: 15:8-11).  However, as noted by moving Defendant, the Complaint expressly alleges that only Defendant Horizon’s had the obligation to repair the property. (¶29 of the FAC).  Pursuant to ¶29 of the FAC, “Horizon’s attempts to force Anaheim Hills to repair the Property, was not only clearly for show, but it was also entirely pointless. The Sub CC&Rs specifically, and unequivocally, require Horizons to repair the Property.”


Plaintiffs identify no allegations which assert Defendant AHPCA was obligated to repair the property or which demonstrate Defendant AHPCA intentionally and knowingly failed to perform an obligation to repair the property. 


Based on all of the above, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have not alleged sufficient facts to demonstrate “malice” or “oppression,” in connection with Defendant’s failure to maintain the tree.  The Court also notes that no allegations have been identified, which allege fraud.  Thus, the request to strike the prayers for punitive damages is GRANTED with leave to amend.


Finally, in addition to the prayers for punitive damages, the motion expressly requests the Court strike 10 different allegations in the Complaint. The Court grants the request to strike ¶53 at lines 2-4, for largely the same reasons stated above: There are no allegations which indicate Defendant was aware the tree was in a dangerous condition or that Defendant knew there existed a risk the tree could fall.   Consequently, the allegation in ¶53 at lines 2-4 is conclusory.


The remainder of the motion is DENIED, as the identified allegations are not clearly “irrelevant, false, or improper.” (Code Civ. Proc. § 436(a)). While the complaint does not contain sufficient allegations to demonstrate “malice” or “oppression,” the Complaint does allege a failure to maintain the tree, which has caused damage to Plaintiffs.  Although this failure does not demonstrate an intent to injure Plaintiffs or disregard of a danger, it is nonetheless appropriate for Plaintiffs to allege a willful failure to maintain the tree.


Moving party to give notice.