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Wells Fargo Bank NA v. Renz

ELR Citation: 41 ELR 20209
Nos. No. 08-02561, (N.D. Cal., 06/09/2011)

A district court granted in part and denied in part several motions and cross-motions for summary judgment in a cost recovery and contribution action stemming from contamination at a dry cleaning business. The trustee of the property owner's estate filed suit against the former owners and lessees of the site. Among the defendants was the widow of one of the former lessees. The plaintiff insisted that she was an owner and/or operator for purposes of CERCLA because she, along with her husband, countersigned a document in which the original owners of the dry cleaning business assigned their lease to the couple. But to be an “owner,” the person must hold fee title or an equivalent “bundle of rights” in the property. A lease merely confers a possessory interest in property as opposed to title ownership. In addition, the limited evidence presented by plaintiff does not show that the widow had authority to control the cause of the contamination at the time the hazardous substances were released into the environment or that she engaged in hands-on, day-to-day participation in the management of the business. To the contrary, the record establishes that her husband both owned and operated the business. The plaintiff also argued that she was a "covered person" under federal and state environmental laws pursuant to California community property laws. But the plaintiff failed to cite any legal authority for the proposition that her community property or de facto partnership interest in the business necessarily transmutes her into a PRP within the meaning of CERCLA.