A recent lawsuit alleges solar panels installed atop a Bakersfield home have created an unlawful legal cloud over the property.
Giuliana Vista's lawsuit, filed Oct. 24 in Kern County Superior Court, alleges San Jose-based SunPower has failed to remove liens it placed on a south Bakersfield home at 909 Marmara Ave. The property ended up selling in foreclosure last summer.
Those liens were put in place in 2016 when the home's previous owner apparently signed a contract with SunPower for the installation of rooftop solar panels. But now that the 2012 deed of trust has been foreclosed on, Giuliana's lawyer insists the solar liens must be removed.
SunPower's failure to remove the liens, even after Giuliana offered to let the company recover the panels at no charge, makes it hard to market the property for sale, plaintiff's attorney Craig Braun said.
SunPower did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
The case may not be open and shut, said Brad Heavner, policy director for the California Solar & Storage Association, which represents 500 companies including SunPower.
Although he declined to comment on the specifics of the case, he said solar liens often are superior to mortgage liens, meaning the foreclosure might not necessarily wipe away the solar liens.
What's more, it may be in Giuliana's best interest to leave the solar panels in place as a potential selling point, Heavner said.
"It should be a positive asset of making the house more sellable," he said.
That may be true, said Giuliana partner Frank St. Clair, a Bakersfield real estate investor. But not all buyers like the debt a solar system can entail.
"The deal is, I don't like people telling me I have to have solar," he said.
The situation is not very common but it's not unheard of, either.
Braun said he has handled five such cases during the last two to three years. Usually they're settled easily, though Giuliana's suit could take more than a year to resolve.
"I am hopeful that won't happen in this case," he said.
Heavner said cases like this used to be rare. A fund set up by former Gov. Jerry Brown to resolve such disputes went untouched during its first three years, he said.
He added it's possible the solar company will simply end up retrieving the solar panels, which would cost time and money.
"I think everyone's usually looking for a resolution that works for all concerned," Heavner said. "Removing the system (rarely) makes sense."
Giuliana's lawsuit seeks $25,000 in compensatory damages, plus lawsuit costs and other damages.
Editor's note: The story has been revised to reflect Heavner's assertion that removing rooftop solar panels from a foreclosed home rarely makes sense, financially, for the company that installed the system.