Can a trial court find an equitable easement (and a prescriptive easement) just based on what is feels is important and equitable? California’s Court of Appeal says no.
A trial court must determine that all of the elements required for an equitable easement were met in order to grant an easement. And while the trial court can resolve factual disputes at trial, the appellate court may determine whether the elements of an equitable easement have been established by the facts as a matter of law.
In Ranch At The Falls, LLC v. O’Neal, Eagle Knight Security Systems, Inc. and Murad Siam the court reversed a Los Angeles Superior Court trial court’s finding of prescriptive easement and equitable easement over properties in Chatsworth, a suburb of Los Angeles.
The opinion itself is long and the story is complicated. Even experienced Los Angeles real estate litigation attorneys will get lost in the telling. But here are some of the issues discussed by the court in its opinion dated July 31, 2019.
The trial court entered judgment on a cause of action for quiet title, “based upon an express easement, or, alternatively, a prescriptive easement.” However, the Statement of Decision drafted by the trial court had no findings regarding a prescriptive easement. A prescriptive easement requires use of the property which has been open, notorious, continuous and adverse for an uninterrupted period of five years. Whether the elements of prescription are established is a question of fact for the trial court. But in this case the trial court made no fact findings on these elements. Moreover, the Statement of Decision did not discuss the elements of a prescriptive easement or even mention the term at all.
The appellate court found that the trial court did not discuss prescriptive easement and did not make any fact findings regarding prescriptive easement. Moreover, the appellate court found that there was insufficient evidence to support a claim of prescriptive easement. This finding was mainly based on the fact that prescription cannot be gained if the use if permissive and that the period of alleged prescription did not cover an uninterrupted five years as required.
The majority of the opinion deals with the finding of an equitable easement.
The law on equitable easements is explained in Shoen v. Zacarias (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 16. Essentially there are three requirements required in order to establish an equitable easement. One of the misconceptions in real estate litigation—both among real estate litigation attorneys and judges handling real estate lawsuits–is that an equitable easement is like other equitable matters—a free-form weighing of various factors by a trial court to come up with whatever the trial court deems appropriate. The appellate court in this case shoots down that idea and reiterates that all three requirements must be met for an equitable easement to be granted.
The court notes that the judicial creation of an easement over a landowner’s property is permissible provided that the trespasser shows that (1) his trespass was “innocent” rather than “willful or negligent”, (2) the public or the property owner will not be “irreparably injured” by the easement, and (3) the hardship to the trespasser from having to cease the trespass is “greatly disproportionate” to the hardship cased the owner by the continuing encroachment.
“Unless all three prerequisites are established, a court lacks the discretion to grant an equitable easement.”
The appellate court makes this point multiple times in this opinion and goes on to clarify and expound on the holding.
Just because it is an equitable doctrine this does not give a trial court license to grant easements on the basis of “whatever [a court] deems important.”
The doctrine of equitable easements is also called the doctrine of “balancing of conveniences” or the doctrine of “relative hardships”, but these labels are “somewhat misleading”.
The appellate court emphasizes that the conveniences and hardships must, moreover, tip “disproportionately” in favor of the trespasser. The factors begin the analysis tipped in favor of the property owner “due to the owner’s substantial interest in exclusive use of her property arising solely from her ownership of her land.”
The justification for all of this is premised on the idea that “to allow a court to reassign property rights on a lesser showing is to dilute the sanctity of property rights enshrined in our Constitutions.”
In this case the appellate court found that the court discussed none of these points in its Statement of Decision. Moreover, the trial court “failed entirely to consider a critical point: whether plaintiff’s conduct was innocent, rather than willful or negligent.” In reviewing the specific facts of this case, the appellate court found that the plaintiff knew from the day she purchased the property in 1996 about the access issues.
This opinion addressed several other less important issues.
Interpretation of a Grant of Easement
The court first noted that the language of a grant of easement determines the scope of the easement. These grants are to be interpreted like contracts in general. A clear and unambiguous easement can be interpreted by examination of the document itself and all of its provisions. It is only if there is an uncertainty or ambiguity in the instrument conveying the easement that the court may then examine surrounding circumstances and the relationship between the parties and their respective properties.
The Merger Doctrine
The merger doctrine refers to the principle that an easement is usually extinguished when the same person acquires the fee title to both the dominant and servient tenements. However, the appellate court found that doctrine to be irrelevant in this case.
Indispensable Parties in Quiet Title Lawsuits
Real estate trial lawyers will know that the quiet title statutes in California (See Code of Civil Procedure §762.010 et seq.) require that all persons having an adverse claim be joined as party in a quiet title lawsuit.
In this lawsuit the homeowners of the housing developments owned title of the land to the center of the streets. The other homeowners were granted easements for access over their neighbors’ land so that private streets could be developed throughout the developments.
The trial court had initially ruled that these homeowners were not indispensable parties to the lawsuit and therefore they were not added and were not a party to the proceedings.
However, the judgment entered by the court stated that “any third party individual homeowners who are affiliated in any with [the HOA defendants] are bound by this judgment.”
The appellate court held that this cannot be the case unless the owners of the private streets were parties or unless the HOAs had the authority to bind its members to the grant of an easement over the streets owned by the members. It turns out that the HOA only had the authority to grant nonexclusive easements only to the extent necessary for maintenance, trash pickup and similar services. The appellate court found that the trial court had misinterpreted the HOA’s CC&Rs. It therefore ruled that the judgment of an easement over their properties could not stand.
Practice Pointers for Real Estate Attorneys and Property Owners
One of the most difficult aspects of easement law is the uncertainty. Many trial court judges revert to a simple analysis of what they think is “fair” or what seems “right” without properly considering all of the required legal elements for a claim of easement. Real estate trial attorneys therefore find it difficult to guide their clients with certainty as to what the outcome of trial in their case will be.
There are numerous appellate court opinions that emphasize this principle. However, it should be noted that all of these appeals arise because a trial court originally disregarded basic property rights and granted easements in the first place. Justice is eventually done but only if the client has the patience and the bankroll to last through the appellate process.
Briefs to the court should focus on the overarching idea that property—and the exclusive use that ownership entails—cannot be easily taken away. As the court in this case noted, the sanctity of property rights is a bedrock principle that cannot be lightly tossed aside.
We protect your property. Laine Wagenseller and the attorneys at Wagenseller Law Firm specialize in real estate lawsuits. Call us at (213) 286-0371.