MURRELL II – WINNING THE BATTLE BUT LOSING THE WAR …
Those fun-loving Murrells of Rolling Hills, California, are back for an encore performance! The couple’s quixotic effort to hold their condo association liable for all sorts of alleged backroom dealing and breach of trust in cutting down their trees to improve the view of their neighbors, the Fullers, was covered in our Case of the Day for Wednesday, May 11, 2016 (funny, it seems like only yesterday). Lest you think that the decision we covered was the end of the saga, we bring you Murrell II, the Very Expensive Sequel.
If you’re the kind of person who remembers what kind of mayo was on your sandwich at lunch a week ago last Thursday, you’ll recall that the Rolling Hills Community Association held an easement across the Murrell’s’ property for “[r]oads, streets, or bridle trails, parkways and park areas[, p]oles, wires and conduits for the transmission of electricity…; [p]ublic and private sewers, storm water drains, land drains, and pipes, water systems, water, heating and gas mains or pipes; and … [a]ny other method of conducting and performing any public or quasi-public utility service or function on, over and under the surface of the ground.” The easement gave the Association the right to trim or cut trees within its limits. The Fullers, whose view of the ocean was obscured by the Murrells’ trees, convinced the RHCA to trim back some of the Murrells’ trees and whack down a few others, so that they could enjoy the million-dollar vista they had paid for when they bought their place.
That’s “long story short.” The actual history of the tortured litigation and thundering herd of parties is byzantine with a small “b”, and is amply (if not completely) recounted in the full opinion. The Murrells ended up suing the Fullers, the RHCA, and an individual member of the RHCA board (who was seemingly picked at random). There were counterclaims and crossclaims. When the 2007 dust settled, the board member was dismissed, and judgments or pieces of judgments were rendered against the RHCA and the Murrells. Board member Donald Crocker was held not to have breached any duty. And a judge ordered the Murrells to pay more than $700,000 in legal fees for the Fullers and RHCA.
And you thought that it was confusing if you missed a couple episodes of Downton Abbey!
Naturally, everyone appealed. And that brings us to today’s 2011 decision.
Recollect that the Murrells argued the RHCA had no right to cut down trees to improve someone else’s view. In today’s case, they added the argument that the community association should have been equitably estopped from cutting down the trees because it had approved the Murrells’ construction of an addition to their home with a wall of windows, and the Fullers had not objected. Both parties, the Murrells contended, had lulled them into building something that depended on their trees for privacy, and the defendants could not fairly be allowed to strip their privacy away by cutting down those trees, even if it otherwise had the legal right to do so.
The Court of Appeals made short work of the Murrells’ latest lament. First, it concluded that the easement let the RHCA cut down trees for any reason it liked. As for the “equitable estoppel” argument, the judges held that “[t]he Murrells fail to cite pertinent authority that RHCA should be estopped from removing a tree on its easement because of the Murrells’ addition plans.” The decision was not elegant, but then, the Court pretty clearly thought the argument was so foolish as to not deserve much analysis.
Much of the remainder of the decision is dedicated to the Murrells’ complaints about how much they were forced to pay for the RHCA’s and Fullers’ attorneys. The lengthy recitation is mind numbing (unless you happen to be a lawyer, in which case $250.00 an hour for a second-year associate who carries your briefcase is a “feel good” story). The Murrells ended up winning $30,000 from RHCA and nothing from the Fullers. It cost them $500,000 in legal fees for themselves and another $492,000 in the defendants’ legal fees, all to fight for their recently departed Aleppo pine tree.
“Another such victory and I am undone!” King Pyrrhus is reputed to have said. So could the Merrills. At the same time, most of us find it difficult to imagine being able to drop $1.6 million on a legal battle over some trimmed trees.
Oh, to live in Rancho Palos Verde Estates. Or at least to be able to afford to do so …
Murrell v. Rolling Hills Community Association, Case No. B202019 (Ct.App. Cal., Jan. 31, 2011). A contentious and costly feud over trees and a neighbor’s view has spawned multiple legal actions, cross-actions, five appeals and two cross-appeals. To obtain an unobstructed ocean view, the Fullers wanted certain trees on “the Murrell property” trimmed or removed. The Murrells, who sought to preserve privacy, resisted. So began a decade-plus dispute.
After many attempts to mediate, the case went to trial in 2007. The Fullers obtained judgment in full against the Murrells in the amount of $10,000, and the Murrells obtained judgment in the amount of $30,000 against RHCA on RHCA’s breach of its covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) and breach of fiduciary duty.
The Murrells incurred $892,000 in attorney fees. They were awarded $400,000 as attorney fees against RHCA but were ordered to pay $159,000 as attorney fees to RHCA on a separate claim and $334,000 as attorney fees to the Fullers.
The Murrells claimed the CC&Rs did not authorize RHCA to “trim, top and/or remove trees and foliage on the Murrell property” for the purpose of providing the Fullers with an ocean view. The Fullers sued in turn for injunctive and declaratory relief that they had the right to have the trees cut or trimmed. The Murrells also sued RHCA for breach of the CC&Rs, breach of fiduciary duty, trespass, and conversion, alleging that by going onto the Murrell property and removing a pine tree in order to benefit the Fullers’ view at the expense of the Murrells’ privacy, RHCA acted contrary to the CC&Rs and its fiduciary duty to act in good faith and fair dealing.
In so doing, the Murrells claimed RHCA violated the CC&Rs because they did not empower RHCA “to remove trees in the easement on the Murrell property for any reason unrelated to the express and implied purposes of the easement, which are the creation of and maintenance of roads, bridle trails, utilities, parkways, park areas, above ground poles, wires and conduits as well as sewers, drains, pipes and below ground conduits.” denied the complaint’s material allegations and pleaded 17 affirmative defenses.
The trial court granted summary judgment to the RHCA. The Murrells contended summary judgment was improper on the grounds that neither RHCA nor the trial court addressed their equitable estoppel claim. The Murrells argued the CC&Rs cannot be interpreted to authorize RHCA to remove the pine tree, which was on RHCA’s easement, for the purpose of enhancing the Fullers’ view. They further argued that even if such authority existed, questions of fact existed regarding whether RHCA complied with its fiduciary duty to the Murrells in light of expert evidence that removal of the pine tree was unnecessary to improve the Fullers’ view.
The Murrells argued RHCA was estopped from asserting any right to remove the pine tree for the reason RHCA and the Fullers did not complain to the Murrells about their plans to construct an addition to their residence involving floor to ceiling windows, and in reliance on this “silence, ” the Murrells constructed this addition with the expectation that their “foliage and mature trees[, including the pine tree ]” would preserve their privacy.” The Court held that the Murrells failed to cite pertinent authority that RHCA should be estopped from removing a tree on its easement because of their addition plans. The estoppel argument failed.
The Murrells also contended RHCA was not authorized to remove the tree to enhance the Fullers’ view, which was not a reason recognized as an easement use under section 2(b) of article V under the CC&Rs. The Court held that the “fallacy of their position lies in their misinterpretation of the pertinent provisions of the CC&R’s. When viewed in context, these provisions reveal RHCA has the right to remove trees located in its easement, without regard to purpose.”
The Court said that the “language of the CC&Rs governs if it is clear and explicit, and we interpret the words in their ordinary and popular sense unless a contrary intent is shown.” The Court interpreted the CC&Rs “to make them lawful, operative, definite, reasonable and capable of being carried into effect, and [to] avoid an interpretation that would make them harsh, unjust or inequitable.” Here, it was uncontroverted that the Murrell property is burdened by an easement in favor of RHCA and that the pine tree was located on this easement portion of that property. RHCA had the right to remove trees located on that portion of the Murrell property burdened by its easement. The Court said that the unambiguous language of the CC&Rs in the phrase “in or along any easements” referred to the physical location of the tree which RHCA is authorized to remove rather than to any particular qualifying reason for its removal, for example, solely for an easement use or purpose. Thus, the fact that enhancing a member’s view is not an enumerated easement use is inconsequential.