THE BOUNDARY TREES OF WALTER PRIDDY
Although operating without a lot of the mental stimulants that were so freely available during the Summer of Love, we nonetheless started pondering the line “Back of my neck gettin’ dirty and gritty.” “Gritty” rhymes with “pretty,” which rhymes with “Priddy.” And there you have it. Thinking a lot about tree law (as we do), we recalled Walter Priddy.
“Oh, yeah,” you say, “that guy James Thurber wrote about. The secret life and all … The Ben Stiller movie …” No, not ‘Mitty.’ We’re talking ‘Walter Priddy.’ No “secret life” that we know of, but something just as fascinating – a line of boundary trees, an unhappy neighbor, a homeowner’s association, counterclaims. Our meat and potatoes, you know.
It ought to be rather obvious — a court can only decide issues that have been placed before it, and can only order remedies which address the causes of action that it has found to have merit. Courts sometimes lose their way, though, as did the California trial court in today’s case. The Boussiacoses (pronounced “them”) complained that the Priddys’ line of shade trees along their common boundary were a nuisance, messed up the Boussiacoses’ deck, and violated the homeowner’s associations’ rules. The Priddys argued that the trees did no such things, and anyway, the Boussiacoses’ deck had been built without homeowner’s association permission, constituted a nuisance itself, and violated the rules.
The trial court decided that neither side was right. Now your average observer would conclude that the decision meant that the Boussiacoses kept their deck and the Priddys kept their trees. But the trial court decided that the Boussiacoses must have reached an oral “understanding” (and we don’t know how an “understanding” surrounded by quotation marks differs one that isn’t in quotes) with the owners before the Priddys that the trees would be kept trimmed. Now, mind you, the Boussiacoses hadn’t argued that there was such an “understanding,” or that if there was it should be treated like some kind of enforceable agreement. But the trial judge – quite proud of his “solution” – decided that the phantom “understanding” should bind the Priddys anyway. He crafted a decision that let the Boussiacoses keep their deck provided the Priddys got to keep their trees, but the trees had to be hacked off at the height of some wrought-iron fence that was apparently part of the landscape.
Solomonic, you say? Not really. Remember that King Solomon never really intended to cut the baby in half. Plus, that decision at least directly addressed the issue the two warring women had placed before the King and no more – that questions being exactly whose baby the subject infant was. Here, the trial court found that there was nothing wrong with the trees and nothing wrong with the deck, but he ordered the trees trimmed anyway. It’s kind of like being charged with bank robbery, being found not guilty by the jury, but being sentenced to 5-10 years in the pen anyway because the judge thinks you probably cheated on your taxes.
The Court of Appeals thought as little of the trial court’s decision as we do. It made short work of the trial court’s order. Because no one had raised the issue of whether there had been an understanding (or “understanding”) about the trees between the plaintiffs and the prior owners of defendants’ place, the trial court couldn’t find there had been one and enter an order accordingly.
Boussiacos v. Priddy, 2007 WL 4306835 (Cal.App., Dec. 11, 2007). The Boussiacoses sued their next-door neighbors, the Priddys, for statutory nuisance and violation of their mutual homeowners association’s covenants and rules. They alleged the Priddys maintained trees which blocked the Boussiacoses’ view along the parties’ shared property line. The Priddys counter-sued, alleging nuisance and violation of the covenants and rules , because the Boussiacoses had apparently built their deck without the homeowners association’s approval.
Following a bench trial, the trial court found that neither party had proved any of the claims raised in the pleadings. However, the trial court entered judgment anyway, requiring the Priddys to maintain the trees at specified heights in accordance with an “understanding” allegedly entered into by the Boussiacoses and the previous owners of the Priddys’ property. He also ruled that the Boussiacoses could keep their deck. The Priddys appealed, arguing that the trial court couldn’t enter a judgment where it hadn’t found the Boussiacoses’ underlying claims to have any merit.
Held: The trial court’s “judgment” was thrown out. The Boussiacoses had asserted only two claims against the Priddys, statutory nuisance and violation of the homeowners’ association’s covenants and rules. Because the trial court concluded on the record that the Boussiacoses failed to prove either claim, the Court of Appeals said, the judge was without any legal authority to make findings regarding an “understanding” between the Boussiacoses and the previous owners of the Priddys’ property. Such an “understanding” wasn’t alleged in the pleadings. The judge could not conclude that this understanding was enforceable against the Priddys, and could not enter a judgment which imposed tree-trimming maintenance obligations on the Priddys.
The Court of Appeals held that a trial court’s award of relief must be based on a pleaded cause of action. Trial courts are more arbiters than gods. Here, the trial court transcended the limits of its authority. Because the record did not show that the enforcement of any agreement between the Boussiacoses and the previous owners of the Priddys’ property was before the court, the trial court erred by awarding the Boussiacoses relief on that basis.