LIAR, LIAR, PANTS ON FIRE
Remember prescriptive easements? Those are easements and other rights over property which can be taken because they are exercised adversely to the owner for a number of years (the number varies from state to state).
For example, the electric company strings wires across the corner of your homestead. You didn’t give anyone permission to do that. The wires hang there for 21 years, providing a perch for the pigeons and a trellis for the kudzu. You don’t like them, but you don’t do anything about them. Then you sell the place to Sherman Shyster, an angry lawyer with a word processor. He immediately sues the power company for trespass. But because the wires have been hanging there for a sufficient number of years, the court that the electric company has gained the right to the air rights over that corner of property by a “prescriptive easement.”
The exercise of adverse rights – the wires hanging there – must be done openly, notoriously and continuously. Anything less, and there’s no easement. In today’s case from California, Gabriele wanted a nice driveway on a sloping hill, but he couldn’t fit it onto his fairly vertical land. So he made a deal with his neighbor, Mrs. Hoehne. She gave him a non-exclusive easement to build a drive on a described bit of land, and in return he agreed to build a nice road for her to use to come down to and across a retention pond and dam she had.
Before the drive was built, Mrs. Hoehne sold her land to Ms. Cobb. Ms. Cobb didn’t much want Gabrielle’s driveway cutting across her place, but she was stuck with her predecessor’s easement. Still, she asked Gabriele about his intentions before construction began, and he showed her a sketch of the proposed drive.
Oops. The driveway didn’t get built according to plan, instead wandering onto Mrs. Cobb’s non-easement property. When Ms. Cobb finally had her own engineer study the layout of the driveway eight years later, he found the encroachment. California’s time period for a prescriptive easement is only five years, but Ms. Cobb claimed that Gabriele lied to her with the misleading driveway sketch. Therefore, she argued, his possession during the five-year period was neither open nor notorious.
Ah, the Court said, there’s a real difference between predicting today how the project will turn out, and describing tomorrow how it did really turn out. A prediction that doesn’t come true is not the same as a subsequent lie swearing that something that didn’t happen really did.
Gabriele thought the driveway would lie completely within the easement. No lie. The driveway turned out not to lie completely within the easement. While the error was lamentable, it was not a lie. That is, predicting a future lie isn’t a lie. Got that?
The court ruled that the driveway could stay where it was, having acquired the right by prescriptive easement.
Cobb v. Gabriele, Not Reported in Cal.Rptr.3d, 2007 WL 1247308 (Cal.App. 6 Dist., Apr. 30, 2007). In 1989, the Gabrieles bought a parcel of unimproved land along Salinas Road. Their engineer prepared plans for a driveway directly onto their land from Salinas Road, but the county wouldn’t permit it because the land was too steep. The Gabrieles discussed an easement with their neighbor, Phyllis Hoehne, who ultimately executed a non-exclusive easement for ingress, egress and public utilities over a piece of her land. The easement provided that the Gabrieles would build a driveway, drainage facilities, and erosion improvements on the easement land, and would allow Hoehne to use the driveway portion to access a retention dam located on her property. The Gabrieles also agreed to build an access road across the dam.
Hoehne then sold her land to Cobb, who didn’t much like the easement. Gabrielle built the driveway without notice to Cobb two years later, and when she demanded to know what he was doing, showed her a sketch which depicted the proposed driveway completely within the easement boundaries.
Somehow, the driveway wasn’t built according to the plan, but instead went outside the easement and encroached on between 100 and 120 feet on Cobb’s property. The Gabrieles have used the driveway continuously since its construction, having paved it in 1997. But the Gabrieles didn’t build what they had promised Hoehne. When Cobb asked about the access road, the Gabrieles explained that the road was just going to be a roughed in dirt road the width of a bulldozer blade, to be used only for a fire exit. Gabriele said Cobb had changed her mind, and didn’t want the roughed-in road. But in March 2000, Cobb’s attorney wrote to the Gabrieles about the easement. He asserted that some of the improvements that were supposed to have been constructed in connection with the driveway had not been completed, and that the driveway had been construed in a location outside of that designated by the easement. However, Cobb testified that at that time she did not have “absolute knowledge” that the driveway was outside the easement. She said her attorney had made that accusation to cover all possibilities should there be litigation.
In 2003, Cobb received a survey showing the encroachment. Cobb sued that year to quiet title and prayed for declaratory and injunctive relief. She wanted an order that the driveway must be moved. She asserted causes of action for trespass, nuisance, breach of contract, negligence, waste, failure to maintain, unreasonable use, fraud, diversion and diminution of water, and damages to trees, and she sought compensatory and punitive damages.
The trial court granted the Gabrieles’ motion for summary adjudication on the claims for trespass, nuisance, negligence, waste, fraud, diversion/diminution, and damage to trees and the request for punitive damages, finding them barred by the three-year statute of limitations, but found in Cobb’s favor on her claim for failure to maintain. The trial court also found that the Gabrieles had a prescriptive easement over the property where the driveway went outside of the written easement.
Held: The judgment was affirmed. The Court of Appeals found that Gabrieles had shown the elements necessary to establish a prescriptive easement, that the use of the property has been open, notorious, continuous and adverse for an uninterrupted period of five years.
The Court said that the requirement that the use be hostile and adverse and under claim of right means that the property owner has not expressly consented to or permitted, allowed, or authorized the use of his or her land; and the user does not recognize or acknowledge the owner’s rights, not necessarily that one must know that the use constitutes an encroachment or trespass. In short, where one openly and continuously — even mistakenly — uses another’s property for the 5-year period without the owner’s interference, it is presumed that the use was adverse, hostile, and by claim of right.
Here, the record showed that the driveway encroached on Cobb’s property. Cobb knew about the recorded easement and had constructive knowledge of its boundaries. As well, she knew exactly where the driveway was constructed and saw the Gabrieles continuously use it for more than the prescriptive period. Finally, there was no evidence that Cobb expressly permitted the Gabrieles to use any area outside the easement, nor was there evidence that the Gabrieles intended to stop using the entire driveway or remove part of it if they had known that part of it was outside the easement.
Cobb claimed the Gabrieles failed to establish the open-and-notorious element because Gabriele concealed the fact that the driveway encroached on her property. She noted that Gabriele assured her that the driveway would be inside the easement and gave her a diagram to that effect. Given the concealment, Cobb argued, she did not have knowledge or constructive notice that the driveway constituted an encroachment.
The Court, however, said that before the driveway was actually constructed, Gabriele gave Cobb a sketch showing that it would be within the easement. Thus, it only represented his understanding of where the driveway would be located, not where it had been located. There was no evidence that when Gabriele gave Cobb the sketch, he knew the driveway would be constructed outside the easement; nor is there evidence that after it was built, the Gabrieles knew it encroached on Cobb’s property. And at trial, Cobb conceded that the Gabrieles did not know about the encroachment until her engineer conducted his survey in 2003.
Mrs. Cobb simply couldn’t have it both ways.
– Tom Root