A SLOPPY AND LAZY TRIAL JUDGE
You have to appreciate the careful prose of an appellate court. Today’s case was brought in 1999, but was still sputtering along eight years later. The Rhode Island Supreme Court thought it knew why.
After a few pointed comparisons of the case to Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the Supreme Court asked the trial court what the Dickens was going on. The trial judge took his dear sweet time writing a decision — about five years — leading the Supreme Court to mention in a note, “We are mindful of the inordinate delay of the decision of the trial justice, which this Court does not favor.”
Beautiful understatement! The Supremes were saying to the trial judge, “Hey, dude, you’re lazy!” Of course, in the decision, the high court also implicitly said, “Hey, dude, you’re incompetent, too.” The reason for that was the trial judge’s failure to make the findings the Supreme Court needed to adequately review the decision.
A court speaks through its opinions, and when the trial court doesn’t make findings of fact, no one wins. The winner doesn’t know why he won, the loser doesn’t know why he lost, and the rest of us can’t derive any useful guidance from the case. In this case, an unusual argument arose in the battle over the location of an easement. The easement holder claimed the prior owner had obstructed the easement — a driveway — and demanded that the easement and everything on it be shifted a few feet to the south. This is called an easement by substitution. Some testimony suggested that an easement by substitution had been created. But the trial court couldn’t be bothered to make any findings on the issue, leaving everyone to puzzle whether something hadn’t been proven, some witness hadn’t been believed, or just what?
So after eight years, the case landed back in the trial court’s lap. Maybe the judge was waiting for the owners to tire of it all and settle, or to die or move to Florida… or for Rhode Island to be swallowed by the rising seas, or be consumed by an angry dragon… anything that would spare this poor trial judge from having to do his duty.
Nardone v. Ritacco, 936 A.2d 200 (Sup.Ct. R.I., Dec. 3, 2007). Nardone’s property bordered Lawton Foster Road. Ritacco owned an adjacent parcel of land behind Nardone’s property, with no frontage on Lawton Foster Road. In 1965, Nardone’s predecessor-in-interest, Ralph C. James, Sr., granted Ritacco a 50-foot right-of-way along the northern boundary line of what is now Nardone’s property. The right-of-way for ingress from and egress to Lawton Foster Road, has been the subject of many years of litigation.
On Memorial Day 1999, Ritacco cut trees and vegetation within the right-of-way. Nardone sued for a temporary and permanent injunctive relief to prohibit Ritacco from cutting the trees and from trespassing on Nardone’s land. The trial court entered a preliminary injunction and later found Ritacco in contempt of the order by cutting trees and vegetation outside the right-of-way. A key issue was the location of the right-of-way. In addition to arguing that the right-of-way was not originally located along the northern boundary of Nardone’s property but rather inside the boundaries of the land, Ritacco also asserted two alternative claims for relief: the existence of an easement by prescription as well as an easement by substitution over plaintiffs’ driveway. The trial court decided for Nardone, clarifying that the right-of-way was located along the northern boundary of Nardone’s property. Nardone appealed.
Held: A remand was necessary to determine whether Rotacco had acquired an easement by prescription or by substitution over Nardone’s driveway. The Supreme Court held that the trial court had properly found that the right-of-way over Nardone’s land was located on northern boundary of the land. The deed itself placed right-of-way “along the northerly boundary line” of the premises, and Nardone’s expert witness testified that, upon examining property, the boundaries were clear and right-of-way was located along the northern boundary of property. Ritacco’s expert had said that the deeds were not clear, but he hadn’t inspected the property itself, and the trial court’s discounting of his testimony was therefore reasonable.
However, Ritacco had also claimed that he had acquired an easement on land inside the Nardone boundaries by prescriptive easement. The trial court had ruled against him without a trial, but the Supreme Court ordered a remand for trial on the issues. The Supreme Court held that the trial court hadn’t addressed the issue of Ritacco’s permissive use of driveway, let alone determine whether sufficient factual support existed to conclude that permission to use driveway was given by Nardone or his predecessors-in-interest. A party who claims an easement by prescription bears the burden of establishing by clear and convincing evidence actual, open, notorious, hostile, and continuous use under a claim of right for at least ten years. In this case, the Court ruled, the trial judge had failed to make the specific findings of fact upon which he based his decision. When that happens, the trial court risks reversal or remand unless the record yields a full understanding and resolution of the controlling and essential factual and legal issues.
Here, there were unaddressed issues that were raised in pleadings and testified to at trial, including Ritacco’s testimony that perhaps Nardone’s predecessor-in-interest had granted him an easement by substitution. When the owner of a servient estate closes with a wall or other structure the original easement and points out another way which is accepted by the owner of the dominant estate, the new way may become the easement by substitution. The Supreme Court said that testimony indicated that James may have granted Ritacco an easement by substitution. However, the trial court failed to determine whether sufficient factual support existed to conclude that an easement by substitution was granted.