Case of the Day – Friday, October 11, 2019

MULLIGAN SEASON


I may slip over the border on Monday (the border between the U.S.A. and our neighbor to the north) to enjoy turkey and all the fixings. My favorite holiday of the year is Thanksgiving, and thanks to a cultural quirk, our Canadian cousins celebrate it way before we do. Monday may be Indigenous Columbus Day in the United States, but its turkey day in the provinces. Well, turkey and Jiggs’ Dinner and butter tarts.

And then, we get a mulligan, a do-over, on Thanksgiving in 45 days. Life is good. And after that, we’ll get Thanksgiving Day over, and over and over until the leftovers are either eaten or spoil.  As Yogi Berra might have said, today’s case and Thanksgiving dinner will both be déjà vu all over again.

It seems there was trouble in Randolph County, Alabama, up near the Georgia line. The Ledfords had purchased a nice vacation home on a lake, next to a place owned by the Youngs. While the Youngs appreciated the natural setting, the Ledfords were more concerned that nature’s bounty – specifically one large pine tree on the boundary between the Ledford’s land and the Young property – was going to fall on their house. They wanted the tree cut down. The Youngs refused. The matter ended up in court.

Of course, regular treeandneighborlawblog readers know how that should have turned out: if the tree really sits on the boundary line, both landowners have to agree before it can be cut down. The trial court reasoned otherwise. Under the Massachusetts Rule, a landowner can trim parts of a tree that overhang or grow under his or her property, all the way from the center of the earth to the sky. So that meant the Ledfords could cut out half of the tree, the court mused. That would kill the tree, but the court interpreted the Massachusetts Rule to mean that since you’re allowed to hack at the roots and branches of a tree without regard to the damage you cause, then you can take down the whole boundary tree if you like. The trial court gave the Ledfords the go-ahead to take down the tree.

The Youngs appealed, and common sense prevailed. The Court of Appeals explained the proper boundary tree rule, and reversed the trial court’s errant ruling. But in so doing, a few judges on the appeal panel wondered aloud (or at least, in the written opinion) why the Ledfords hadn’t argued that they had the right to cut down the pine tree because it was a nuisance. Remember Fancher v. Fagella? One judge went so far as to say that if the record held evidence of nuisance, he would have upheld the trial court, wrong though its reasoning was.

Do we have to spell it out? The trial court was just plain wrong.

Do we have to spell it out? The trial court was plain wrong.

Well, the Ledfords could take a hint. When the case went back to the trial court “for proceedings consistent with this opinion,” as the court of appeals decisions like to say, they asked for a do-over, a second hearing, this one on nuisance. ‘Hold the phone!’ the Youngs cried. ‘The Court of Appeals said the Ledfords lost. The tree stays standing. Game over.’

The trial court gave the Ledfords their mulligan. It ordered a second hearing, and afterwards found the pine tree to be a nuisance. The Ledfords were told they could cut it down. Again.

The Youngs went back the court of appeals for a writ of mandamus, essentially a request that the court of appeals issue an order telling the trial court it couldn’t hold the second hearing. The court of appeals refused to do so. Applying an obscure rule called the “law of the case” doctrine, the appellate court held that while the trial court was required to apply the ruling the court of appeals had issued, that ruling was just that the Ledfords could not cut down a boundary tree without the agreement of their neighbors. The court of appeals did not say the tree had to remain – just that if it was to be cut down, it couldn’t be on the basis originally articulated by the trial court.

The lessons here? The Ledfords’ attorney should have argued nuisance to begin with. It should have been clear that arguing that his clients could cut down a boundary tree was a loser. Besides, in civil litigation, you argue as many alternative theories as possible to get your clients where they want to end up. Who knows which one will be a winner?

Of course, the Ledfords ended up winning, and the pine tree lost. But as an old judge once cautioned us, you should never dig up more snakes than you can kill. Why buy a second trip to the court of appeals by leaving out an argument, and asking for a mulligan later?

A few too many snakes? The Ledford's lawyer courted procedural trouble.

A few too many snakes dug up here? The Ledfords’ lawyer courted procedural trouble.

Ex parte Young, 79 So.3d 656 (Ala.Civ.App. 2011): The Ledfords owned a vacation house with a pine tree located slightly over 10 feet from Ledford’s house, on the boundary between their property and that of the Youngs. Fearing that [a] strong wind against the tree could cause it to fall on the home and could cause damage to the [house] as well as serious injury to any occupants,’ the Ledfords wanted a court order that they could cut it down.

The Youngs argued that the pine tree was ‘a true boundary line tree’ and contended that it could not cut down by either property owner without permission of the other. After a hearing in which the Ledfords, the Youngs, and a forester hired by the Youngs all gave testimony, the trial court held that Ledford and her husband could remove the tree at their convenience, taking steps to minimize damage to the Youngs’ lot. The trial court held that because Alabama law let a landowner remove any trees on his or her property up to the property line, and this right extended to the center of the earth and into the sky, the Ledfords were free to hack into the pine tree up to the property line and then cut from that point to the center of the earth and into the sky. The Court said that “[s]ince [the Ledfords] unquestionably has the right to remove any portion of the tree that is located on [their] side of the property line and since doing so would likely kill the tree, the Court is of the opinion that [they] should be allowed to completely remove the tree to ensure” that the property and the health of anyone there are protected.

When the case got to the Court of Appeals the first time, it was promptly reversed. Rejecting the trial court’s tortured “center of the earth to the sky” analysis, the appellate court ruled that “[i]n the special case of a boundary-line tree, … each adjacent landowner has ownership rights that cannot be trumped by the other’s desires in the manner suggested by the trial court’s judgment” and that the Ledfords – contrary to the trial court’s judgment – could not properly “‘cut into the tree to the property line and then cut from that point to the center of the earth and into the sky'” without incurring liability to the Youngs.

But the appellate court went a little further. In a concurring opinion, two of the judges on the appellate panel observed that the action had been argued on the basis of the Ledfords’ contention that they were entitled to remove the boundary-line tree at issue merely because its trunk was located in part on their property. The judges noted that whether the “boundary-line tree at issue in this case constituted a nuisance for which an exception to the general rule set forth in the main opinion might apply” had not been litigated. A third judge on the panel said that had the record contained evidence indicating that the tree at issue posed a danger to the Ledfords’ house,” he would have voted to affirm the judgment instead of reverse it.

After the appellate judgment issued, the Ledfords asked the trial court for another hearing to consider whether the pine tree was a nuisance. The Youngs argued that the appeals court had decided in their favor, and the case should be closed. But the trial court had another hearing, and afterwards decided that the tree was a nuisance, and that the Ledfords could remove it on that basis.

The Youngs filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, asking the appeals court to order the trial court to enter judgment for them, and end the hearing.

Held: The Ledfords could cut down the tree. A court will issue a writ of mandamus only when the petitioner has a clear legal right to the order sought; the respondent has an imperative duty to perform, accompanied by a refusal to do so; there is no other adequate remedy at law; and the court has jurisdiction of the court.

Mulligan140206Here, the Court of Appeals said, the only real question was whether the trial court had the right to hold a second trial in this matter. The Youngs contended that the prior appellate court’s decision was final as to all matters before it and that the trial court, after that initial appeal, was not allowed to hold another hearing and take additional testimony without permission of the appellate court to do so. The court of appeals agreed with that statement of the law, but said that only the particular issue that had formed the basis of the trial court’s judgment – whether Ledfords could unilaterally remove the boundary-line tree simply because the majority of it was located on their side of the common boundary – was addressed. Based upon that conclusion, the court of appeals had reversed the trial court’s judgment letting the Ledfords unilaterally remove the tree,” and remanded the cause “for further proceedings consistent with [that] opinion.”

Because of the limited scope of the trial court’s previous judgment, no one had ruled on whether the boundary-line tree posed a danger to Ledford’s home or amounted to a nuisance. While the prior decision was thelaw of the case,” nothing in the prior opinion limited the trial court from ruling on the nuisance question, which the court of appeals admitted remained open for decision. Deciding to examine the nuisance question did not put the trial court in the position of doing something contrary to what the court of appeals had ordered.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Thursday, October 10, 2019

BEING THERE

The governmental immunity doctrine, which exempts governments and their employees from liability when negligent acts occur during the performance of a discretionary government act, is pernicious.

The strictures seem rather artificial. If a tree is rotten and the municipal employees ignore it, the municipality may be immune from liability when the tree falls on some poor lady’s car (see case below). But if the employees come out to cut it down, and aa branch falls on the same lady’s car, the municipality is liable. It would seem that the prudent municipal employee would wisely choose to do nothing except collect a paycheck.

What? You say that’s what most of them do anyway? Shame on you. Go to any DMV office, and you will see how mistaken you are.

Even the governmental immunity doctrine has its exceptions, fortunately enough. In Connecticut, if the employees can foresee that the victim is “an identifiable person” who would face “imminent harm” if they perform a discretionary act negligently, or negligently fail to perform a discretionary act, then the victim is able to defeat immunity and collect.

But what is an “identifiable person?” Ah, the devil’s in the details.

DeConti v. McGlone, 88 Conn. App. 270, 869 A.2d 271 (Ct.App. Conn. 2005). Maria DeConti was driving down Maple Street in New Britain, when a rotted tree fell on her car, crushing it. The tree was located in front of 281 Maple Street, about five houses from the Maria’s residence, on property controlled by the City of New Britain.

Maria sued Bob McGlone, the superintendent of parks for the city, and the Parks and Recreation Commission. The defendants filed a motion to strike on the ground that their actions were insulated by governmental immunity. The court granted their motion.

Maria appealed.

Held: Bob and the Commission enjoyed governmental immunity.

Generally, a municipal employee is liable for the negligent performance of ministerial acts but has a qualified immunity in the performance of governmental acts. Governmental acts are performed wholly for the direct benefit of the public and are supervisory or discretionary in nature. In contrast, ministerial refers to a duty which is to be performed in a prescribed manner without the exercise of judgment or discretion.

A municipal employee’s immunity for the performance of discretionary governmental acts is, however, qualified by three recognized exceptions: (1) where the circumstances make it apparent to the public officer that his or her failure to act would be likely to subject an identifiable person to imminent harm; (2) where a statute specifically provides for a cause of action against a municipality or municipal official for failure to enforce certain laws; or (3) where the alleged acts involve malice, wantonness or intent to injure, rather than negligence.

The first exception has been expanded to apply not only to identifiable individuals but also to narrowly defined identified classes of foreseeable victims. However, the Court ruled, a person driving a vehicle who is struck by a falling tree limb is not an identifiable victim for the purpose of governmental immunity. It would be different, the Court ruled, if the tree had fallen on Maria’s house rather than on her car. But Connecticut law is clear that “would not be [an] identifiable person[], or an identifiable class of foreseeable victim[], if [she] were either [an] unfortunate person driving in a vehicle or pedestrian walking along a sidewalk who happened to be struck by a falling tree limb.”

Maria argued her case was different, because she was required to drive on Maple Street as a result of the location of her house and, as such, she was an identifiable victim. But Connecticut courts have consistently denied relief absent a requirement that the plaintiff be present at the location where the injury occurred. Thus, a parent watching a son play at a high school football game was held not required to be at game, and a parent injured while visiting her child’s school voluntarily was not required to be there.

“Accepting as true all facts alleged in the amended complaint,” the Court said, “the plaintiff has failed to show that she is an identifiable victim or a member of a narrowly defined identified class of victims as required to fit within the first exception to the governmental immunity doctrine. Because that is the only applicable exception, the plaintiff’s amended complaint was legally insufficient, and the motion to strike properly was granted.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Wednesday, October 9, 2019

BROWN GETS A MULLIGAN

doover160921It’s been awhile, a long while, since we were young pups in law school. But we still seem to recall that when a plaintiff complains that she’s been damaged by a trespass, she has to put on some sort of evidence as to the amount of the damage. If the trial record closes, and the plaintiff hasn’t done so, time was she would be out of luck. No do-overs, no mulligans. One and done, as the sports guys say.

Well, apparently that’s no longer true in Mississippi. When Martha Murrell decided to build a fence in front of her house without checking her subdivision restrictions first, her neighbor Jeanette Brown took exception. It seems the restrictions prohibited building anything within 25 feet of the property boundary, and Martha crowded that a little – by about 23 feet. In fact, she put the fence so close to the property line that she had to hack off a few branches from one of Jeanette’s trees in order to finish the project.

Jeanette sued Martha, asking the trial court to order her to remove the fence and to give her $30,000 in damages because she had hindered Jeanette’s enjoyment of her property. Admittedly, we enjoy our property, too, especially sitting on the deck with an appropriate legal beverage, but $30,000? That’s a lot of hindrance being compensated.

The trial court granted the injunction, because the fence violation was pretty clear. Martha must have figured that showing the trial court her snapshots of the “mutilated” tree was good enough. The trial court must have found the pictures compelling, although not $30,000 worth of compelling. It awarded Jeanette $5,000.

mulligan160921The Court of Appeals was made of more skeptical stuff. It ruled that while the picture was good enough to show that Martha or her minions had trespassed onto Jeanette’s land, and had hacked up her tree, it was not good enough to show how much damage Jeanette had suffered. Despite a strenuous dissent from a judge who thought Jeanette had had ample opportunity to prove the amount of damages, the Court sent the case back to the trial court to give Jeanette a second bite of the apple.

Murrell v. Brown, 202 So.3d 287 (Ct.App. Mississippi, 2016). Jeanette Brown filed a complaint against their next-door neighbor, Martha Murrell, for constructing a fence in violation of their subdivision’s protective covenants. The North Colony subdivision covenants state that “[n]o fence shall be constructed nor any other structure be constructed within 25 feet of front property line.” Brown complained that Murrell built a fence within a few feet of the front property line in violation of this covenant, thereby diminishing the value of Brown’s property and “hindering her use and enjoyment of her property.” Brown wanted the fence taken out and damages of $30,000.

After a hearing, the trial court found Murrell in violation of the subdivision’s covenants and ordered her to remove the fence. The court further held that because Murrell or her agents mutilated Brown’s tree and came on to Brown’s property to do so, Brown was entitled to $5,000 in damages.

Murrell appealed.

butchered160921

Jeanette made out her damaged tree to look something like this, but while a picture’s worth a thousand words, it’s not worth five thousand bucks.

Held: The damage award was reversed. The Court of Appeals said that n awarding Brown $5,000, the trials court reasoned that Murrell or someone on her behalf “mutilated [Brown’s tree] by chopping off these limbs in such a way that I don’t know what it would look like when it grows back. And [the person] came several feet over onto [Brown’s] property to do it.”

Murrell asserted that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding damages for the tree, because Brown never mentioned the tree damage in her complaint. The Court, however, noted that while the complaint did not reference the tree damage, pictures of the tree were entered into evidence at the hearing, showing that the tree’s branches had been cut at the fence line, and Brown’s lawyer had written to Murrell about the damage before the case was filed.

Murrell also claimed that Brown failed to prove that Murrell or her agent caused the damage to the tree. Brown asserted at the hearing that Murrell “took a power saw and cut [her] tree to build the fence,” but Brown conceded that she did not personally witness Murrell, or anyone acting on her behalf, cut the tree. She simply testified that she “was informed [Murrell’s] father had cut the tree.” The appeals court, however, was satisfied that the trial judge, “as the fact-finder, clearly determined that Murrell or her agent cut Brown’s tree.” Circumstantial evidence, after all – such as limbs cut at the fence line – supported the trial court’s finding that someone acting on Murrell’s behalf cut the limbs during the construction of the fence. That was good enough.

The heart of Murrell’s appeal was that the award of $5,000 “for the mutilation of the tree” did not address the fair market value of the tree before and after the cutting. After all, the tree in question was not a fruit-bearing tree “and the cost of complete life maturity is no more [than] two hundred and fifty dollars.”

The appellate court held that while the trial court properly found Brown’s tree suffered some damage, and Murrell (or her agent) likely trespassed on Brown’s property to cut the tree, the award of $5,000 for the tree damage was excessive and not supported by substantial evidence. “Brown’s tree was not cut down,” the Court observed, but rather “the tree’s branches were merely cut back at the fence line. While the pruning was unsightly, there was no evidence presented that the tree was permanently damaged.”

apple160921Proof of actual damages must be shown in order to recover more than nominal damages, and Brown made little in the way of such a showing. The Court, however, held that Brown showed photos of “mutilated” tree and those photos were enough to let the judge ascertain damages. Once a judge is “presented clear evidence that [the plaintiff] owned the property and that the trees had been cut without [her] consent, the [judge] was obliged under the circumstances to award damages in some form.” So something is to be paid, but there has to be some evidence of what.

A dissenting judge complained that “Brown did not even establish what kind of tree is at issue in this appeal. It was Brown’s burden to prove her damages, and having failed to present any evidence of actual damages, she should not be given another opportunity to do so. “A litigant is entitled to but one bite at the damages apple…”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Tuesday, October 8, 2019

ONE CROWDED HOUR

A British army officer and poet, Thomas Osbert Mordaunt, wrote in his poem, “The Call,” a line now misattributed to Sir Walter Scott: “One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name.”

It’s so much fun to be nasty. Even for just one glorious, crowded hour. It’s just not so much fun when the age without a name knocks on the door, seeking payment. Just ask John and Anne Estes.

Everything started when John and Anne tried to extend the Massachusetts Rule to cut some branches from their neighbors’ trees. Problem was, the trees and branches were both on the neighbors’ properties.

Then they built a fence. So far, so good, at least until the fence they built was on their neighbors’ property, too. The neighbors, Matt and Rachel Milcic, objected. After mediation, the Estes fence was removed.

Obviously, John and Anne were sore at having been upbraided for their brazen trespasses. So they rebuilt the fence, and on the Milcics’ side, painted in large block letters, “PULL YOUR WEEDS.”

“Hah!” You can imagine John and Anne giving each other high-fives at their in-your-face cattiness. They sure showed those jerk neighbors, who thought they were so cool that they could stop John and Anne from trespassing. Their snickers and winks lasted for one crowded hour of glorious fun.

Maybe the neighbors really did need to weed. It’s hard to say. For certain, Matt Milcic did go some landscaping in response to the fence. Still, after he had, and after he asked John to remove the sign, John said he might. But he petulantly did not.

Cute, John… at least until the Milcics sued. Then, John offered to paint out the words if the Milcics would drop the suit. But that horse had left the barn month before.

The Esteses’ conduct was brazen enough that the trial court granted the Milcics summary judgment. But then, the battle continued over damages. By the time the court was done, the Esteses’ cruel prank had cost them north of $10,000.00. Not near what the Milcics wanted, the award nevertheless undoubtedly deterred the juvenile conduct.

You’d better find your checkbook, John. You and Anne enjoyed your crowded, glorious hour. The age without a name has now arrived.

Milcic v. Estes, 2018 Wash. App. LEXIS 1798 (Ct.App. Wash., Aug. 6, 2018). The Milcics and Estes are next door neighbors. In 2013, the Estes cut branches off trees located on the Milcics’ property, and began to build a fence along the parties’ common boundary.

When a dispute regarding fence encroachments arose, the parties submitted it to mediation. In April 2014, the parties executed a settlement agreement in which the Estes agreed, among other things, to remove both the excess dirt from the Milcics’ property and portions of fence footings that were visible above ground.

In July 2014, the Estes painted the words “PULL YOUR WEEDS!” in white, 10-inch block letters on the Milcics’ side of the Estes’ fence. The Milcics threatened a lawsuit unless the Esteses removed the sign. The words remained, and the Milcics sued.

The Milcics’ complaint alleged iprivate nuisance, trespass, timber trespass, spite fence, quiet title and damages to land and property. Shortly after the Milcics filed, the Estes offered to remove the painted message if the Milcics dismissed their complaint. The Milcics rejected the offer, telling the Estes, “If you were willing to do so voluntarily… you could have removed the sign at any time for the past nine months.”

The Milcics moved for partial summary judgment, alleging there were no issues about the Estes’ branch cutting, fence encroachments, and dumping of fill dirt on the Milcics’ property. The trial court granted relief, including ordering the Estes to the fence encroachments. The court awarded the Milcics some but not all, of their requested damages, but denied attorneys’ fees.

The Milcics appealed the adverse ruling on damages and fees.

Held: The appeals court upheld the damage award, and sent the case back to the trial court for a legal fee award.

In January 2017, the matter proceeded to trial solely on the issues of damages and attorney fees and costs. Rachel Milcic testified that the Estes cut branches off their trees and put fill dirt on their property without their permission. She said the branch removal ruined the beauty and privacy of the Milcics’ property. The loss of the branches upset her and she did not sleep well. She also testified that the Milcics were not sure where the property line was when the branches were cut.

She also testified that she was “shocked,” “horrified,” and “scared” when the Estes painted the “PULL YOUR WEEDS!” message on the fence facing the Milcics’ property. She had trouble sleeping and and no longer felt that she and her children were safe. She testified that before the painted message appeared, her family spent around 12 hours per week in her yard. After the message appeared, they spent less than an hour a week in the yard. She valued her use of the yard at $40 per day. She testified that the message was visible for 922 days.

Matt Milcic testified that after the painted sign on the fence, the Milcics installed a surveillance system to “protect our property” and to “capture any trespasses by the Esteses on our land.” Matt also testified that the fence message could be seen from roughly a quarter of their property and prevented the Milcics from enjoying their yard. Their dreams and aspirations for landscaping the yard “got instantly crushed into a reminder of, you don’t get to enjoy this part of your property that you had hopes and dreams for.” He estimated that the affected portion of his property had a market value of $152,500.

Matthew conceded that he had not seen a doctor or any medical professional for his emotional distress and had no medical bills related to that distress. Matthew also conceded that he did not accept the Estes’ April 2015 offer to remove the fence message.

John Estes testified that he painted the “PULL YOUR WEEDS!” message to protest the “weeds and invasive vegetation coming onto my property.” He conceded that Matt told him in August 2014 that he had pulled the weeds and that he wanted the message removed, but he did nothing for nine months, at which time John offered to remove the message if the Milcics dismissed the lawsuit.

The court ruled that the Milcics were entitled to some, but not all, of their alleged damages. It awarded them $3,557, trebled to $10,673. However, it denied damages for installation of the surveillance system, for lost enjoyment of property, for emotional distress, and for legal fees.

On appeal, the Milcics argued the court erred in awarding no damages for their alleged lost enjoyment of their property on their trespass and private nuisance claims. They claim they were entitled to such damages due to the significant length of time — 922 days — that the fence message remained in place. But the Court of Appeals held that the trial court was free to discount or reject the Milcics’ testimony regarding their alleged lost enjoyment. “On this record, and in light of our deference to the trial court’s view of the weight and credibility of the evidence,” the Court held, “we cannot say the court abused its discretion in declining to award damages for the Milcics’ claimed lost enjoyment of their property.”

The Milcics also contended that the trial court abused its discretion in failing to award them damages for emotional distress caused by the Estes’ fence message and branch cutting. A plaintiff who proves liability for intentional wrongful conduct is entitled to damages for emotional distress upon a showing of actual anguish or emotional distress. The distress need not be severe and a plaintiff “need not demonstrate objective symptomology, medical bills, or a medical diagnosis.”

Here, the trial court found the Estes engaged in intentional wrongful conduct, including nuisance, timber trespass, and a spite fence. The trial court also found, however, that the Milcics “have not provided sufficient evidence to establish that they have suffered emotional distress.” The Milcics pointed to their testimony that they suffered initial shock and distress, trouble sleeping for a week, and ongoing feelings of insecurity and fear of further invasions. “But,” the Court of Appeals held, “the trial judge’s evaluation of the sufficiency of the evidence includes determinations as to the weight and credibility of the evidence – matters that require our deference.”

The Milcics also contended the trial court erred in concluding that the Estes’ conduct was not the legal cause of their purchase and installation of a surveillance system. To determine if legal causation exists, a court considers whether “‘as a matter of policy, the connection between the ultimate result and the act of the defendant is too remote or insubstantial to impose liability.” The Court said that the judge’s determination rests on ”mixed considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent.”

Here, the Court of Appeals ruled, “the Milcics offer no relevant precedent supporting their argument regarding legal causation. Nor do they advance any persuasive arguments supporting their claim that logic, common sense, justice, and policy favor the imposition of liability for the surveillance system. There was never any doubt as to who had trespassed onto the Milcics’ property. The Estes readily admitted cutting the branches, painting the message, and installing the fence. There was therefore no need for a surveillance system to catch the perpetrators, and no reason to believe that a surveillance system would act as a deterrent to future incursions. In addition, except for the branch cutting, the trespasses were de minimis incursions. Thus, the trial court did not err in concluding that the Estes’ conduct was not a legal cause of the Milcics’ surveillance system expenses.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Monday, October 7, 2019

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Yes, my dear, 2-1/2 baths, cathedral ceilings throughout, and a three-car garage!

“Yes, my dear, 2-1/2 baths, cathedral ceilings throughout, and a three-car garage!”

Great expectations? What the Dickens might those be?

This being the first day of the new Supreme Court term (appropriately named “October Term 2019”), perhaps we expect great decisions from that august body. Perhaps, this being the fifth business day of Fiscal Year 2020 for our dear Uncle Sam, we expect great bipartisan progress on tax reform and prudent spending. Of course, if we expect those things, we would be wishing as well that marijuana be made legal in all 50 states, because we’d have to be on dope to really think any of that is going to happen in Washington, D.C.

No, the “great expectations” we’re talking about are the great expectations that new homebuyers so often harbor. After all, what are developers selling if not dreams? Real estate people don’t even pretend that they’re doing anything but. Look at the housing bubble.

Well, it’s gone on ever since the dawn of our great nation. Today’s case is an illustration of what can happen in the fallout of a dream. A subdivision planned in Meriden, Connecticut, in the 1930s included a number of beautiful streets that were never built. Nevertheless, the Doucettes and their predecessors had always used what would have been a street to get access to the garage at the back of their narrow lot… at least until their neighbor announced he was going to build a motorcycle gang hangout where the driveway lay, and it would have to go.

The Doucettes didn’t think much of this idea. Matters ended up in court, where the Doucettes were held to have an implied easement which was roughly the size of the proposed street (to the extent handy for their ingress and egress). The neighbor complained that the Doucettes could have built a driveway from the front of the house, but the Court said that didn’t matter. Because buyers are buying the dream, they have a legitimate expectation that streets are going to be built. It’s enough that the original maps as recorded in the land records showed the street and the Doucettes found it “reasonably necessary for the use and normal enjoyment” of their land.

The Doucettes had a serviceable driveway.

The Doucettes had a serviceable driveway.

Doucette v. Burnham, 2007 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1937, 2007 WL 2363856 (Super.Ct. Conn., Aug. 2, 2007). The Doucettes owned a house on a narrow lot, so narrow that the garage behind the house was sited sideways, with the garage doors facing the property of their neighbor to the east, Mr. Burnham. The lots were on a development that had been laid out in the 1930s, and which planned a street behind the homes to be known as Francis Street. Francis Street was never built, let alone dedicated to public use, but ever since the homes were built, a driveway located along what would have been Francis Street connected the Doucette’s garage to the public thoroughfare, Carl Street. This driveway lay on the part of Burnham’s land that would have been Francis Street (if there had been a Francis Street).

Prior to the dispute, Jeffrey Doucette took care of the portion of Burnham’s land that would have been Francis Street, trimming the trees, removing leaves, seeding, fertilizing and mowing the lawn, plowing the snow, and adding processed stone to the already existing driveway. Over many years, Burnham’s would-be Francis Street land had been used by the Doucettes and others in the neighborhood for parking cars and as an area to walk, play, and ride bicycles.

Burnham, however, wanted to build a clubhouse ... you know, just to have a few friends over every now and then.

Burnham, however, wanted to build a clubhouse … you know, just to have a few friends over every now and then.

Friction began when Burnham bought a large neighboring lot and made plans to develop it commercially. He told the Doucettes he planned to build a clubhouse for a motorcycle gang right where their driveway presently lay, a proposal that did not meet with approbation. Burnham proceeded to tear out the wide drive that had been there, straightening it along the centerline of the unbuilt Francis Street (which put a sharp 90-degree turn in the drive) and narrowing it to 8 feet in width with a berm on either side. The Doucettes could have installed a driveway down one side of their home (where there was about 9 feet between the house and the boundary), but they would have had to take out three mature trees to do so, and the drive would have been quite narrow.

The Doucettes sued Burnham, seeking an injunction and a ruling held they had an easement implied by the original plat maps to use the right-of-way that would have been Francis Street.

Held: The Doucettes were entitled to an injunction. The Court held that the issue of whether a map creates an easement by implication is a question of law. Under an equitable estoppel theory, an implied easement exists when the owner reasonably anticipated the use of the streets disclosed on the map that would prove beneficial to him. Also, a lot owner may acquire an implied easement by virtue of a map under an implied covenant theory, if the anticipated use of the street served as an inducement to the purchase of the lot. Under either theory, the owner doesn’t have to show that such an easement is necessary in order for the implication of its existence to arise, but rather only must show that the easement is highly convenient and beneficial for the enjoyment of the portion granted.

The reason that absolute necessity is not essential, the Court held, is because fundamentally such a grant by implication depends on the intention of the parties as shown by the instrument. It is not strictly the necessity for a right of way that creates it. Thus, the Court said, in determining whether an easement by implication has arisen the Court examines (1) the intention of the parties, and (2) whether the easement is reasonably necessary for the use and normal enjoyment of the dominant estate.

Here, the Court said, although the Doucettes could have had access to their garage over their own property by removing three trees and repositioning or restructuring the building, access over the Francis Street route is highly convenient and beneficial to the Doucettes for the normal enjoyment of their land. Based upon a review of the maps and deeds entered into evidence, as well as the circumstances giving rise to the easement in this case, the Court found that the Doucettes had an implied easement for ingress and egress to their garage over Burnham’s land on Francis Street. The rule in Connecticut is that while some benefit to the dominant estate must be shown to establish the right to an easement implied from a map, generally, the easement itself is not limited to such as is reasonably or materially beneficial to the grantee. The court must consider any language on a map or other instrument as a matter of law and consider that legal language in light of the surrounding circumstances involving the facts of the case.

meant150630The implied easement in this case arose from documents recorded in the land records. Therefore, the Court held, it must follow the intentions of the grantor of the implied easement at the time it was granted, even though the circumstances have changed significantly since 1939 when the original map was recorded. Based upon the maps, deeds and circumstances that existed at the time Map 388 was created in 1939, the Court said, Francis Street was clearly intended to provide ingress and egress to the Doucettes’ garage, as though it was a public highway. The physical scope of the easement for ingress and egress was clearly established by the description of Francis Street on the map and recorded in the land records. Therefore, to the extent that the Doucettes had used Burnham’s land on Francis Street in the past to access their garage, they had not overburdened their right to do so as the owners of the dominant estate.

However, the Court said, because the original purpose of the easement over Francis Street was to provide ingress and egress to the Doucettes’ garage, the scope of the their use of the easement must be limited to the normal and natural activities that may be conducted on a residential roadway, including parking and for ingress and egress to the Doucette property by foot or bicycle. But roadways, the Court held, are not intended to be used as a playground or for conducting other social activities. Therefore, the easement was not intended to provide the Doucettes with access to a park or to open space, for their general use without limitation, so kids could not be playing on it.

Tom Root
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Case of the Day – Friday, October 4, 2019

TRADITION

Sometimes, state law leaves a landowner suffering from invading roots and branches from a neighbor’s tree with no remedy but a chainsaw. As we all know, the Massachusetts Rule – alive and well in a number of states – lets a property owner trim offending branches and roots up to the property line, but that’s it: no lawsuits, no damage awards, no injunctions, and no meddling lawyers.

It’s the traditional approach.

Other states follow variants of the Hawaii Rule, and let a property owner sue when a neighboring tree becomes a nuisance, causing “sensible harm,” a weird expression apparently meaning something more than falling leaves and twigs.

Then there’s the approach adopted by a Florida court of appeals of few words.  In the Sunshine State, a ficus tree near a landowner’s property boundary line was wreaking havoc on the neighbor’s house. The ficus is a very old tree, maybe 60 million years (and possibly as old as 80 million years). It features aerial roots and is pollinated by a single species of wasp known as a fig wasp.

The owner of the tree was General Engineering Enterprises, Inc., obviously a big, faceless corporation with oodles of money. So Mike sued, asking for money damages. Why not? Everyone knows big mega-corporations are nothing but ATM machines, and you activate the cash-dispensing feature by walking through the courthouse door.

The Court was unsympathetic. Mike, you have a saw? Use it, man. Concerned that to permit Mike to get free money because branches from the ficus were overhanging his property might work in derogation of the time-honored principle of self-help, the Court of Appeals followed the Massachusetts Rule, despite the fact that the opinion candidly admitted that most all other courts seemed to be headed toward the Hawaii Rule.

Ah, tradition!

Richmond v. General Engineering Enterprises, Inc., 454 So. 2d 16 (Ct.App. Fla. 1984). Mike Richmond sued General Engineering Enterprises, Inc., for money damages based on the the company’s “negligence” in permitting branches of a ficus tree growing on its property to extend over and onto Mike’s home lot. The trial court wasted no time in dismissing Mike’s complaint.

Mike, obviously no reader of this blog, appealed.

Held: The Massachusetts Rule prevailed.

While there is substantial authority to the contrary, the Court said, “which may indeed represent the majority rule… we agree with those decisions which hold that in view of the undoubted right of the landowner himself to cut off intruding roots or branches at the property line, no such action may be maintained.”

The Court said that letting Mike proceed with his lawsuit to redress a claimed wrong “which might otherwise be obviated by the time-honored remedy of self-help would represent a wasteful and needless use of the judicial system.”

– Tom Root

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