Case of the Day – Monday, November 20, 2017

INCORPOREAL HEREDITAMENTS

The man on the right is a corporal ... and a combat vet with a Purple Heart. The man on the right, a major general, is not a corporal. The guy in the middle is just a politician. But none of them is an incorporeal hereditament.

The man on the right is a corporal. The man on the right, a major general, is not a corporal but may have once been one. The guy in the middle is just a politician and probably was never a corporal. But none of them is now or ever has been an incorporeal.

Today, we’re considering incorporeal hereditaments. Lawyers like cool terms like these, because they can charge more when their clients can’t understand what they’re saying. Here at treeandneighborlaw.com, we demystify the law for you. That’s us – the homeowner’s friend.

Before we pull a muscle patting ourselves on the back, let’s get to today’s topic. A hereditament is nothing more than a right that can inherited. A corporeal one is that may be seen and handled, like a piece of real estate. Back in the day, conveyance of land was done by livery of seisin, wherein the propert seller would actually hand the buyer a twig or clump of dirt, a ritual conveyance of the real estate being sold. An incorporeal hereditament, on the other hand, is something that couldn’t be symbolically passed off, something intangible like an easement.

Sound boring? Some North Carolinians found out that boring or not, it’s important. A couple of landowners had, over the past 11 years or so, planted trees, built fences and otherwise taken actions inside a 30-foot driveway easement that encroached on the use of the passage by its owners. The easement owner, stymied in his use of the drive, sued. The defendants argued “too little, too late:” the plaintiffs were way beyond the 6-year statute of limitations for suing on incorporeal hereditaments. The plaintiffs said “poppycock!” (a legal term meaning “fiddlesticks!”). The statute didn’t start running until the invasion of the easement had passed the 20-year period for adverse possession of land or prescriptive easements. In other words, the plaintiff argued, he had 26 years from the time the trees were planted and fences were built to bring a lawsuit.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, siding with the defendants. This wasn’t a case of someone trespassing, taking land by adverse possession or a right by prescriptive easement. This was someone trying to undo an express easement. The lawsuit simply related to an incorporeal hereditament, and it was subject to the 6-year statute.

The incorporeal hereditament not taken ... as Robert Frost might have said.

The incorporeal hereditament not taken … as Robert Frost might have said.

The result is curious. It means that an owner of an easement, a right that is often as valuable as the property itself, can lose that right by interference by the servient estate owner in a relatively brief period of time. To use a legal term, “you snooze, you lose.”

Pottle v. Link, 654 S.E.2d 64 (N.C.App., 2007). The Pottles owned Tract 6 on Cedar Island, and Snug Harbor South, LLC, owned Tract 4. Both of these owners held 30-foot wide easements allowing ingress to and egress from the public road to Tracts 6 and 4 and other lots. Mr. Link owned Tract 3 and Mr. Willets owned Tract 5, adjacent lots which were the servient estates over which the easements ran. About 11 years before the lawsuit was filed, Link planted several oak, cypress, holly, and cedar trees on Tract 3, joined several years later by two more oak trees to replacing two that had been destroyed by hurricanes.

He maintained the trees by installing an irrigation drip line and planting other vegetation on the tract In the summer of 2004, Willets installed a post and rope fence on Tract 5, and in 2005, Link built a fence. The Pottles and the LLC sued, arguing that Link’s trees and impeded traffic on the easement, and that Willets’ post and rope fence encroached on the easement as well. Plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Link and Willets had refused to clear the easements to provide access to property that had no other routes of access. Link and Willets moved for summary judgment, too, arguing that the 6-year statute of limitations for injuries to incorporeal hereditaments had expired, and that the plaintiffs’ actions constituted an abandonment of the easement. The trial court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs, and defendants appealed.

Here's a legal expression anyone can understand ...

Here’s a legal expression anyone can understand …

Held: Summary judgment for the plaintiffs was reversed, and the defendants won on many of the issues. The Court of Appeals noted that the parties agreed that all encroachments, except the fences installed in 2004 and 2005, were planted or installed approximately nine to eleven years before the lawsuit. The only question, the Court said, was which statute of limitations applied. An affirmative easement is a right to make some use of land owned by another without taking a part thereof, while a negative easement prohibits the owner of a servient estate from doing something otherwise lawful upon his estate, because it will affect the dominant estate. Easements are incorporeal hereditaments, which is defined as “[a]n intangible right in land, such as an easement.” N.C. Gen.Stat. §1-50(3) requires that an action for injury to any incorporeal hereditament be brought within six years. The plaintiffs argued that the injury in this case was similar to an adverse possession, having a limitation period of twenty years, but the Court disagreed, holding that the cases relied on by the plaintiffs related to a defendant’s continuous trespass onto the plaintiffs’ property, not on plaintiffs’ incorporeal hereditament.

Because an injury to an incorporeal hereditament was at issue in this case, rather than a continuous trespass or a prescriptive easement to property held in fee, the Court held that N.C. Gen.Stat. §1-50(3) applied, and that plaintiffs’ case was barred where the six-year statute of limitations had been satisfied. All but two encroachments onto the plaintiffs’ easement began 9 to 11 years before the lawsuit. The defendants were therefore entitled to partial summary judgment as a matter of law. The fences had not been in place more than six years, but because the defendants argued that the fences did not encroach on the easement, an issue of fact existed, and summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs had to be reversed.

The case was sent back to go to trial on the question of whether the fences encroached on the easement.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Friday, November 17, 2017

WHO YOU GONNA CALL?

So who you gonna call?

    So who you gonna call?

It’s not easy to defeat a utility company holding an easement for transmission lines, especially after the power outage of 14 years ago. The great Blackout of August 2003, after all, started primarily when power lines sagged into trees in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.

Yeah, it’s tough to beat the power company and its chainsaw-wielding minions … but the Corrigans did it for awhile. They had granted an easement to a Cleveland electric utility for a transmission line. In the wake of the blackout, the utility told the Corrigans (and thousands of others) that it would vigorously pursue cleaning up vegetation in the easements. This mean, among other things, no trees within 25 feet of the lines.

The Corrigans had a big silver maple that was about 22.5 feet from the lines. They loved that tree, so they hired an arborist at considerable expense to trim it away from the lines and to inject the tree with a hormone to slow growth. Tough luck, the utility said, it’s coming down anyway.

So who do you call when the power company shows up with chainsaws and a gleam in its institutional eye? The Corrigans raced to the local common pleas court, and asked for an injunction. The trial judge agreed, and the Court of Appeals concurred. Both of those courts sided with the Corrigans that the utility could only cut trees that were “a possible threat to the transmission lines.”

It seemed important to the Court of Appeals that the community had not experienced any service interruptions since the Corrigans had pruned the tree, although that reasoning’s pretty thin. The tree has to only fall once, cascading one failed transmission lines into a continental disaster. But the Court seems to have been favorably impressed by the amount of money the Corrigans had spent getting the tree professionally trimmed.

utilitytrim140515The utility saw an issue here that was bigger than just the Corrigans and their lone silver maple tree. It framed the question as being just who was in charge here, the 88-odd common pleas courts spread throughout Ohio or the public utilities commission. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed that this was indeed the issue, and ruled that the inclusiveness of the state statute and regulations delegating power to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio gave PUCO the sole authority to decide questions of vegetation management.

We have to admit that the appellate decision had left us with the uneasy feeling that the Court of Appeals’ attempt to do some rump justice here may have made it much more difficult for a utility to exercise its easement rights. To be sure, a utility being sued in a case like this would have to be prepared with an expensive and eye-popping case that graphically depicts the dangers that a tree in the transmission path — even a well cared-for tree — can pose.

The Ohio Supreme Court’s holding provides electric utilities a much friendlier forum in which they must litigate issues of vegetation management, although that may not be a bad thing. Utilities have to walk a fine line, incurring ire if property owners think trees were pruned too aggressively, and facing universal fury (not to mention catastrophe) when service is interrupted by vegetation coming into contact with transmission and distribution lines.

Corrigan v. Illuminating Co., 122 Ohio St.3d 265 (Sup.Ct. Ohio 2009). The Corrigans granted a quitclaim deed to The Illuminating Company, the local electric utility, for a transmission line to run through their yard. The easement gave the Illuminating Company the right to “enter upon the right-of-way occupied by said transmission lines … with full authority to cut and remove any trees, shrubs, or other obstructions upon the above described property which may interfere or threaten to interfere with the construction, operation and maintenance of said transmission lines.” The Corrigans had a large silver maple tree located about 22.5 feet from the centerline of the transmission lines. At considerable expense, they had their own arborist trim the tree and inject slow-growth hormone to keep the tree from posing a risk to the transmission line. Nevertheless, the Illuminating Company decided to remove the tree, and the Corrigans sued for an injunction.

The trial court granted an injunction barring the Illuminating Company from removing the tree, and the Court of Appeals agreed. The electric utility, seeing the issue as one that transcended the issue of one tree, but rather affected the company’s ability to manage vegetation in its rights-of-way throughout the state.

Held: The Corrigans argued that the issue was purely a contract matter, but the Supreme Court disagreed. Noting that “[t]here is no question that the company has a valid easement and that the tree is within the easement” and the easement’s language was unambiguous that the utility had the right to remove trees that might interfere with its transmission lines, the Court said the issue was the correctness of “the company’s decision to remove the tree instead of pruning it.” That was “really an attack on the company’s vegetation-management plan [and] that type of complaint is a service-related issue[] which is within PUCO’s exclusive jurisdiction.”

The statute creating PUCO to administer and enforce these provisions provides that the commission hears complaints filed against public utilities alleging that “any regulation, measurement, or practice affecting or relating to any service furnished by the public utility, or in connection with such service, is, or will be, in any respect unreasonable, unjust, insufficient, unjustly discriminatory, or unjustly preferential.” This jurisdiction is “so complete, comprehensive and adequate as to warrant the conclusion that it is likewise exclusive.”

The Court used a two-part test to reach its determination. First, it asked whether the commission’s administrative expertise was required to resolve the issue in dispute, and, second, whether the act complained of constituted a practice normally authorized by the utility.

rules140515The Ohio Administrative Code chapter on electric service and safety standards requires that utility companies establish a right-of-way vegetation-control program to maintain safe and reliable service. The Code requires that each electric utility inspect its electric-transmission facilities (circuits and equipment) at least once every year, in accordance with written programs, and takes a number of factors into consideration such as arcing, sagging, and line voltage as well as regulatory requirements from OSHA, FAA, and the Army Corps of Engineers. In addition, electric utilities are required to comply with the American National Standard Institute’s National Electrical Safety Code. The utilities are required to submit their programs to the Commission, which will resolve any disputes as to the efficacy of the plan.

The Court concluded that the Ohio Administrative made it clear that PUCO’s administrative expertise is required to resolve the issue of whether removal of a tree is reasonable.

The second part of the test determined whether the act complained of constitutes a practice normally authorized by the utility. Again, the Court said, the Administrative Code made it clear that vegetation management is necessary to maintain safe and reliable electrical service. Thus, the Supreme Court ruled, the second part of the test was satisfied, and the Corrigan’s complaint fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of PUCO.

That meant that the Illuminating Company’s decision that the silver maple interfered or threatened to interfere with its transmission line was a service-related question, and one that the Corrigans could only dispute in front of PUCO. The Court of Appeals judgment was thrown out.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Thursday, November 16, 2017

REALITY BITES

Sure, you can get your land contract out of a box, and save a few bucks. Just ask Mr. Jackson how that's likely to work out for you ...

Sure, you can get your land contract out of a box, and save a few bucks. Just ask Mr. Jackson how that’s likely to work out for you …

Sometimes, reality bites. Not just the movie, but real life. Ask Harvey Weinstein. Or Roy Moore. Or Kevin Spacey. It especially bites when the very steps a prudent man takes to protect himself become the evidence on which a court relies to put him in the jeopardy he sought to avoid.

So it was with Mr. Jackson (who, we hasten to add, had no past anything like Messrs. Weinstein, Moore and Spacey are alleged to have). Instead, Mr. J simply sold some land by land installment contract (also known as contract for deed or installment sale agreement) to Mr. Smith. Pay attention, because land contracts have become much more popular in the last decade. A land installment contract lets a property owner safely sell land with seller financing. The buyer puts down a small (sometimes no) down payment, with an agreement to make monthly payments for a period of time until the purchase price has been paid. At that time, the seller (sometimes called the “vendor”) transfers the land to the buyer (called the “vendee”).

Once in a blue moon (next one in two and a half months), a land installment contract is necessary for the completion of a real estate deal between two parties of equal bargaining power and sophistication. We recall handling one like that once in our legal career. But only once. Land installment contracts are almost always not very good deals – not just because the terms are oppressive or one-sided (although they often are) – but because the contracts represent transactions that are only financing of last resort. The vendees are often scarcely able to handle the payments, let alone able to manage the rigors of home ownership. In our experience, many if not most land installment contracts fail, resulting in evictions or foreclosure (depending on the state laws).

Perhaps because of the likelihood that the property will fall into disrepair or the vendee will default, many vendors want land contract documents that provide them with as much control over their properties as possible. This is understandable. What is less understandable is that sometimes, the more control a vendor reserves to himself or herself, the less safe he or she becomes.

In today’s case, the vendor understandably required the vendee to buy insurance on the place that named the vendor as a named insured. That made sense. After all, the vendee only had paid about 17% of the purchase price, meaning he didn’t have a very big stake in the place. But the vendor wanted to be sure the vendee did what he was supposed to, so the vendor drove by the place on a nearly daily basis, and he bought insurance for the place himself. The vendee reimbursed him, but the arrangement was at odds with what the contract required. Partly because the vendee knew how closely the vendor was watching the place, he checked with the vendor about alterations and modifications before he undertook them.

When a 10-year old boy riding a bike was struck and killed, the boy’s mother blamed obstruction in sight lines caused by untrimmed trees on the property. After a suitable period of mourning, she sued. She went after not only vendee Smith but after Mr. Jackson, too. He was the guy who really controlled the property, she claimed. The trial court disagreed and dismissed Jackson from the suit.

The Court of Appeals reversed. The facts that the vendee had paid so little and Mr. Jackson had cared so much about the condition of the property — and especially because he had gotten his own insurance even though the agreement dictated that Smith would do so — suggested to the Court that there was a real question of fact as to whether Mr. Jackson had control of the premises. He just might be to blame, the Court suggested, for the tree that had never been trimmed and which had allegedly obscured the young boy’s view of oncoming traffic. The Court returned the case to the trial court for a jury’s consideration.

Poor Mr. Jackson. Normally, vendors aren’t liable for the conditions of premises they have conveyed pursuant to land installment contracts. But vendors want the best of both worlds, to have control over their property until they’re paid, while not being liable for anything that goes wrong. Mr. Jackson was like that. He probably thought he was being very prudent in approving changes, in making sure insurance was in place, and in driving by like a stalker in Hollywood Hills. Instead, his caution only made the Court suspect that he had retained a lot more control than the typical vendor.

There’s a lesson here. If you sell pursuant to land contract, get a good lawyer to write as strong a contract as is prudent. Then, enforce the contract. Stick to the deal. If you want to deviate from its terms, sign a written amendment. Don’t start “rewriting” the deal by your conduct.

There's no making light of the sad fact that a 10-year old boy died, the tragedy that set this lawsuit in motion.

There’s no making light of the sad fact that a 10-year old boy died, the tragedy that set this lawsuit in motion.

Scheible v. Jackson, 881 N.E.2d 1052 (Ct.App. Ind. 2008). Jackson sold a parcel to Smith under a land installment contract. Smith lived on the premises. In early 2005, Jackson received a certified notice from the City of Columbus about saplings growing on the property that had to be removed. Jackson gave the notice to Smith, who took care of the problem.

However, a mature tree on the property hung over the sidewalk, the tree lawn and a part of 7th Street’s westbound lane. Branches of the tree drooped quite low, touching or almost touching the grass. One summer day, Mrs. Scheible’s ten-year-old son, Travis, was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk along the north side of 7th Street. Just west of the tree, Travis started to cross the street. The leaves and branches of the tree obstructed his view. A motorist struck Travis’ bicycle, killing the boy.

Travis’ mother sued Jackson and Smith. She alleged Jackson and Smith both exercised control of the property and that they owed a duty to the traveling public to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition. Jackson moved for summary judgment, arguing that he owed no duty of care to Travis. The trial court agreed. Mrs. Scheible appealed.

Held: The Court reversed. Noting that young Travis was not on the property when he was struck, the Court conceded that as an initial matter, it appeared that a vendor is not liable for physical harm caused to others outside of the land by a natural condition of the land. However, the law was clear that a possessor of land in an urban area is subject to liability to persons using a public highway for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm arising from the condition of trees on the land near the highway.

The Court focused much more on control that it did on mere possession. The evidence — taken in a light most favoring Mrs. Scheible (which it must be when summary judgment is being considered) suggested that Jackson retained substantial control. Smith, who lived on the land and was buying it under land contract, had paid only a small portion — about 17% — of the total price. He testified he consulted with Jackson on major alterations, and discussed removal of the tree that allegedly obstructed Travis’ view before the tree was cut down, after the accident. The Court said it wasn’t clear whether Smith just advised Jackson or actually had to obtain his approval for alterations. To be sure, Jackson maintained a substantial interest in the property as well as a financial stake: he testified he drove by the property often.

Standards for sightlines at intersections are well established. As a general rule, landowners do well to be aware of them.

Standards for sightlines at intersections are well established. As a general rule, landowners do well to be aware of them.

The Court held that where a person retains control of property, regardless of the contents of the land installment contract, liability may still attach. The Court said that “[o]ne who assumes the control and management of property cannot escape liability for injuries by showing a want of title in himself.” The fact of a land-sale contract, the Court said, is not itself dispositive as to the vendor’s non-liability.

What’s more, the fact that Jackson and Smith deviated from the precise terms of the contract bothered the Court. The contract terms provided Smith would carry insurance on the property, with the Jacksons and Smith being named as insureds. However, Jackson kept his existing insurance policies on the property in place. He paid the premiums and Smith reimbursed him. The Court held that this meant that Jackson’s use of the property was insured, but Smith — the person Jackson asserted to have been the only one with control of the property — had no coverage at all. The Court found it ironic that Jackson sought to avoid responsibility for the condition of the property, yet maintained two insurance policies on which he was the sole insured. Along with other elements of the case, the Court held, Jackson’s insuring himself to the exclusion of his vendee, Smith, supported the reasonable inference that Jackson controlled the property.

Summary judgment was reversed and the case was sent to trial.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Wednesday, November 15, 2017

THEY DO THINGS FUNNY IN LOUISIANA

The bridge was down ... something like this ...

The bridge was down … something like this …

Things are different in Louisiana. It’s the only state in America not to have a legal system based on English common law. Counties are parishes, county commissioners are “police juries,” and when a party loses in court, it may file a devolutive appeal.

But Louisiana has a lot of trees and thus generates a substantial amount of neighbor and tree law. Today’s case is a little different, a case of a large farm seeking to get a county (parish) road – long closed due to a bridge being down – declared abandoned, so that ownership could revert to the farm. The evidence was all over the map, including minutes of the parish government showing an intent — albeit a desultxory one — to get the bridge fixed and the road reopened, recall of the people who lived around and near the road as to when it was closed, and even a tree expert, who dated a tree growing up through the roadbed of the abandoned stretch of highway.

The trial court weighed all of the conflicting evidence, and concluded that the weight of it supported a finding that the parish had abandoned the road more than 10 years before, meaning that ownership reverted to Richland. The appellate court didn’t necessarily agree, but appellate courts review lower court decisions deferentially. Here, the standard was whether the trial judge’s findings were reasonable, based on the record, and the court of appeals said they were.

Louisiana law is different ...

Louisiana law is different … (Dramatic re-enactment of actual Bayou State courtroom proceeding).

Richland Plantation, Inc. v. East Feliciana Parish, 973 So.2d 179 (La.App. 1 Cir. 2007). The Parish of East Feliciana maintained a public road running north from Richland Creek to Louisiana Highway 422 through property owned by Richland Plantation, Inc. In 2005, Richland sued, maintaining that the Parish had abandoned the road. Richland alleged that public use and maintenance had been terminated for more than ten years, and therefore the road was abandoned and full ownership of the property reverted to it.

The Parish claimed the road was temporarily closed in December 1996 because the bridge across Richland Creek was unsafe. In September 2001, the Parish filed a petition for expropriation of some of Richland’s land for the bridge, and a judgment was rendered in its favor in March 2005, but was later reversed. The Parish said the expropriation suit established that it did not have any intention of abandoning the road.

Trial witnesses had varying recollections of when the road was closed. Photographs of the gravel road south of the bridge where it was still open and maintained were compared with photographs of the closed area of the road, which was overgrown with plants and seriously eroded. The bridge railings were twisted and bent, and the wooden planks were rotted and broken. A forester testified for Richland that one of the trees in the roadbed had been growing there for eleven years; a cross-section of the trunk showing its growth rings was submitted into evidence. In addition to witnesses’ testimony, the record included some bridge inspection reports, as well as the minutes from Parish meetings, showing when and why the road had been closed and when the expropriation process to rebuild the bridge was approved. The trial court agreed with Richland, and the Parish filed a devolutive appeal.

Held: The road was declared to have reverted to Richland. The Court said that under Lousiana law, the public may own the land on which the road is built or merely have the right to use it. The courts have held that maintenance of a road by a Parish for three continuous years gives rise to a “tacit dedication” of the road to public use by its owner. Abandonment of a public road must be evidenced by (1) a formal act of revocation in accordance with Louisiana statute, (2) relocation of the public road by the governing body, or (3) clear and well-established proof of intent by the governing body to abandon. Nonuse of a strip of land as a public road or street for a period in excess of ten years may also result in termination of the public use.

The road abandoned, maybe? Bayou law would bring a tear of joy to Robert Frost's eye ...

The road abandoned, maybe? Bayou law would bring a tear of joy to Robert Frost’s eye …

Because the Parish didn’t execute any formal act of revocation and its meeting minutes showed its intent was to rebuild the bridge and re-open the road, the Court concluded there was no proof of any intent to abandon this roadway. Thus, the only means by which the Parish’s servitude of public use of the roadway could be terminated was by factual non-use for more than ten years. Within that period, even occasional use or use by only one person constituted public use.

Reviewing the record to determine whether a reasonable factual basis for the trial court’s findings, the Court held that while there were obviously some conflicting stories about exactly when and how the northern portion of Ellis Road was closed, there was reasonable factual basis in the record for the trial court’s finding that the road had not been used for over ten years and was, therefore, abandoned by the Parish.

Richland’s licensed forester testified concerning the age of a tree that was located in the roadbed of the old road, and determined from dendrochronology how long the tree had been there. He determined that the tree growing in the roadbed was 11 years old when it was cut in June 2006, thus dating the abandonment of the road at over 10 years.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Tuesday, November 14, 2017

SURVIVOR – LAWSUIT ISLAND

Life (and law practice) sometimes imitates art. It may be a stretch to label the long-in-the-tooth CBS series, Survivor, as art, but any number of great artists, authors and composers were unappreciated during their day, just as the Survivor writers currently allege that they are unappreciated. Maybe some day, Survivor will be studied by college students as a paradigm of our day. Scary, isn’t it? Arthur C. Clarke once predicted just such a thing

But our point – just like contestants are voted off the island in Survivor, weak cases are many times voted off the docket, so to speak, by summary judgment. Summary judgment is a mechanism for a judge to decide cases where the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Stack said it was a big hole…

In today’s case, Stack was trimming Hernandez’s trees at Hernandez’s invitation. While working on a lawn with spotty and bumpy grass, Stack tripped on a small depression and broke his leg. He sued, of course – who wouldn’t? His suit alleged that Hernandez should have been aware of the depression and should have warned him of it. He didn’t have any proof that Hernandez was aware of the depression, and the Court very nearly granted summary judgment for Hernandez. But it concluded that a reasonable juror conceivably could — after hearing witnesses and cross-examination — conclude that Hernandez should have known about the depression, and should have either warned Stack or filled it in himself.

So after the summary judgment challenge, Stack remained a “survivor” — leaving it to a jury to vote his case off the island later.

Stack v. Hernandez, Not Reported in A.2d, 2007 WL 1893617 (Conn.Super.Ct., June 12, 2007). Stack was trimming trees at the defendant’s property at the invitation and permission of the defendant. While doing so, he stepped in a depression in the front lawn and broke his leg.

... but Stack recalled it was somewhat small. This is known in the law as "a genuine issue of material fact."

… but Hernandez recalled it was somewhat small. This is known in the law as “a genuine issue of material fact.”

The depression was about 4 inches wide and 3 or 4 inches deep. Stack’s right toe went into the depression and stopped. The lawn was bumpy and had yellow patches in it. Stack did not see the depression before he stepped into it. Hernandez had no actual knowledge of the depression. He performed normal maintenance on the lawn himself but had never noticed the hole.

Stack sued Hernandez for negligence, alleging that Hernandez failed to remedy the depression in the lawn or to warn him of it, even though he knew or should have known of its presence. Hernandez filed for summary judgment on the grounds that there was no genuine issue of material fact on the issue of notice.

Held: Summary judgment was denied. The Court observed that summary judgment is not well adapted to negligence cases, where, as here, the ultimate issue in contention involved a mixed question of fact and law.

The Court said Mr. Stack's case barely stacked up ... but enough to get the matter to trial.

The Court said Mr. Stack’s case barely stacked up … but enough to get the matter to trial.

The conclusion that a defendant was negligent is necessarily one of fact. A possessor of land has a duty to an invitee to reasonably inspect and maintain the premises in order to render them reasonably safe. In addition, the possessor of land must warn an invitee of dangers that the invitee could not reasonably be expected to discover.

The existence of actual or constructive notice is a question of fact. Although Hernandez argued there was no evidence from which a judge or jury could conclude that he had actual or constructive notice of the depression or that it was a danger of which Stack was entitled to be warned, the Court found Stack’s allegation strong enough to survive a summary judgment motion.

The Court characterized Stack’s claim as weak, but conceded that a reasonable person could conclude that the depression in the lawn was a “danger” which Hernandez should have discovered and remedied with a reasonable inspection. The Court observed that a party has the same right to submit a weak case as he has to submit a strong one, and gave him his day in court to submit it.

– Tom Root
TNLBGray140407

Case of the Day – Monday, November 13, 2017

THE DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF HOWELL, MICHIGAN

The Mayor of Howell?

The Mayor of Howell?

Like many American cities, the City of Howell, Michigan requires its property owners to keep their lawns mowed below a certain height. Violators of the ordinance are charged a fine as well as a fee for the costs associated with hiring a private contractor to mow or otherwise maintain the property. Such an ordinance, of course, occupies the same moral plane as laws that lock up three generations of families in a labor camp for life because somebody’s uncle tried to leave the country.

Or so David Shoemaker, a Howell homeowner, would have you believe. He complains that such an ordinance “makes the City look like North Korea rather than an American city.” Kim Jong Eun would be amused … or, if he was not, he’d have David shot to pieces with an anti-aircraft gun.

It seems that Shoemaker and his daughter planted a maple tree in their tree lawn, that strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. The maple flourished for a few years, until the City came along to widen the curb. City workers hacked down the tree, and – when Shoemaker complained – they imperiously told him there was nothing he could do about it, because the City owned the tree lawn. Later, the same workers planted nine saplings in the tree lawn, and guy-wired them to a fare-thee-well.

Shoemaker was incensed, and he figured to get even. If the tree lawn was the City’s property, he reasoned, then city worker could just jolly well cut the grass on the tree lawn. He wasn’t going to do it. So Shoemaker stopped mowing the strip between the sidewalk and the street.

In North Korea, it’s illegal to name a baby “Kim Jong-Eun” (like anyone would want to). According to Shoemaker, Howell has an equally irrational and stupid ordinance, one that prohibits the owner or occupant of any lot in the City from “maintain[ing] on any such lot … any growth of weeds, grass or other rank vegetation to a greater height than eight inches.” The ordinance explicitly applies to any land “along the sidewalk, street or alley adjacent to the same between the property line and the curb.” Shoemaker’s act of civil disobedience promptly ran into a city inspector, who cited him under the ordinance when the grass in the tree lawn got to be high enough to harvest.

If you're looking to get even, tread very carefully. It may cost you more than it's worth.

If you’re looking to get even, tread very carefully. It may cost you more than it’s worth.

No doubt the city inspector wanted to throw Shoemaker and his daughter into the gulag. But he was limited to fining Shoemaker, and charging him for the cost of mowing the lawn. After several infractions and city-sponsored mowings, Shoemaker was billed for $600.00 by the City.

Shoemaker filed suit against the City in federal court, asserting that Howell had violated both his procedural and substantive due process rights. Amazingly (to us), the district court granted summary judgment for Shoemaker on both claims. But down at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, cooler heads prevailed.

Shoemaker argued that the City ordinance requiring him to mow the tree lawn violated his procedural and substantive due process rights. The Court held that while the citation for violating the ordinance didn’t expressly state appeal rights, the imposition on a property owner was so slight, a property owner was given a chance to avoid the fine by cutting the grass after the citation was served, and the standards of the ordinance – grass in excess of 8 inches high – were pretty straightforward. Anything you can settle with a yardstick isn’t very complex. The Court was not about to turn the fairly simple citation into a procedural due process violation.

Shoemaker claimed the statute violated his substantive due process rights as well. For those of you who had constitutional law right after lunch, and consequently fell asleep in a warm classroom with a full stomach, “substantive due process” is the doctrine that governmental deprivations of life, liberty or property are subject to limitations regardless of the adequacy of the procedures employed.” Which deprivations? Well, it “depends on the nature of the right being deprived.” Specifically, “[g]overnment actions that do not affect fundamental rights … will be upheld if they are rationally related to a legitimate state interest.”

There… that’s clear. If you had stayed awake in Constitutional Law, and taken good notes, you might be nonetheless be forgiven for thinking that “fundamental rights” are what Justice Potter Stewart was thinking of when quipped about pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it …”

What interested us about this decision was Shoemaker’s insistence that the tree lawn was owned by the City of Howell, and not by him. He said a city worker had told him that, and thus the matter was settled. The Sixth Circuit, not a court to take a litigant’s word for it, examined Michigan law on the topic.

The district court had granted summary judgment in favor of Shoemaker because the City owned the tree lawn in front of Shoemaker’s house, and “the right not to be forced by a government to maintain municipal property” is a fundamental one. The ordinance infringed on that basic right.

Nonsense, the Court of Appeals said. While Michigan cities possess “nominal” title to land designated for public use, the private property owners retain the usual rights of the proprietor. This relationship, the Court said, “reflects the reality that homeowners like Shoemaker have a special interest in the curb strips adjacent to their houses because these strips of land are, for all practical purposes, simply extensions of the homeowners’ lawns. The curb strips also provide a traffic and safety buffer between the street and the rest of the property. In other words, despite the City’s right of way over the curb strip for public use, Shoemaker retained both his property interest in and de facto use of the land in question.’

As for Shoemaker’s hyperbolic comparison of Howell’s lawn-cutting ordinance to Korea, the Court dryly observed that the notion “should come as a surprise to the citizens of both nations. On the one hand, North Korea is a totalitarian regime that notoriously tortures criminal defendants, uses nerve toxin on political opponents, executes non-violent offenders, and sends those accused of political offenses to forced labor camps. On the other hand, laws like Howell’s lawn-trimming ordinance “are ubiquitous from coast to coast.”

Shoemaker v. City of Howell, Case No. 13-2535 (6th Cir., July 28, 2015). Shoemaker and his minor daughter lived on East Sibley Street in Howell, Michigan, for 9 years. Early on, they planted a maple tree in the tree lawn, that strip of grass between the sidewalk and street.

During this time, the City undertook a citywide project to refurbish and landscape its streets. East Sibley Street next to the Shoemaker residence was among the areas where work was done. The City removed the Shoemakers’ maple tree replaced it with nine saplings. Shoemaker claims that when he protested the tree’s removal, City workers told him “that’s not your property, you have no say on what goes in or out of there.” Upset by the City’s unilateral remodeling of the curb strip, Shoemaker chose to protest the City’s actions via civil disobedience: he stopped mowing the curb strip.

The City received a complaint about Shoemaker’s uncut tree lawn. Based on the complaint, City Code Inspector Donahue visited the residence and left a door-hanger notice informing Shoemaker that his lawn was in violation of City Code § 622.02, which requires property owners and occupants to maintain the vegetation on their land. The Ordinance prohibits the owner or occupant of any lot in the City from “maintain[ing] on any such lot.., any growth of weeds, grass or other rank vegetation to a greater height than eight inches,” and applies to any land “along the sidewalk, street or alley adjacent to the same between the property line and the curb.” A violation of the Ordinance subjects the responsible party to fines.

The prisoner's last words: "I should have mowed my whole lawn."

The prisoner’s last words: “I should have mowed my whole lawn.”

On August 4, 2011, Donahue noticed vegetation that was taller than eight inches on the curb strip in front of Shoemaker’s house. As before, Donahue left a door-hanger notice informing Shoemaker of the violation and mailed another Notice of Ordinance Violation. He returned to the property on the next day to find that, although the lawn had been freshly mowed, the grass on the curb strip remained in excess of the Ordinance’s limitation.

Shoemaker told Donahue that he would not mow the curb strip because he had been told by City employees that the area was the City’s property and not his own. Donahue insisted that the property did in fact belong to Shoemaker. Shoemaker asked to be ticketed for the violation in order to challenge the Ordinance in court. Shoemaker was charged a total of $600 for his violations of the Ordinance, including $300 in grass-cutting services and $300 in fines.

Shoemaker filed suit against the City, asserting violations of his procedural and substantive due process rights. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Shoemaker, finding that the City owned the curb strip in front of Shoemaker’s house, that “the right not to be forced by a municipal government to maintain municipal property” is a fundamental one, and the Ordinance “unconstitutionally infringes” on that right.

The City of Howell appealed.

Held: The City did not violate Shoemaker’s procedural due process rights because it provided him with ample notice of the violation and an adequate opportunity to be heard. The City did not violate his substantive due process right, because Shoemaker continued to own the tree lawn, subject only to certain rights the City had to use the area for permissible purposes.

The Court weighed several factors in deciding exactly how much procedural process was due Shoemaker, including whether a private interest is affected by the official action, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of rights, the probable value, if any, of additional procedural safeguards, and the Government’s interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail.

Clearly, a private interest was affected by the Ordinance, although it was a slight one. The constitution does not require strict adherence to the City’s Ordinances. What it does demand – that the notice as given be reasonably calculated to alert Shoemaker of the charges against him and any avenues available for challenging those charges – was accomplished by the notices distributed by the City, which explained what he had to do to avoid a fine.

There was little risk of erroneous deprivation under the Ordinance If the vegetation on the land in question is allowed to grow beyond eight inches tall, then the owner or occupier of that land has violated the Ordinance. Due to this objective, readily ascertainable standard, there is little chance of a wrongful application of the law. The ample means of challenging an alleged violation under the laws of the City and the state of Michigan further counsel against the need for additional procedures. Finally, the burden of added process here would be significant, and that the potential burden “militates against yet more process.”

The Court said that Howell did not violate Shoemaker’s substantive due process rights because Shoemaker had a shared ownership interest in and the de facto use of the curb strip. Under Michigan law, Shoemaker technically owned the property at all relevant times and the City simply possessed a right of way for public use. The erroneous reasoning of the district court relied entirely on the inaccurate determination that the City is the sole owner of the curb strip. Given Shoemaker’s shared ownership interest in the curb strip as well as his de facto use thereof, no substantive due process violation occurred.

Substantive due process holds that governmental deprivations of life, liberty or property are subject to limitations regardless of the adequacy of the procedures employed. The limitations the Constitution imposes on such governmental deprivations depends on the nature of the right being deprived. Government actions that do not affect fundamental rights will be upheld if they are rationally related to a legitimate state interest.

The district court acknowledged that the Supreme Court has always been reluctant to expand the concept of substantive due process, because guideposts for responsible decision-making in this unchartered area are scarce and open-ended. Despite this, the district court expanded the concept by identifying a new fundamental right: the right not to be forced by a municipal government to maintain municipal property.

The Howell ordinance - yet another reason for Colin Kaepernick to not stand up for the National Anthem?

The Howell ordinance – yet another reason for Colin Kaepernick to not stand up for the National Anthem?

The Court of Appeals observed that this “right” was predicated on the finding that the City owned the tree lawn, and that was wrong. Through a conveyance by a platting statute, the government does not receive title in the nature of a private ownership; it acquires no beneficial ownership of the land and has no voice concerning the use; and it does not possess the usual rights of a proprietor, but rather takes title only to the extent that it could preclude questions which might arise respecting the public uses, other than those of mere passage. “Simply put,” the Court of Appeals said, “the law vests the governmental entity with nominal title. We pause at this word ‘nominal’ to emphasize the obvious, i.e., that the property interest conveyed by these early platting statutes is a fee in name only.”

The reality, the Court ruled, is that homeowners have a special interest in the curb strips adjacent to their houses because these strips of land are, for all practical purposes, simply extensions of the homeowners’ lawns. The curb strips also provide a traffic and safety buffer between the street and the rest of the property. In other words, despite the City’s right of way over the curb strip for public use, Shoemaker retained both his property interest in and de facto use of the land in question.

Shoemaker suggested that the Ordinance was somehow “un-American.” The Court didn’t sit still for the argument. It said, “Shoemaker’s argument, like the district court’s opinion, relies on the erroneous assumption that the City is the sole owner of the curb strip. Shoemaker specifically compares the requirement that he maintain the curb strip associated with his property to draconian mandatory public-labor measures adopted by regimes in troubled nations such as the Republic of the Congo, Uzbekistan, and Burma/Myanmar. These analogies are almost too outlandish to address. But even more hyperbolically, Shoemaker argues that the Ordinance ‘makes the City look like North Korea rather than an American city’. This final comparison should come as a surprise to the citizens of both nations.”

Indeed it does.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Friday, November 10, 2017

SHUT MY MOUTH!

When the Harrises moved in back about 1956, they thought their land extended back well beyond where it actually did. They tended to their land – including the part they thought was theirs but wasn’t – planting flowers, mowing the lawn, and finally nurturing a beautiful break of pine trees along what they thought was the property line.

doghouse150730

The Harrises eventually sold the land to their granddaughter, Melissa Watts-Sanders. She likewise believed that the land went back to the trees, and she maintained it as though she owned (which she thought she did). Making her own improvements, she installed a dog pen on the disputed property.

Or perhaps we should we say “soon-to-be disputed property.” Because it seems she had a new neighbor, Mindy Chambliss. Ms. Chambliss did things right. Among those right things was her hiring of a surveyor. The surveyor unsurprisingly found that the land with the dog pen on it really belonged to Mindy.

Ms. Chambliss was not a lawyer (or much of a speller, which is a rapidly-dying art in this day and age). However, she knew some impressive-sounding legal terms – “cease and desist” being among them – so she wrote Ms. Watts-Sanders a missive demanding that she “cease and desist” with the dog pen, and claiming the property she believed to be rightfully hers. In the letter, Ms. Chambliss officiously explained that her survey “does superscede [sic] the fact that the property was maintained for 49 years.”

Badspelling140909Maybe it was the spelling. Whatever the reason, Ms. Watts-Sanders was not suitably cowed by the letter, so Ms. Chambliss sued. When she did, Ms. Watts-Sanders defended by arguing that a new boundary line had been established over the years by acquiescence. Nonsense, said Ms. Chambliss. Pine trees did not a boundary make, and none of Ms. Watts-Sanders’ predecessors had ever expressed an intention to occupy the land. And, Ms. Chambliss said, proudly showing her “cease and desist” letter to the Court, she had told Ms. Watts-Sanders about the surveyor’s findings.

‘Say what?’ the court asked, looking at the letter. ‘You mean Ms. Watts-Sanders and her people had maintained the property for 49 years?’ Well, the Court said – notwithstanding Ms. Chambliss’s opinion – that really did mean something. In fact, given that Watts-Sanders and her predecessors’ people maintained and used the land for half a century without any complaint from Chambliss’s predecessors, the case was pretty compelling that someone had acquiesced to the pine tree boundary.

The lesson here? Clients, let your lawyers be your mouthpiece. Ms. Chambliss’s smug “explanation” of what trumped what turned out to be an admission against her own interests, and ended up being a pretty costly law lecture.

There's a reason lawyers are called 'mouthpieces' ...

There’s a reason lawyers are called ‘mouthpieces’ …

Chambliss v. Watts-Sanders, Not Reported in S.W.3d, 2008-AR-0131.003, 2008 WL 241288 (Ark.App., Jan. 30, 2008). Ms. Chambliss and Ms. Watts-Sanders share a common backyard boundary. The dispute began after Ms. Chambliss ordered a survey which showed that Ms. Watts-Sanders had built a dog pen on Ms. Chambliss’s land. Ms. Watts-Sanders claimed property up to a row of pine trees planted on the disputed tract, but those trees were 23 feet east of the surveyed boundary line. Ms. Chambliss demanded that Ms. Watts-Sanders remove the dog pen, claiming to Ms. Watts-Sanders in writing that her survey superseded the fact that Watts-Sanders maintained the property for 49 years.

The property formerly belonged to Watts-Sanders’ grandparents, Vivian and Loren Harris. The Harrises bought the property in 1956 and built a house there. They later planted the pine trees and developed the flower bed toward the rear of the property. Mr. Harris cut the grass between the flower bed and the pine trees and that he treated the pine trees as the boundary between the two properties. No one except the Harrises used the disputed area since 1956. Ms. Watts-Sanders received the deed to the property from her grandmother in 2004. She noted that the pine trees were planted as close to in a line as possible and that the trees marked the boundary line between the properties.

Ms. Chambliss simply said too much. Never write paragraph where a sentence will do.

Ms. Chambliss simply said too much. Never write a paragraph where a sentence will do.

Ms. Chambliss purchased her property in 2003, and thought her land went to the concrete edging of the flowerbed. She was unaware that Ms. Watts-Sanders claimed possession of the disputed property until she placed the dog pen. Ms. Chambliss claimed that she had maintained the disputed property since purchasing it in 2003 and that she never saw Watts-Sanders on the property. The trial court found that Watts-Sanders had established the row of trees as the boundary by acquiescence and quieted title to the disputed property in her name. It also awarded her $250 in damages for the cost of rebuilding the dog pen. Ms. Chambliss appealed.

Held: The decision in favor of Ms. Watts-Sanders was upheld. Ms. Chambliss argued that the tree line was not a physical and permanent boundary, there was no evidence that Watts-Sanders’ predecessors occupied the disputed property, and there was no proof that any of Watts-Sanders’s predecessors-in-interest took any actions to indicate that the disputed land belonged to them.

The Court noted that the mere existence of a fence or some other line, without evidence of mutual recognition, cannot sustain a finding of boundary by acquiescence. However, silent acquiescence is sufficient, and the boundary line usually can inferred from the parties’ conduct over so many years. A party trying to prove that a boundary line has been established by acquiescence need only show that both parties at least tacitly accepted the non-surveyed line as the true boundary line.

The takeaway for today? Remember this ...

The takeaway for today is this …

Here, the Court said, the law merely required the boundary line to be some monument tacitly accepted as visible evidence of a dividing line, and the row of pine trees sufficed. The evidence was sufficient to show that Ms. Watts-Sanders and the Harrises occupied the disputed area, including evidence that Mr. Harris planted the pine trees and Ms. Chambliss’s own ill-advised admission that Ms. Watts-Sanders and the Harrises had maintained the disputed tract for forty-nine years.

Finally, evidence showed that only Ms. Watts-Sanders and her predecessors used the disputed tract. A boundary by acquiescence exists in cases where one party has used land belonging to another and the true landowner did nothing to assert his interest. Here, Ms. Watts-Sanders’ family’s use of the property remained undisturbed for almost 50 years. No one objected when her mother had one of the trees removed. Acquiescence can result from the silent conduct of the parties, and the fact that none of appellant’s predecessors used the property east of the tree line could be seen as tacit acceptance of the tree line as the boundary between the two properties.

– Tom Root
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