Case of the Day – Tuesday, January 5, 2021

MASSACHUSETTS RULE – THE OLD IS NEW AGAIN

Yeah, we talk about the Massachusetts Rule all the time, but really, how relevant is it to our modern, digitized, pandemified, frenetic world?

Ask Pete Kirk and Bryan Johnson. These unhappy landowners did not think much of an affordable housing development going in next to their parcels. Their stated complaint was that drainage would be altered and eight Norway maples on or near the boundary lines might be harmed.

I have no reason to suspect that Pete and Bryan objected to the nature of the development, or what all of those people needing “affordable housing” might do to their property value. But they were mightily unhappy that regrading or excavation could to their trees, and they sought to get the zoning board’s approval withdrawn.

Sorry, the court said to Pete and Bryan. This being Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Rule reigns supreme. The Developer had the right to do with his property as he wished, even if it cut or affected tree roots that had encroached on the its land. Strangely, the Court seems to have engrafted a specific intent requirement on the Developer. The Developer could cut roots or change the grade (which would bury the roots too deep in the soil), even if the Developer knew it would kill the trees. The only limitation is that the Developer could not do so with the intent to kill the trees.

Come again? I have read Michalson v. Nutting repeatedly without being able to find scienter anywhere in the ruling. What you do as a landowner to exercise your self-help rights under the Massachusetts Rule is somehow regulated by the purity of your motives? Outside of the obvious difficulty in proving what the landowner intended to accomplish in any given act on his or her property, what does motive have to do with the reasonableness of an act?

Forgive me for thinking of the Tin Man in a yoga class.

Kirk v. Li, 2019 Mass. LCR LEXIS 2 (Mass. Land Ct., Jan. 7, 2019).  Developer 269 North Ave, LLC got a comprehensive permit from the Weston Zoning Board of Appeals (Board) for a 16-unit housing project on a one and a half-acre parcel. The property, severely sloped in the rear, presented tough challenges to satisfying the requirement that the project not result in an increase in stormwater runoff, because all of the stormwater from 16 acres surrounding the site accumulates on the property. Because of the particularly porous soils on the property, all of this stormwater recharged into the ground, with none of it running off. Construction of the project would increase the impermeable surfaces on the property, such as buildings and parking lots, which meant a decrease in open land available to recharge stormwater.

To satisfy stormwater regulations, the Developer designed a system to collect and discharge all stormwater into the ground. The Board was satisfied, and issued the comprehensive permit.

Peter Kirk and Bryan Johnson own land that abut the property to the south and north of the Developer property, respectively. They complained to the Board that the Developer’s stormwater system would not handle the stormwater flow onto its property, resulting in flooding on their land. Additionally, Pete and Bryan argued that the housing development would harm or even kill trees that straddle the boundary or are on their properties. When the Board disagreed, they sued.

Held: The Court held that Board did not act unreasonably or arbitrarily or capriciously in accepting the Developer’s stormwater management plan or its measures for protecting the trees.

This review focuses only on Pete and Bryan’s complaints about their trees. Pete identified three trees on his property or on the common boundary line with the Developer’s property, and Bryan cited five trees on his land or on the common boundary line they asserted would be adversely affected by the project. Their experts testified that the root systems of the eight trees, all Norway maples, would be harmed by the roots being cut or by adding more than one to three inches of soil above the existing surface grade. The cutting and grading would all take place on the Developer’s property, but would – according to Pete and Bryan – harm or even kill the trees.

The Court admitted there was “no bright line delineating what unilateral actions regarding a shared tree are or are not permitted.” To be sure, a property owner cannot act to intentionally destroy a shared tree without the consent of the others who share an ownership interest therein. Yet, the growth of roots and branches into a neighbor’s land, the Court said, “no matter how essential to a tree’s survival, cannot vest in the tree’s owner some indomitable nonpossessory interest in the space the tree occupies.”

Here, the Developer did not want to remove the trees. As a matter of law, the Court ruled, the Developer would be entirely within its rights to pursue the project even if it has the effect of harming some of the trees’ roots. With respect to trees situated entirely on Pete’s or Bryan’s property, the Massachusetts Rule provides that the Developer has an unfettered right to cut the roots and branches of such trees back to the property line. With respect to the trees situated on shared property lines, the Court held, the Developer similarly has the right to cut roots and branches situated on the Developer property. The only limitation is that the Developer may not do so with the intent of killing those trees.

The Court found that the expert testimony made it clear that some level of activity within the area immediately surrounding the trunks of the trees could have the effect of killing them. “However,” the Court noted, “the testimony does not speak to where the roots of the… trees are actually located or what harms to the trees are certain or even reasonably certain… Here, where the applicable law makes it doubtful that [Pete and Bryan] have a claim to demand any protections for [their] trees, the level of speculation in the resulting harms renders these risks too remote to bear on whether the Board’s Decision was improper.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Monday, January 4, 2021

COUNT YOUR SILVERWARE

You know people like this. They leave restaurants with their pockets bulging from stolen packets of sugar, jelly or ketchup. They return from a vacation with a valise full of shampoo, conditioner, soap and teabags, boosted from every hotel on their itinerary. When they move from a house, they be sure to pick it clean of light bulbs, curtains, and even the unused toilet paper rolls left on the dispensers. In rare cases, they even uproot garden plants as they leave.

When you have folks like this over for dinner, you should audit your silverware before they leave.

The late Mr. Thomas was that kind of guy, probably a man with a closet full of mini-shampoo bottles, Bob Evans jelly tubs, and McDonald’s sugar packets. He was quite a thrifty guy. Maybe there’s a better word to use than “thrifty.” A word like “light-fingered.”

However you would describe him, after he signed the deal to sell his Iowa farm to Mr. Laube, but before he surrendered possession, Mr. Thomas thought he just might thin the timber a bit by cutting down and selling about a hundred walnut trees. True, the walnuts weren’t really ready for harvest – the 20-year old trees were only about halfway to an age where they should be harvested – but Mr. Thomas could hardly see the sense of leaving all of that nice hardwood for Mr. Laube to cash in on a couple decades after closing.

Mr. Laube sued. Sadly, while he won the case, he was butchered on damages. There was no question that Mr. Thomas was liable. After all, the contract of sale didn’t reserve any timber rights to the seller. But the issue was the value of the trees that had been removed.

Generally, there are several ways to figure damages for loss of trees. Where the trees are for a special purpose, such as for windbreaks, shade or ornamental use, the measure is usually the difference in value of the real estate before and after the destruction of the trees. Where the trees have no special use beyond being marketable timber, the measure of damages is the commercial market value of the trees at the time of taking. Where the trees can feasibly be replaced, the measure of damages is the reasonable cost of replacement.

The Court ruled that the value of the 100 immature walnut trees was their present-day value at the mill, despite Mr. Laube’s lament that they would have been worth so much more had they been 20 years older. The Iowa Supreme Court admitted that Mr. Laube had a point – he had been deprived of trees that had great potential value, something that giving him present commercial value didn’t recognize. But the Court said that the law had never allowed such damages, and it didn’t intend to do so here. The Court speculated – and that’s exactly what it was – that it “was perhaps to address this criticism that the legislature provided for treble damages in Iowa Code section 658.4.”

When taking all of the lightbulbs from your just-sold house, be sure to wear gloves so as to avoid being burned. The only one who should be burned by this process is the unwitting buyer.

     When taking all of the lightbulbs from your just-sold house, be sure to wear gloves so as to avoid being burned. The only one who should be burned by this process is the unwitting buyer.

Poppycock. Punitive damages are intended to punish, not make up for deficiencies in the law of compensatory damages. Farmer Thomas did not profit from his selling of the walnut trees on his way out the door, but Mr. Laube was hardly made whole.

Laube v. Estate of Thomas, 376 N.W.2d 108 (Sup.Ct. Iowa, 1985). In 1983, the Thomases contracted to sell a farm to Mr. Laube. Possession was to pass on March 1, 1984. Although no timber rights were reserved to the Thomases, they removed about 100 walnut trees from the tract between contract and closing. There was no question of liability; in fact, at trial Thomases offered to confess judgment for $1,000. The offer was refused.

The trial court awarded Laube the commercial value of the trees at the tie they were cut. Laube appealed.

Held: The measure of damages used by the trial court was correct.

The walnut trees were timber or forest, not used for a windbreak or ornamental purposes. The trees had stood at two sites on the farm, one a low-level area near a stream and the other in a permanent pasture. The 100 in question were smaller, presumably inferior for marketing purposes. The evidence showed that it was not a practical marketing time for the trees in question. At an age of 20 years, they would not mature so as to reach their reasonable marketing potential for another 20 years. Mr. Laube argued he should be awarded damages that took the current market price, considering the size and quality of trees 20 years hence, then discounting the figure appropriately to reach the present value.

It's he present-day value of the commercial timber that matters.

It’s the present-day value of the commercial timber that matters.

The Supreme Court admitted that “especially [in] the showing of the inappropriateness of cutting the trees at their stage of semi-maturity, there is at first blush an attractiveness in plaintiffs’ contention that a routine allowance of only log value is inadequate. On the other hand their suggested recovery does not conform with any recognized measure of damages for loss of trees.” Where the trees were put to a special purpose, such as for windbreaks, shade or ornamental use, the measure is usually the difference in value of the realty before and after the destruction of the trees. Where the trees had no such special use, the measure is the commercial market value of the trees at the time of taking. Where the trees can be replaced, damages are the reasonable cost of replacement.

Here, the Court said, the commercial value of the trees was the appropriate measure of damages. It suggested that the law provided for treble damages in Iowa Code § 658.4 to help adjust for the unfairness of situations such as the one in this case. However, it would not take into account future value in setting compensatory damages.

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Thursday, December 31, 2020

SELF-HELP WEEK

Quite unintentionally, the execrable 2020 – as it slinks out the door in well-deserved shame – is ending with an orgy of self-reliance versus resort to the courts. Tuesday, we reviewed a Florida case, Balzer v. Maxwell, in which the court held that the fact that an aggrieved landowner has no remedy but self-help means that when he or she exercises that right, the tree owner has no claim for what might become of the tree. Yesterday, we read a Massachusetts court holding that, on the other hand, when a city takes over an abandoned property for taxes, it assumes liability for hazard trees on the property.

In today’s case, Pennsylvania applies the Massachusetts Rule principles of self-reliance to encroaching tree roots.

Keiper v. Yenser, 1967 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 171 (Common Pleas Ct, Carbon County, Pa., January 23, 1967). Bill and Becky Keiper complained that for more than five years, the roots of Yensers’ willow tree have been extending into their land and penetrating their sewer line, which has cost the Keipers $166.07. They seek reimbursement for the money they have spent and a court order for the permanent abatement of the root encroachment (that is, an order that the Yensers remove the roots at their expense).

The Yensers filed a demurrer; in the alternative, they argued that laches prevented the Keipers from winning, and contended that abatement should not be ordered because the Keipers had an adequate remedy at law.

Held: The Keipers claim had to be dismissed.

Pennsylvania has no statute that would permit the Keipers to claim that the Yensers’ tree was a nuisance. Nor was there any case precedent.

However, looking at other states, the Court noted that in Gostina v. Ryland, a Washington state case, the court held that “were it not for our statute of nuisances, the respondents herein would not be accorded any judicial relief”. And Michalson v. Nutting, the Court said, held in very similar circumstances that “the neighbor, though without right of appeal to the courts if harm results to him, is nevertheless, not without remedy. His right to cut off the intruding boughs and roots is well recognized. His remedy is in his own hands. The common sense of the common law has recognized that it is wiser to leave the individual to protect himself, if harm results to him from this exercise of another’s right to use his property in a reasonable way, than to subject that other to the annoyance, and the public to the burden, of actions at law, which would be likely to be innumerable and, in many instances, purely vexatious.”

Thus, the Court held, while the Keipers could cut the offending roots themselves, they had no cause of action to compel the Yensers to do so. “It is a principle well settled by many adjudicated cases, that an action does not lie for a reasonable use of one’s right, though it be to the injury of another. For the lawful use of his own property, a party is not answerable in damages, unless on proof of negligence…”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Wednesday, December 30, 2020

SURE IT’S A NUISANCE, BUT WHOSE NUISANCE?

I live near enough to Cleveland to be aware of the blight of homes abandoned there during the Great Recession. The owners leave, the banks foreclose, the homes decay, the taxes are no longer paid, and the city tries to sell them for tax debts. Many times, the city ends up owning them.

Yet, Cleveland is an enclave of plenty compared to Detroit, where the blight covers mile after mile. A third of all homes in that bankrupt city had been foreclosed upon by 2015.

So who is responsible for the nuisances that these decaying homes (and untrimmed foliage) create? Generally, it’s the owner, or the entity with the right to control the property. In today’s case, decided when I was not yet a teen, a city argued that it owned and controlled an abandoned property for some purposes, but not where abating a nuisance was concerned.

Neighbor Harry Homeowner, who was beaned on the noggin by a branch from a dead tree on the neighboring lot, argued, “Hey, if you own it, you own it.”

Kurtigian v. Worcester, 203 N.E.2d 692 (Supreme Jud. Ct., Mass. 1965). Harry Kurtigian was working in his yard one windy October day in 1959 when he was struck by a limb blown from a decayed tree on adjoining property.

A large elm tree was situated in the southeast corner of the lot next to Harry’s, one which had been owned by Beatrice R. Norling. By 1954, Beatrice was dead and the tree was soon to follow, having been afflicted with Dutch elm disease. By 1956, there were no leaves on the 35-foot tall tree at all, and the bark peeled from the trunk by year’s end.

Two years later, a large branch fell during a summer thunderstorm, crushing Harry’s fence. He called the City, who sent an inspector to look at the tree. About 15 months later, the tree still standing undisturbed, Harry was walking in his yard when he heard a cracking sound, looked up, and saw a heavy limb falling toward him. He was knocked unconscious, suffering a skull, arm and wrist fracture.

The lot next door was undeveloped and wooded, having been acquired by the City of Worcester in 1950 for nonpayment of taxes. Harry sued for the City for negligence and for maintaining a nuisance tree,

The lower court found the City was negligent, but that the tree was not a nuisance. The City appealed.

Held: The tree was a nuisance, and the City was liable to Harry.

Liability for damage caused by the defective condition of premises turns upon whether a defendant was in control, either through ownership or otherwise. The City argued that it did not have title to and control of the real estate. But the records showed that the City recorded in the registry of deeds an instrument of taking in August 1950, pursuant to law for nonpayment of taxes. Three years later, the City recorded a notice of foreclosure, and seven years after that, a “Notice of Disposal in Tax Lien Case” executed by the Land Court was recorded in the registry of deeds, noting that there had been entered in the Land Court a decree foreclosing and barring rights of redemption by the prior owners to the lot. That was enough for the Court to rule that “at all material times the city… to the extent permitted by that chapter, engaged in the operation, maintenance, control, and sale of tax title property

The City said its taking of the property pursuant to vested title, subject only to the right of the owners to redeem the property by paying the taxes, is really more in the nature of security until the right of redemption was foreclosed. In other words, the City complained it did not have absolute title, would have been able to keep only the amount of its lien in the event of a taking by eminent domain, and before the right of redemption was foreclosed could not have collected any rents.

Harry, on the other hand, argued that G. L. c. 60, § 54 grants the City the right to possession as soon as a tax title is issued, as opposed to another statute not letting a private buyer from getting possession for two years after buy at a sale.

The Court said that dispute was irrelevant, because the City acquired a tax title nine years before the branch fell, so that even if the two-year period applied, it had long since passed. “In any event,” the Court said, “the city’s right to possession long preceded the date of injury.”

The City, however, contended that held the property in its “governmental capacity” rather than in its “proprietary capacity.” The collection of taxes is a governmental function, the City argued, and it is not liable for the tortious acts of its officers in fulfilling a governmental function. The Court made short work of that argument. The City was maintaining a nuisance on the vacant lot, the Court ruled and “there is no such immunity, however, where there is a nuisance maintained on real estate owned or controlled by a municipality, and this principle obtains ‘even where the nuisance arises out of the performance by the municipality of a governmental duty in the interests of the general public’.”

The liability of a municipality as owner of land for a private nuisance on the land is no different than the liability of natural person, the Court said. Trees can be a nuisance as much as can a dilapidated building. “As the limb did not overhang the plaintiff’s land,” the Court said, “we have no occasion to examine the question whether the plaintiff is limited to self-help as in Michalson v. Nutting.” What’s more, the Court said, no one has argued that there should be a distinction between trees naturally on land and those which have been planted, “even assuming it is possible to ascertain the origin of this particular tree.”

The Court held that the evidence showed that there was, as early as 1956 when the tree died, a private nuisance as to Harry and his property. While not a public shade tree, the elm was on land owned by and subject to the control of the city. It was obviously decayed. A nuisance came into existence while the City was in control of the land. “Public policy in a civilized community requires that there be someone to be held responsible for a private nuisance on each piece of real estate, and, particularly in an urban area, that there be no oases of nonliability where a private nuisance may be maintained with impunity.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Tuesday, December 29, 2020

SAUCE FOR THE GANDER

I confess that I have always been a little uneasy at the cases that balance the Massachusetts Rule against harm – even inevitable harm – to a neighbor’s tree. If the Massachusetts Rule says that a landowner suffering harm from a neighbor’s tree has no recourse but to trim branches and roots back to the property line, it seemed like holding that the tree owner had no recourse if the trimming harmed the tree was just a practical application of the commonsense notion that what is sauce for the goose is as well sauce for the gander.

The property line limitation of the Massachusetts Rule is quite necessary. You cannot have the neighbor wandering into your yard, hacking the tree branch back to the trunk. But at the same time, standards of careful tree maintenance (think ANSI Standard A300) would suggest that cutting a limb halfway back to the trunk is negligence. Inasmuch as the afflicted neighbor cannot trim the tree beyond the property line to acceptable standards without the tree owner’s permission, the neighbor would be sandbagged if she were liable for not trimming it in a way that did not damage it.

Likewise, if a neighbor can save her foundation only by severing so many roots on her property that the tree’s health and safety is jeopardized, why should she be liable for what happens to the tree? It’s not as though she could have sued to have the tree removed: that’s the whole point of the Massachusetts Rule.

And yet, in cases like Brewer v. Dick Lavy Farms, LLC, Fliegman v. Rubin, and Booska v. Patel lead the march toward limiting the Massachusetts Rule with the rule that a landowner had a duty to act reasonably when exercising self-help rights. Such a limitation on the Massachusetts Rule almost guarantees that the Rule will be further watered down by permitting suits against tree owners for encroachment. And when that happens, the Massachusetts Rule will be indistinguishable from the Hawaii Rule.

My worry that what some may be progress is just needless change is why I ended 2018 so cheered by a year-end decision from Florida that so succinctly expressed my own feeling that the Massachusetts Rule requires that the prohibition on bringing suit apply as much to the goose as it does to the gander.

Balzer v. Maxwell, Case No. 1D18-3182 (Ct.App. 1st Dist., Dec. 31, 2018), 2018 Fla. App. LEXIS 18792. A large pine tree stood on Barbara Balzer’s property near her boundary with a parcel owned by Cindy Ryan. The tree’s roots encroached onto Cindy’s property, damaging the sewer line that ran under their driveway. To fix the sewer line, Cindy hired Hoyt Maxwell to remove her driveway and replace the line. While removing the driveway, Hoyt cut some of the encroaching tree roots. Although he did not kill the tree, Hoyt undermined the tree’s structural integrity and increased the risk that it might someday fall on Barbara’s house. To be prudent, Barbara paid to have the tree removed.

Afterwards, she sued Cindy to recover the costs of removing the tree. After a nonjury trial, the court awarded Barbara only a portion of her costs to remove the tree. Barbara appealed, arguing that the county court erred by not awarding all of her costs. Cindy and Hoyt cross-appealed, arguing that the county court erred in finding them liable for damaging the tree because Cindy had the right to cut the encroaching tree roots. The circuit court reversed, reasoning that because Barbara could not be compelled to pay for Cindy’s damaged sewer line, she likewise had no cause of action against Cindy and Hoyt if the tree was damaged when Cindy exercised her privilege to cut the roots encroaching onto her property.

Barbara sought review of the circuit court appellate decision.

Held: Because the circuit court’s decision did not violate any clearly established principle of law, its decision holding that Cindy and Hoyt were not liable was upheld.

The holding in this decision, known as a second-tier certiorari proceeding, was limited to deciding whether the lower court’s decision departed from “clearly established principle of law” resulting in a miscarriage of justice. If there is no controlling precedent, certiorari relief cannot be granted because without such precedent, the reviewing court “cannot conclude that a circuit court violated a clearly established principle of law.”

Under Florida law, the Court observed, it is well-established that an owner of a healthy tree is not liable to an adjoining property owner for damage caused by encroaching tree branches or roots, but the adjoining property owner “is privileged to trim back, at his own expense, any encroaching tree roots or branches… which has grown onto his property.”

The issue in this case, however, was slightly different, whether an adjoining property owner is liable to the tree owner when the self-help remedy damages to the tree. The Court held that while there is conflicting decisions on the issue in other states, no Florida court has weighed in on the issue. For that reason, the Court said, “it follows that the circuit court did not violate clearly established law in ruling the way that it did.”

Barbara argued that McCain v. Florida Power Corp., established negligence principles extended to suits against landowners in circumstances like this case. The Court disagreed, because Barbara did not allege and the evidence did not show that Cindy damaged anything other than the tree whose encroaching roots Cindy “undisputedly had a right to cut.” The Court concluded that a “rule imposing liability for causing any damage to the tree in these circumstances would effectively eviscerate that right.”

– Tom Root

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Case of the Day – Monday, December 28, 2020

PINKY SWEAR

pinkyswear150204Hey, kids! Remember “cross my heart and hope to die?” How “swear on a stack of Bibles?” Even if you’re too young for those old chestnuts, you all know what a “pinky swear” is.

Sadly, Robert Grey Johnson, Jr., does not. Mr. Grey Johnson lived in tony Monarch Bay Terrace, on the Pacific Ocean between Long Beach and San Diego. The community is governed by the Monarch Bay Terrace Property Owners Association, a type of local quasi-governmental regulatory body that gives despotism a bad name. A few years ago, Monarch Bay POA and Grey Johnson became embroiled in a dispute concerning his alleged installation of various “unapproved” trees on his property, and his failure to properly trim and maintain all of his trees so they didn’t impede either use of the sidewalks adjacent to his property or – more important when the “starter houses” in your neighborhood sell for over a million bucks – the ocean views of his neighbors.

To settle that earlier case, Grey Johnson promised to abide by a settlement that spanned more than 20 pages. He said he abide by Monarch Bay’s “Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions” and seek prior approval of any trees planted on his property. He conceded that Monarch Bay POA’s board of directors would have “sole discretion” to determine the proper height of any tree, or whether any new or existing planting constitutes a view impediment or a nuisance – and that its decisions would be “final.” Finally, Grey Johnson promised to remove certain trees, trim or top other trees, as necessary, to maintain them at rooftop level; and pay a fine of $250.00, plus $500.00 in attorney fees to Monarch Bay.

crossedfingers150206No one looked behind Grey Johnson’s back while he signed off on the deal, or they might have seen his crossed fingers. A few years later, after Grey Johnson had failed to trim his trees as he promised, the parties were back in court. The POA wanted the trial judge to enforce the deal. Grey Johnson, who channeled Joyce Kilmer, argued that he should not be required to “top” the tree that some of his neighbors characterize as an impediment to their ocean views, even though he earlier agreed to do that very thing.

The court was unimpressed. Kilmer, the judge pointed out, didn’t say that trees were lovelier than ocean views – just poems. Grey Johnson offered fifty shades of justification for not honoring the deal, but the court saw through them. After the trial court upheld the deal, he took his plea to the Court of Appeals, which wisely observed that “this case is not about whether Johnson should be required to top his tree – or whether Kilmer would have approved of his doing so. It’s about whether Johnson’s voluntary agreement to do it is legally enforceable, even though he doesn’t want to do it anymore. It is.”

Our hats are off in homage to the salesmanship of the lawyer who convinced Grey Johnson that he ought to bankroll this turkey. Had Grey Johnson come to us, we probably would have uncreatively told him to “keep your word… you signed the deal, now live with it.” Which, come to think of it, is exactly what the Court of Appeals told him.

The moral? Lawyers often say that a “bad settlement is better than a good lawsuit.” True, but that settlement is more than a technicality on the road to ending some pesky litigation. Courts presume the parties understand what they’re signing, and won’t later entertain deviceful arguments for ignoring the plain terms of the deal.

It's a pretty fine view - what you'd expect for ocean vistas that start round $2.5 million.

It’s a pretty fine view – what you’d expect for ocean vistas that start around $2.5 million.

Monarch Bay Property Owners Ass’n v. Johnson, Case No. G043518 (Ct.App. 4th Div. Cal., Oct. 19, 2011), 2011 Cal. LEXIS 13258. Bob Johnson, a homeowner in Monarch Bay, became embroiled in a dispute with the Monarch Bay Property Owners Association over his installation of various “unapproved” trees on his property, and his failure to properly trim and maintain other trees to ensure they were not impeding use of the sidewalks adjacent to his property, or the ocean views of his neighbors. In 2008, the parties settled the dispute with a lengthy settlement agreement, in which Johnson promised abide by the community’s Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, and would seek prior approval of any plantings on his property. He also agreed that the POA’s board of directors would have sole discretion to determine the proper height of any trees, or whether new or existing trees constitutes a view impediment or a nuisance. Johnson promised to remove some trees and trim others as necessary to maintain them at roof level, and to pay a modest fine. The parties agreed that a particular Canary pine “will be inspected” nine months after the date of settlement to determine whether it creates any view impediments. If it does, it would be further trimmed – but only if a “neutral arborist” (paid by Monarch Bay) determines that doing so would not permanently injure the tree. The settlement specified that the POA could enter a judgment against Johnson if he didn’t comply.

Right after signing the settlement agreement, Johnson removed and trimmed trees as he had promised to do. However, when Monarch Bay inspected his property nine months after the settlement, it determined that he had failed to properly maintain the trimming of his existing trees, and also that the Canary pine appeared to be impeding the views of his neighbors. The POA concluded that Johnson was in breach of the settlement agreement, and sought entry of judgment against him.

Monarch Bay’s motion for entry of judgment was filed just over one year after the settlement date. Johnson opposed the motion, arguing that he was in compliance with the terms of the settlement agreement, but that Monarch Bay had breached it by “fail[ing] to inspect the Canary pine within the nine month period of the agreement.” Johnson also argued that Monarch Bay had provided no evidence that further trimming of the Canary pine would not endanger it, and that the stipulated judgment was too “vague” and lacking in objective standards to be enforceable.

The court denied the POA’s motion, without prejudice, because it lacked sufficient supporting evidence to establish Johnson’s breach of the agreement. The POA refiled its motion for entry of judgment five months later, supported by additional evidence, including the declaration of a neutral arborist, and declarations of neighbors attesting to view impairment. Also included with the moving papers was a copy of the stipulated judgment which the court was being asked to enter. Johnson again filed opposition. The trial court entered judgment for the POA on December 29, 2009.

Johnson appealed.

Held: The POA was entitled to its judgment. Johnson asserted two primary bases for challenging the stipulated judgment which arose out the prior settlement. First, he claims the court was without jurisdiction to enter an order enforcing the parties’ settlement pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 664, because Monarch Bay’s motion was brought more than one year after the date of the settlement, in violation of a provision requiring that the case be dismissed no later than one year after the settlement date. And second, Johnson claimed that the terms of the judgment as entered are materially different from those he stipulated to. Neither argument is persuasive.

stackofbibles150204The Court ruled that the settlement agreement did not actually require that the case be dismissed within a year after the settlement date – or at all. Instead, what the provision Johnson relies upon does is prohibit dismissal of the case for a period of time. But even if settlement had imposed a deadline or dismissal of the case, Johnson would have waived any right to rely upon it by failing to enforce it prior to entry of judgment. Until the case was actually dismissed – which this one never was – the court retained jurisdiction to enter judgment.

The Court also held that Johnson’s argument concerning the specific terms of the judgment ignored the plain fact that, as part of the settlement agreement, Johnson expressly stipulated to the exact terms of the judgment to be entered against him if he failed to comply with his obligations under the settlement agreement. While Johnson may be unhappy with its terms, the Court held, it is too late for him to raise that issue now.

Finally, Johnson also challenged the trial court’s award of about $60,000 in attorney fees incurred by the POA in enforcing the settlement agreement. The Court of Appeals upheld the award, holding that “the parties specifically provided in their stipulated judgment for an additional award of attorney fees incurred by Monarch Bay ‘in enforcement of the stipulation,’ which would equate to the fees expended to obtain entry of the stipulated judgment. Nor did the court err by including in its award the fees Monarch Bay incurred in its first motion to obtain entry of judgment. The court explicitly denied the first motion “without prejudice, ” thus signaling that the issue of whether Monarch Bay was entitled to such a judgment was yet to be determined – in other words, that neither party had yet won nor lost the fight. The court’s fee award, entered after Monarch Bay ultimately prevailed, was consistent with that approach: One fight, one victor – and to the victor went the spoils.

– Tom Root

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