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Elements To Plead Prescriptive Easements And Implied Easements Clarified By Court

Martin v. Bicknell
___A.3d___ (2014)

by Gregory S. Emrick, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://law.justia.com/cases/district-of-columbia/court-of-appeals/
2014/12-cv-1226.html

In the 1930’s, a developer built the neighborhood known as Foxhall Village in the District of Columbia. Included in the development were lots 52 and 53, upon which a common twelve foot driveway was placed for the benefit of the occupants of both lots. The twelve foot driveway straddled the property line and led to garages near the rear of each housing unit. James Martin and Antoinette Martin (“Martins”) purchased the house on lot 52 in 1969. For thirty (30) years the Martins shared the use of the driveway with the owners of lot 53. In 2001, the owner of lot 53 turned the garage into a rental unit, but the use of the driveway remained largely unchanged. Later that year, the Bicknells purchased lot 53. As the Bicknell’s no longer had a garage for parking, they advised the Martins that they would park on their side of the driveway, and agreement was reached so the Bicknells would keep their vehicles sufficiently on their side of the driveway to ensure the Martins’ access. The agreement, and the relationship between the neighbors, began to sour and the Bicknell’s use of the driveway would occasionally prevent the Martins from having access to their garage.

In 2012, the Martins sued the Bicknells alleging that the Martins had either an implied grant of an easement from the original developer, or a prescriptive easement. The Bicknells filed a motion to dismiss alleging that the implied easement required “strict necessity” and the Martins had only indicated “reasonable necessity.” Further, the Martins had failed to allege facts supporting the exclusive adverse use to support the prescriptive easement. The Superior Court granted the motion, and the Martins appealed.

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia expressly stated that it was publishing the opinion to clarify the elements for implied grants of easements and prescriptive easements, in hopes of preventing future litigation on the same issue. The Court then provided the following guidance:

An easement is “[a]n interest in land owned by another person, consisting in the right to use or control the land ... for a specific limited purpose.” An express easement, acknowledged in a deed conveying ownership of property, is always preferred under the law. Under certain circumstances, however, courts will recognize an implied easement. As this court has recognized, “[g]enerally, there are two types of implied easements, an implied grant, and an implied reservation.” In the case of an implied grant of an easement, a property owner has subdivided and sold some or all of his property, but it is implied that he also granted to the purchaser of one parcel, the dominant estate, an easement over another parcel, the servient estate—perhaps to allow access to a necessary resource (e.g., water or a public road). In the case of implied reservations of easement, the owner has subdivided but retained possession of the dominant estate, impliedly reserving use of a portion of the servient estate for his benefit. Because these two types of easements arise under different circumstances, each implicating distinct equitable concerns, the elements required to establish the existence of these easements are different. For implied grants of easements, the owner of the dominant estate need only assert that the easement is reasonably necessary to the use of his property. But for implied reservations of easements the owner of the dominant estate must show that the implied easement is strictly necessary.

Id. at 2 (internal citations removed). The Court then held that the trial court had incorrectly applied the standard of the implied reservation of an easement instead of the implied grant. Under the implied grant of an easement the “reasonable necessity” was the proper standard to apply, and while the Martins had not used the exact words, the factual allegations supported the reasonable necessity.

The Court the addressed the prescriptive easement, and noted that case law had created confusion as to the role that exclusivity played in the doctrine. “A prescriptive easement requires open, notorious, exclusive, continuous, and adverse use for the statutory period of fifteen years.” Id. at 5 The general elements had been borrowed from adverse possession and “[i]t seems exclusivity has been recited with the other elements of prescriptive easements that have been imported from adverse possession cases, but it is a layabout; it has never done any work.” Id. The Court noted exclusivity was inconsistent with the concept of a prescriptive easement, and specifically held that a plaintiff need not make a showing of exclusivity for a prescriptive easement.

The Court of Appeals thereafter reversed and remanded the matter back to the trial court for further proceedings.


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