• Land Use Attorney Capitola

CASE UPDATE: Court Rejects “Equitable Easement” Claim

Court rejects property owner’s claim that he had an “Equitable Easement” to use an improved patio area on his neighbor’s property and remanded the case back to the trial court to adjudicate the plaintiff’s prescriptive easement claim.

In Shoen v. Zacarias, (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 16, the court of appeal overturned the trial court and rejected plaintiff’s claim that she had an “equitable easement” to use a patio area on her neighbor’s property that was only accessible from the plaintiff’s property.   The equitable easement doctrine evolved to give courts discretion to balance hardships in neighbor disputes over the use of property, and it can be used when a party cannot satisfy all the elements for an actual or prescriptive easement.  The court summarized the current rule as follows:

[T]he California courts have had the discretionary authority to deny a landowner’s request to eject a trespasser and instead force the landowner to accept damages as compensation for the judicial creation of an easement over the trespassed-upon property in the trespasser’s favor, provided that the trespasser shows that (1) her trespass was “ ‘innocent’ ” rather than “ ‘willful or negligent,’ ” (2) the public or the property owner will not be “ ‘ “irreparabl[y] injur[ed]” ’ ” by the easement, and (3) the hardship to the trespasser from having to cease the trespass is “ ‘ “greatly disproportionate to the hardship caused [the owner] by the continuance of the encroachment.” ’ ”  [Citations.] Unless all three prerequisites are established, a court lacks the discretion to grant an equitable easement….

The court of appeal explained that an equitable easement required more than a simple balancing of hardships.  Rather, the hardship to the plaintiff must be greatly disproportionate to the hardship that would be suffered by the defendant, as in cases where trespassers who would otherwise be forced to move buildings or be airlifted to their landlocked property held.  In this case, the court of appeal held, as a matter of law, that plaintiff could not have an equitable easement because the hardship she would suffer in spending less than $300 to remove her patio furniture from the neighbor’s property is not greatly disproportionate to the hardship the neighbor would suffer in losing the use of land that she owns.  However, the court of appeal remanded the case back to the trial court to adjudicate the plaintiff’s prescriptive easement claim.

©2015 Miles J. Dolinger. This article is not intended to and does not constitute legal advice or a solicitation for the formation of an attorney-client relationship.

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