Weekly Law Resume - January 2014: Conduct As Interference With Easement

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Flora Dolnikov v. Dikran Ekizian
Court Of Appeal, Second District (December 19, 2013)

This case dealt with an easement for ingress and egress to undeveloped lots in the Hollywood Hills. In 1942, defendants’ predecessor in interest granted and recorded the easement at issue to plaintiff’s predecessor in interest. Plaintiff Flora Dolnikov (“Dolnikov”) purchased her property in 1988 and obtained permits to construct two houses on her land. While construction was in progress, the servient tenement was sold to defendant Diramesi Investments, LLC, a company owned by defendant Dikran Ekizian (“Ekizian”). Defendants purchased the land with full knowledge of the easement and Plaintiff’s ongoing construction. .

Plaintiff sought to improve the easement roadway to allow for more level access to one of her houses and the City approved a grading plan which lowered the soil level on the easement. The approved grading plan also called for construction of a retaining wall across Defendants’ side of the easement. While construction according to the grading plan was underway, Plaintiff discovered there was no permit to construct the retaining wall. When she went to apply for the missing permit, she learned that Ekizian had complained and refused permission for Plaintiff to build on his property. The City would not issue the permits without Defendants’ signatures and Plaintiff’s construction was halted. .

In 2004, Plaintiff filed suit seeking both declaratory and injunctive relief and damages for interference with her easement. The trial court concluded that the grading and the construction of the retaining wall were necessary for the use of the easement. The grading and retaining walls as shown on Plaintiff’s approved grading plan were necessary for the use of the easement for its expressly intended purpose, were not inconsistent with the nature of the easement, and were authorized by the easement. Even after this ruling, Defendants continued to withhold the required signatures for the retaining wall permit. During the second phase of the trial, Plaintiff argued that Defendants’ conduct constituted interference with her use and enjoyment of the easement. The jury agreed and awarded Plaintiff $713,927.96 in damages and interest. Defendants appealed. .

The Court of Appeal affirmed, finding that Defendants’ action of refusing to cooperate constituted a complete and total obstruction of Plaintiff’s easement. As servient tenement owners, Defendants were subject to the rule of reasonableness and mutual accommodation. There was no evidence that the signatures requested from Defendants imposed a needless burden on them. Defendants’ refusal to sign the documents granting permission for construction of the retaining wall was unjustified because Defendants had no development plans at the time and the grading and retaining walls benefitted Defendants’ property by making the easement passable. By withholding the requested signatures, Defendants interfered with Plaintiff’s ability to maintain and repair the easement and rendered Plaintiff’s use of the easement impossible. The evidence supported the jury’s finding that Defendants unreasonably interfered with Plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of the easement.

COMMENT

Conduct can constitute actionable interference with the use and enjoyment of an easement even when the conduct does not physically obstruct the servitude. In this case, the servient tenement owner’s refusal to cooperate with the easement owner’s development plans resulted in the recovery of tort damages. In acting or refusing to act, owners of servient tenements must bear in mind the duties and obligations to which they are bound.

For a copy of the complete decision see:

http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B226675.PDF