Homeowners Defend Against Neighbors’ Claim of Easement Over Their Driveway in Massachusetts Land Use Case

In Massachusetts, land use and ownership can be complicated after a parcel of property has passed through several owners over the course of many years.  In a March 3, 2018 case, the plaintiffs filed an action claiming that they had established a prescriptive easement to pass over part of the defendant’s land.  The matter was decided by the Massachusetts Land Court on summary judgment motions.

The plaintiffs in the case owned a parcel of land that abutted property owned by the defendants.  The defendants’ property consisted of two parcels.  Originally, the two parcels were a single piece of land owned by another individual.  The original owner divided the land into two parcels in 1995, conveying one parcel to the defendants and keeping the other parcel for himself.  The plaintiffs and the original owner engaged in litigation over the parcel he retained until 2012, when the house on the property was torn down.  Eventually, the property was foreclosed upon, and the defendants purchased that parcel from the original owner as well.  The plaintiffs then asserted a claim that they had established a prescriptive easement to pass over a portion of the defendants’ land.  Specifically, the disputed area consisted of a section of the circular driveway on the defendants’ property, located on the parcel that had initially been retained by the original owner.

In Massachusetts, to establish a prescriptive easement, the plaintiffs must prove open, notorious, adverse, and continuous or uninterrupted use of the defendant’s land for a period of at least 20 years.  The defendants in the case argued that the plaintiffs could not establish their prescriptive easement claim because their use of the defendants’ property was permissive, and otherwise it was merely intermittent or sporadic.

The land court agreed, finding that the undisputed facts showed that the area was only used intermittently at times when it was convenient, such as for deliveries and for disabled people to access the plaintiffs’ home.  The court explained that these uses, while recurring, were not regular or unique such that nonuse for the remaining majority of the time was excusable.  The land court also noted that the plaintiffs had been given permission to use the driveway for delivery of construction materials for their house within the 20-year period.  Accordingly, the court held that the plaintiffs were unable to establish all of the elements of a prescriptive easement.

In addition, the court ruled that the plaintiffs were barred from bringing their claim, based on the doctrine of judicial estoppel.  Judicial estoppel is an equitable doctrine that precludes a party from asserting a position in one legal proceeding that is contrary to a position it had previously asserted in another proceeding.  Citing the previous litigation between the plaintiffs and the original owner, the defendants argued that the plaintiffs’ position that they regularly used the driveway was inconsistent with the position asserted in the 1996 litigation, wherein they testified that the doorway leading to the disputed driveway was almost never used.  As a result, the plaintiffs’ claim against the defendants was dismissed.

At Pulgini & Norton, our real estate attorneys can assist Massachusetts residents in a range of property issues, such as land use, financing, and other transactions.  If you are purchasing or selling residential property, are undergoing construction, or have questions about your title, schedule a consultation by calling our office at (781) 843-2200 or submitting our online contact form.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Appeals Court Sides with Property Owner in Case Against Town Over Easement Rights, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published August 22, 2016

Massachusetts Homeowners Acquire Ownership Rights to Portion of Neighbor’s Lot, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published November 27, 2017

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