By Glen C. Hansen

In Linthicum v. Butterfield (April 2, 2009) 2009 Cal.App. LEXIS 473 (as modified on April 9, 2009, 2009 Cal.App.LEXIS 496), the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, affirmed a trial court’s creation of an equitable easement. In that case, Plaintiffs bought a parcel of land in a mountainous area near Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County. A 60-year old roadway existed over that parcel. Defendant owners of neighboring parcels used that roadway as the only access to their land.  Plaintiffs sought an injunction to prevent Defendants from using the roadway.  Defendants cross-complained to quiet title to an easement for the roadway.  The primary issue in that case was whether the trial court abused its discretion in creating an “equitable easement” over the roadway in favor of the Defendants.

The Court of Appeal examined the doctrine of “balancing conveniences” or “relative hardship,” under which a trial court may create an easement by refusing to enjoin an encroachment or nuisance.  The Court of Appeal recognized that a trial court’s exercise of discretion to determine whether to deny such an injunction is based on equitable principles and is guided by the following factors:

  1. Defendant must be innocent – the encroachment must not be the result of defendant’s willful act, and perhaps not the result of defendant’s negligence.  In this same connection the court should weigh plaintiff’s conduct to ascertain if plaintiff is in any way responsible for the situation.
  2. If plaintiff will suffer irreparable injury by the encroachment, the injunction should be granted regardless of the injury to defendant, except, perhaps, where the rights of the public will be adversely affected.
  3. The hardship to defendant by the granting of the injunction must be greatly disproportionate to the hardship caused to the plaintiff by the continuance of the encroachment and this fact must clearly appear in the evidence and must be proved by the defendant.

In the Linthicum case, the Court of Appeal held that the trial did not abuse its discretion in refusing to enjoin the Defendants’ encroachment on Plaintiffs’ property, and in quieting title to an equitable easement in favor of Defendants under these factors. The key facts that supported that result were the following:

First, the roadway in question was the “only access” to the Defendants’ parcels.  This finding was based on the trial court’s site visit and expert testimony that construction of an alternative route involves significant engineering problems and the county’s approval would be doubtful.  Just because some of the deeds to the Defendants’ properties reserve easements for access, did not mean those paper agreements could be developed into actual access.

Second, leaving the roadway in place would not affect Plaintiffs’ right to fully develop the parcel over which the roadway lies.  This finding was based on a planner’s expert testimony that there were nine possibilities to build a home on the Plaintiffs’ parcel with the roadway in place.

Third, the trial court balanced the “catastrophic loss” to the Defendants should the injunction be granted (i.e., total loss in value to Defendants’ properties or no other access to those properties), against no or insignificant loss to Plaintiffs should an injunction be denied.

Fourth, the trial court found Plaintiffs were responsible for the dispute because they purchased the parcel with full knowledge of the historical use of the roadway by Defendants and their predecessors, and made a concerted effort to deprive the Defendants of the value and use of their properties.

Fifth, at most, the Defendants’ conduct was negligent, and not willful. The Court of Appeal noted that the doctrine of balancing conveniences “could hardly be applied if a showing of some negligence is in every case enough to defeat its application.” The question of whether the defendant’s conduct is so egregious as to be willful or whether the quantum of the defendant’s negligence is so great as to justify an injunction is a matter best left to the sound discretion of the trial court, the Court of Appeal explained.  In exercising that discretion, the trial court must consider the conduct and intent not only of the defendant, but also of the plaintiff, in light of the relative harm that granting or withholding an injunction will do to the interests of the parties. In this case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the injunction.

Although the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s finding of an equitable easement, it nevertheless remanded the case to the trial court to clarify the width of the roadway easement.  “The scope of an equitable easement should not be greater than is reasonably necessary to protect the defendant’s interests.” Here, the 66-foot right-of-way that the trial court granted (in light of a 60-year old special use permit issued by the U.S. Forest Service) needed to be reevaluated. All that was necessary to protect the Defendants’ interest in their properties was a roadway sufficient to provide reasonable access to their parcels and which conforms to governmental regulations governing such roadways.

Glen C. Hansen is a senior associate at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP.  For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.