Published on:

California Prescriptive Easements and Laches: Whether Laches Can Ever Be A Defense To An Easement, And Why, or Why Not

A prescriptive easement is a right to use someone else’s land by using it continuously without permission. The rules for prescriptive easements have long been established in California. Laches is an equitable concept, which may be raised as a defense, when a party claims that the other side waited too long to bring their lawsuit, a delay that indicates they have waived their rights, or acquiesced in the defendant’s conduct. Anyone faced with a prescriptive easement should consult an experienced Sacramento or El Dorado real estate attorney. In a recent case in California, the parties waited too long to consult their attorneys.

In Connolly v. Trabue, Connolly sued to establish that they had created a prescriptive easement on the defendant’s property. The trial court ruled that they had proven the necessary elements, but waited too long to file suit, so the easement was denied due to laches. The appellate court disagreed.

fence.jpgConnolly bought three adjacent lots in Garberville. On the northern boundary of Lot 17 they fenced off a portion so that it was part of their adjacent lot to the North. In other words, they were using a portion of the Northen end of Lot 17. They made a deal with Dobbs to sell him lot 17, with the oral agreement that Connally would keep title to the fenced off portion of 17, and there would be a “lot line adjustment” to accomplish that.

Of course, the deed to Connolly did not reflect the line adjustment, and a few months later he sold 17. The new owner then sold it to Trabue, though Connolly had discussed their interest in the fenced off portion with Trabue before the sale. Over the years Connolly made improvements to the disputed part of 17, maintained the fence and gate, and kept the gate locked. These actions were open, visible, and adverse to all others claiming a right to the disputed land. The trial court found that the use was without permission or consent of any of the record owners of Lot 17 (wait a minute…there was an original agreement with Dobbs, and the subsequent owners knew about the claim and did not protest- looks permissive to me!). The trial court fond that Connolly had established all the elements to claim a prescriptive easement, but the claim was barred by laches. They sat on their rights for an appreciable delay, which if they had pursued would have prevented injustice to Trabue.

country_fence.jpgThe court of appeal disagreed, and reversed the judgment. It noted that laches requires showing an unreasonable delay on the part of the plaintiff which may show abandonment or waiver of a right. However, in the case of a prescriptive easement, the title gained by the adverse possessor acquires title is the laches of the real owner. The adverse possessor is under no obligation to take further action once they possessed the property for five years because they have established title by operation of law. It is the record owner, not the intruder, who must file a lawsuit within five years.

This result is obvious, and the trial court must ha ve gotten confused. In any adverse possession, the clock is ticking against the true owner to squelch the adverse (really, trespassing) use. Once the statutory five years is up, the true owner loses automatically. Trabue knew about the issue before buying; They should have spoken with an experienced prescriptive easement lawyer.