SJC Holds That “Modern Rule” on Easements Applies to Registered Land
by Donald R. Pinto, Jr.
In its recent decision in Martin v. Simmons Properties, LLC, 467 Mass. 1 (2014), the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) held that the rule it adopted in its landmark decision in M.P.M. Builders, LLC v. Dwyer, 442 Mass. 87 (2004) – which allows the owner of land burdened by an easement to relocate the easement or change its dimensions – applies to easements appurtenant to registered land. Rejecting a contrary holding of the Appeals Court, the SJC affirmed an underlying Land Court ruling that registered land is not exempt from the “modern rule” of M.P.M. Builders. Martin not only clarifies that M.P.M. Builders applies to registered land, it confirms that, in the wake of M.P.M. Builders, a long line of cases concerning the rights of parties holding easements that are clearly described or are shown on a plan is no longer good law.
Plaintiff Clifford J. Martin (“Martin”) in 1969 purchased about one-third of an acre of registered land in a commercial-industrial district near the Medford-Somerville line. Martin’s parcel – Lot 3A – has the benefit of several easements, including an easement of passage over Way A, which crosses a number of other lots in the area. In 1993, defendant Simmons Properties, LLC (“Simmons”) purchased three of the lots that Way A crosses. Simmons made various improvements on its parcels, and some of those improvements protrude into Way A.
In 2007, Martin sued Simmons in Land Court, alleging 15 acts of encroachment on Way A. Some of these encroachments were initiated by Simmons; others predated its ownership of its lots. While conceding that, to date, none of these encroachments prevented him from using Way A to access Lot 3A, Martin claimed he was entitled to have the encroachments removed so he could use the full width of Way A. After trial, the Land Court ruled that Martin was not entitled to the removal of any encroachments from Way A.
The Land Court reasoned that, though the encroachments in Way A are within an easement referenced in Martin’s certificate of title, this confers on Martin no “absolute right to removal . . . .” While the certificate provides certainty as to Martin’s title – including the existence of his easement over Way A – the court saw no reason to forsake the usual rules of property law applicable to unregistered land, under which the owner of the burdened land (Simmons) may use its land for all purposes not inconsistent with the rights of the easement holder (Martin). The Land Court noted that, if Martin’s use of Lot 3A were to change, as a result of which the encroachments in question did materially interfere with his rights in Way A, Martin might then be entitled to “judicial adjustment” of the encroachments.
Martin appealed, and on the question of his right to removal of the encroachments, the Appeals Court reversed. After noting the distinction between easements intended to remain fully open and those intended to provide only a “convenient passage,” the court stated, “we are aware of no case that holds that only a convenient passage is intended when a right of way is reserved over a way defined and located by reference to a Land Court plan.” The Appeals Court found support for its view in a line of cases holding that, where the description of a right of way is definite and free from ambiguity – particularly where it is shown on a plan – the easement holder is entitled to use the entire width of the described way. Having placed Martin’s easement over Way A into this category, the court concluded that “[a] finding that the obstructions do not interfere with present or future uses is immaterial . . . .” With regard to encroachments that pre-dated Simmons’ ownership of its lots, the Appeals Court remanded the case to the Land Court for further findings to determine which party is responsible for their removal.
The SJC granted Simmons’ application for further appellate review and affirmed the Land Court’s ruling that the encroachments in Way A need not be removed. The SJC held that the case is governed by its 2004 decision in M.P.M. Builders, supra, in which the court announced the adoption of the “modern rule” of § 4.8(3) of the Restatement (Third) of Property (Servitudes) (2000). Section 4.8(3) provides that, unless expressly prohibited by the terms of an easement, the owner of the burdened property can make reasonable changes in the location and dimensions of an easement to permit “normal use or development” of the property, but only if those changes do not (a) significantly lessen the utility of the easement, (b) increase the burdens on the easement holder in its use and enjoyment, or (c) frustrate the purpose for which the easement was created. The SJC noted that, while M.P.M. Builders concerned the relocation of an easement, the same rule applies in a case like Martin, where the easement has not been relocated but rather its width has been narrowed in some places.
Regarding the fact that Martin’s easement is appurtenant to his registered land and is shown on a Land Court plan, the SJC rejected the Appeals Court’s view that this rendered the easement “immutable.” The SJC found nothing in its precedents or in the land registration act to suggest that different rules apply to easements appurtenant to registered land. The court noted that while the registration system provides certainty with respect to title – including by assuring owners of registered land that their easements continue to exist – it does not purport to grant additional property rights. Thus, the SJC concluded, “we adhere to our well-established precedent and consider the easement here under existing jurisprudence as to recorded land.”
Martin is an important decision for two reasons. First, it confirms that easements appurtenant to registered land are not accorded special status, and are subject to changes in their location and dimensions under the rule of M.P.M. Builders. Second, more broadly, it makes clear that the long line of cases on which the Appeals Court relied – standing for the proposition that where an easement is described with precision or is shown on a plan, the easement holder has the right to use the full width of the easement – is no longer good law. Under the “modern rule” of M.P.M. Builders, all easements are subject to changes in their location and dimensions unless by their express terms they prohibit such changes. Thus Martin highlights an important drafting note for grantees of easements: if you like the location and width of your easement, and you want to keep it, make sure it includes language prohibiting the kinds of changes otherwise authorized by M.P.M. Builders.
Donald R. Pinto, Jr. is a Director of Rackemann, Sawyer & Brewster, P.C. where he handles all types of real estate litigation. He is the founder and editor of masslandusemonitor.com, a widely-read real estate and land use law blog.