Trial Court: Superior Court of Humboldt County Trial Judge: Hon. Harold E. Neville, Jr. (Humboldt County Super. Ct. No. DR 080856)
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Haerle, Acting P.J.
CERTIFIED FOR PARTIAL PUBLICATION*fn1
This case involves the issue of whether a prescriptive easement was acquired by plaintiffs and appellants Connolly (the Connollys) across adjacent real property owned by defendants and respondents Trabue (the Trabues) in a rural portion of southern Humboldt County. After a bench trial lasting approximately two weeks, the trial court ruled that, even if such an easement had been acquired by the Connollys, their claim to the right to use such was barred by the doctrine of laches because they had delayed in asserting their claimed prescriptive easement in a timely manner. In their appeal, the Connollys claim the trial court erred in so ruling, because laches cannot and does not apply in a factual situation such as this or in legal, as distinguished from equitable, actions.
We agree that the doctrine of laches is inapplicable in an action involving a claim for prescriptive title to an easement and hence reverse the judgment rendered in favor of the Trabues.
The Trabues, appearing in pro per as they did in the trial court, cross-appeal from the trial court's denial of their claims for costs of suit, attorney fees, and damages for trespass, emotional distress, and other alleged torts. We affirm that portion of the trial court's judgment.
II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND*fn2
In December 1995, the Connollys took title to two parcels of real property in the Connick Creek Subdivision, a rural area in Garberville, Humboldt County. The specific lots acquired by them were parcel Nos. 222-156-011 and 222-156-013 (hereafter lots 11 and 13). In December 2003, they purchased an adjacent parcel, i.e., No. 222-156-017 (hereafter lot 17) from Gregory Terry and Kate Cramer.
Prior to that purchase, the Connollys had entered into an agreement with a former defendant, Dan Dobbs (Dobbs), under which Dobbs agreed to purchase most of lot 17 from them, although the Connollys would keep title to a portion of that lot, including specifically a fir tree on that portion, and there would be a "lot line adjustment" to accomplish that. The Connollys alleged, in their first amended complaint in this action (FAC), that this lot line adjustment "was specifically for the benefit of the real property" they were retaining and already owned, i.e., lots 11 and 13.
On December 30, 2003, there were simultaneous closings of both transfers of lot 17, i.e., the transfer from Terry and Cramer to the Connollys and the Connollys' transfer of the same lot to Dobbs. However, the grant deed from the Connollys to Dobbs, a deed drafted by Dobbs, did not specify that a portion of lot 17, including the fir tree, was excepted from the transfer, although that portion "should have been excepted" therefrom and hence "run with, and been appurtenant to, the land retained and owned" by the Connollys, i.e., lots 11 and 13.
In February 2004, Dobbs transferred lot 17, as it had been deeded to him by the Connollys a few months earlier, to another former defendant, Young Jacobsen, who, in 2008, transferred the same property to the Trabues. According to the FAC, in those transfers, both the grantees and the real estate agents handling the transactions had been specifically advised and were thus allegedly "fully aware" of the lot line adjustment agreed to earlier between Dobbs and the Connollys. But the deeds from (1) the Connollys to Dobbs, (2) Dobbs to Jacobsen, and (3) Jacobsen to the Trabues did not conform to the agreement between Dobbs and the Connollys. To the contrary, and--according to the trial court--because of a "breach of contract and fraud" by Dobbs, those deeds included all of lot 17, i.e., did not provide the Connollys with their promised "lot line adjustment" or fir tree.
In 1998,*fn3 prior to their purchase of lot 17 in 2003, the Connollys constructed a fence which enclosed not only their lots 11 and 13, but also the northerly portion of lot 17 (hereafter "disputed portion" or, per the trial court, "subject portion").*fn4 They did so for purposes of "their cattle and ranching use." The Connollys were thus aware of the discrepancy between where this fence had been built and where the property line of lot 17 actually was before 2003. This discrepancy was the basis for their 2003 agreement with Dobbs that they were retaining the disputed portion of lot 17, complete with the fir tree thereon. The problem, however, was that either Dobbs or the real estate agents he retained did not draft the 2003 deed of the property from the Connollys to himself consistent with that agreement. Instead, the deed gave Dobbs the entire lot 17, and such was subsequently transferred to Jacobsen and then to the respondents, the Trabues.
In December 2007, a month before the Trabues' acquisition of lot 17 in January 2008, Peter Connolly and Wade Trabue met and discussed the Connollys' claimed interest in the disputed portion of lot 17. At that meeting Connolly informed Trabue that he and his wife "maintained a claim to the subject portion of" lot 17 before the Trabues had acquired title to it. But no agreement was reached regarding that portion of lot 17. However, according to the trial court's statement of decision, "[a]t various times throughout the years since 1995, Peter and Deborah made improvements to the subject portion of Parcel 17 and the gate and fence located thereon. Peter and Deborah's use was not concealed and was at all times open, apparent, visible, and adverse to all others claiming a right to the subject portion of property. Peter and Deborah regularly locked the gate leading into the subject portion of Parcel 17. Peter and Deborah were never given permission by anyone to use the subject portion [of] Parcel 17 as described and no one ever interrupted said use. The Trabues observed [the] Connolly's [sic] use of the subject portion of Parcel 17, and Peter informed Wade at a December 2007 meeting that the Connolly's [sic] maintained a claim to the subject portion of Parcel 17, before Wade and Ronda acquired title to Parcel 17. Wade and Ronda filed their cross complaint to halt such use on July 2, 2009."
As the trial court found in its statement of decision, during the period of time prior to the Trabues' acquisition of lot 17 in January 2008, "[t]he Connolly's acquired parcels 11 and 13 in 1995, and since that time, the Connolly's used, and have continued to use said property, as well as the subject portion of property for cattle and other ranching purposes, including cattle pasturing, cattle watering, cattle corralling, repairing the fence and the gate, grading, maintenance and other improvements, and equipment and materials storage; the Connolly's predecessors-in-interest to parcels 11 and 13 also used said property; along with the subject portion of Parcel 17, in a similar manner for numerous years preceding that time and through the time the Connolly's acquired parcels 11 and 13.
"Said use by the Connolly's of the subject portion of property was without permission or consent of any record title holder of Parcel 17; no such record title holder ever physically interfered with said use by the Connolly's of the subject portion of property; the Connolly's did not ever request permission to use said portion of property.
"Said use by the Connolly's of the subject portion of property occurred on those occasions when it was reasonably necessary for the convenience of the Connolly's and their cattle and ranching use considering its purpose, size, and scope.
"Said use by the Connolly's of the subject portion of property was not hidden or concealed and was apparent and done openly, visibly, and in plain view.
"Said use by the Connolly's of the subject portion of property included the practice of keeping locked the gate located on Connick Creek Road on Parcel 17.
"Said use by the Connolly's of the subject portion of property is reasonably necessary to the use and benefit of parcels 11 and/or 13.
"The Trabue's observed said use by the Connolly's prior to January 29, 2008, which is the date title to Parcel 17 was transferred to the Trabue's.
"The aforementioned fence has been in its current location, without being moved in any significant manner, since at least the time the Connolly's acquired parcels 11 and 13; the fence and gate on Connick Creek Road ...