DC Court Clarifies Requirements for an Easement or a Prescriptive Easement

easementOn September 18, 2014, the D.C. Court of Appeals provided a “clearer explication of the requirements to claim an implied grant of an easement or a prescriptive easement” to help guide D.C. landowners as to their rights. In Martin v. Bicknell, two neighboring townhouse owners got into a fight over a driveway that bridged their common property line, by which each could access their respective garages. The Martins used that driveway in peaceful cooperation with the prior owner of the Bicknell property, but evidently things soured after the Bicknells moved in. One day, the Bicknells blocked the driveway with their car, and the Martins sued claiming an implied grant of an easement to use the portion of the driveway that lay on the Bicknells’ property, as well as a prescriptive easement over the same portion. Although the trial court dismissed the case for failure to state a claim, the Court of Appeals, in a unanimous opinion authored by Judge Easterly, reversed.

First, the Court distinguished between an implied grant of easement and an implied reservation of easement. An implied grant is where a property owner has subdivided and sold some or all of his property, but it is implied that he also granted to the purchaser of one parcel, the dominant estate, an easement over the other parcel. There, the owner of the dominant estate must prove the easement is “reasonably necessary to the use of his property.” On the other hand, an implied reservation arises where an owner has subdivided but retained possession of the dominant estate, impliedly reserving use over a portion of the servient estate. In that case, the owner of the dominant estate must show the easement is “strictly necessary.” The trial court incorrectly held the Martins to the higher “strictly necessary” standard to state a claim, the Court found. Finally, the Court clarified that there is no “exclusivity” requirement for a claim of prescriptive easement, finding that in prior citations by the Court it was “a layabout; it has never done any work[,]” and was not in harmony with the general understanding of prescriptive easements. To clarify the point, the Court cites to and quotes with approval from the relevant sections of the Restatement
(Third) of Property on Servitudes.