Luther Collins challenges the trial court's order finding an easement exists across Collins's property for the benefit of adjacent property owned by Metro Real Estate Services, LLC ("Metro"). We affirm.
Collins raises five issues for our review, which we consolidate and restate as:
This appeal concerns two parcels of land in Washington County. On October 24, 2003, Joseph Howell acquired the real estate identified on the tax map as parcel 7.05 ("the servient estate") from George Sivak, Regina Sivak, and Fred Cambron. See Appellant's App. p. 54. On November 3, 2003, Howell acquired the adjacent real estate identified on the tax map as parcel 2.02 ("the dominant estate") from Patrick Alexander and Connie Alexander. Id. Appellant's App. p. 54.
Appellant's App.p. 54.
Joint Stipulated Statement of Evidence p. 3. Howell lived on the servient estate and allowed a neighbor to cut hay on the dominant estate; the neighbor owned property adjacent to the dominant estate and accessed the dominant estate from his own land, not by way of the servient estate.
Some time later, the servient estate was the subject of a foreclosure action, and Collins purchased it at a sheriff's sale; Collins closed on the property on March 27, 2009.
The dominant estate was also the subject of a foreclosure action, and, on May 11, 2012, Metro purchased it. Collins objected to Metro's use of the easement over the servient estate and, in January 2014, filed a complaint to quiet title. The matter was tried, and the trial court entered its judgment for Metro on July 31, 2015. Collins then filed a motion to correct error, which the trial court denied on September 24, 2015. Collins now appeals.
I. Standard of Review
We review the denial of a motion to correct error for an abuse of discretion. Otter Creek Trading Co., Inc. v. PCM Enviro PTY, LTD, 60 N.E.3d 217, 226 (Ind. Ct. App. 2016), trans. denied.
Id. (citation omitted) (quotations omitted).
Where, as here, the trial court issues findings of fact and conclusions thereon sua sponte, "the findings control our review and the judgment only as to the issues those specific findings cover. Where there are no specific findings, a general judgment standard applies and we may affirm on any legal theory supported by the evidence adduced at trial."
The trial court's July 31, 2015, order states:
Appellant's App. pp. 6-7 (no citations in original).
The trial court's September 24, 2015, order denying Collins's motion to correct error states:
Appellant's App. pp. 8-9 (third alteration in original).
II. Easements Generally
Collins argues that the trial court abused its discretion by determining that an easement exists over his property. In Indiana, an easement can be created in three ways: by grant, prescription, or implication. William C. Haak Trust v. Wilusz, 949 N.E.2d 833, 835 (Ind. Ct. App. 2011). There are two types of easements. "[A]n easement is appurtenant if it passes (by conveyance or inheritance) with the dominant tenement[.]" Id. "[A]n easement is in gross if it is personal to the owner of the dominant tenement." Id. "An easement is never presumed to be in gross when it can be fairly construed to be appurtenant to the land." Id. (quotations omitted) (citation omitted). In this case, the parties dispute whether Metro has an easement either by grant or by implication over Collins's property.
III. Easement by Grant
Collins first contends no easement over his property exists for the benefit of Metro because Howell's attempt to grant himself an easement was unsuccessful. Collins argues that the doctrine of merger extinguished the easement and directs us to cases that cite the general proposition that one cannot grant himself or herself an easement in land to which he or she has title. See William C. Haak Trust, 949 N.E.2d at 837 n.1 (quoting John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Patterson, 2 N.E. 188, 190, 103 Ind. 582, 586 (1885)); Borovilos Restaurant Corp. II v. Lutheran Univ. Ass'n, Inc., 920 N.E.2d 759, 765 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010) (noting "a person may not have an interest in his or her own land because an easement merges with the title," and, "while both are under the same ownership the easement does not constitute a separate estate there can be no easement so long as there is unity of ownership of the properties involved") (citation omitted), trans. denied; Patterson, 2 N.E. at 190, 103 Ind. at 586 ("[T]he owner can not have an easement in land of which he has the title. The inferior right is merged in the higher title. By the common law it is said to be extinguished by the unity of title.").
In its order denying Collins's motion to correct error, the trial court cited Patterson, 2 N.E. at 191, 103 Ind. at 586, for the proposition that a valid easement is created "[w]here during the unity of title an apparently permanent and obvious servitude is imposed on one part of an estate in favor of another, which, at the time of the severance, is in use, and is reasonably necessary for the fair enjoyment of the other." Appellant's App. p. 8. The trial court then found, "Howell's attempt to grant the easement when he owned both parcels of land represents such an arrangement for the implication of an easement." Id. We note that isolating that statement in Patterson from the context of the paragraph in which it is contained may cause confusion. We provide a larger excerpt of the opinion for clarification:
Patterson, 2 N.E. at 190-91, 103 Ind. at 586.
We read this quote to stand for the proposition that one may not simultaneously hold title to and an easement in the same piece of property. If, however, under very specific circumstances, an easement existed before ownership of and an easement over that property were united in one owner, the easement may be revived after that union is severed. That is not the situation presented by this case, and we conclude the trial court abused its discretion by relying on an isolated quote from Patterson to support its order denying Collins's motion to correct error.
It appears, however, that none of the facts of the cases to which Collins cites for the general merger-of-title principle are analogous to the facts of this case, either. The facts of this case are rather unique, and neither party directs us to a comparable Indiana case.
Woodling v. Polk, 473 S.W.3d 233 (Mo. Ct. App. 2015), however, is on point. In Woodling, a real estate developer owned two adjacent residential lots—1017 Forest Avenue and 1019 Forest Avenue. The properties shared one driveway, which was situated on 1019 Forest's lot. The developer executed and recorded an "Easement Deed" to facilitate the use of the driveway on 1019 Forest by the "present and future owners of 1017 Forest." Id. at 234. The deed listed the developer as both the grantor and grantee of the easement.
In 2005, the Healys purchased 1017 Forest. Because they were concerned about the easement, they asked the developer to adjust the boundary line between the two properties "so that the driveway of 1017 Forest would be completely situated on 1017 Forest's property." Id. The developer obliged, and "the new boundary line was still within the original wide driveway, but provided at least one car width fully on 1017 Forest's property." Id. In 2006, the Polks purchased 1019 Forest from the developer. While the Polks and Healys were neighbors, the Healys exclusively used the portion of the driveway situated on their property.
In 2011, Woodling purchased 1017 Forest from the Healys. Woodling used a portion of the driveway located on the Polks' property to pull vehicles in and out of his own property. Woodling also parked cars on the 1019 Forest driveway. The Polks removed a strip of pavement from their portion of the driveway adjoining the boundary line and replaced it with large rocks, thereby separating the two driveways and preventing crossover traffic.
On appeal, the Missouri Court of Appeals cited the "universal rule that a man cannot have an easement over his own land." Id. at 236 (quotations omitted) (citation omitted). The court explained:
Id. The Court held that the developer's attempt "to create an easement by deed when it owned both the purported dominant and servient estates" was "ineffective as a matter of law." Id.
We reach the same conclusion in this case. Howell owned both the dominant and servient estates at the time he recorded the easement. Because one cannot have an easement over land he already owns, Howell's recording had no legal effect.
Metro concedes that the merger doctrine "generally provides that a lesser estate merges into a greater estate." Appellee's Br. p. 9. Nonetheless, Metro urges us to adopt "the mortgage exception to the merger doctrine," because "the [e]asement was necessary to facilitate financing of the [dominant estate] and therefore served an additional function defeating the merger doctrine." Id. at 11. "Under this exception, the mortgage of the dominant estate is protected from losing its interest in an easement otherwise extinguished when fee title to the dominant estate and fee title to the servient estate are united." Id. at 11 (citing, generally, Pergament v. Loring Prop., LTD, 599 N.W.2d 146 (Minn. 1999). Metro states,
Id. at 12.
Metro concedes, however, that it found "no Indiana case applying the mortgage exception to the merger doctrine relating to an easement. . . ." Absent controlling authority permitting us to apply the mortgage exception in this case, and in light of the long-standing, widely-accepted tenet that an estate owner cannot grant himself property rights he already possesses, our conclusion remains unchanged. Howell did not record a valid easement over his own property to benefit himself.
IV. Implied Easement
Collins next argues that no implied easement by necessity or prior use exists across the servient estate.
William C. Haak Trust, 949 N.E.2d at 835-36 (quotations omitted) (citations omitted) (second ellipses in original).
Collins contends no easement by prior use can be implied in this case. We conclude that the record before us is not sufficient to support a finding of an easement by prior use. The Joint Stipulated Statement of Evidence contains contradictory statements in this regard. The parties aver that Collins testified, "neither Howell nor anyone else used the Easement area to access the [dominant estate] and both ends of the Easement area were fenced with no gate," and that "Howell accessed the [dominant estate] on and across the [servient estate] after Collins purchased the [servient estate] and at no time did Collins object to Howell doing so. . . ." Joint Stipulated Statement of Evidence pp. 3-4. Without more specific evidence regarding the use or non-use of the easement and the timing of such use, we cannot conclude an easement by prior use exists over the servient estate.
Collins next contends that no easement of necessity runs over the servient estate.
Cockrell v. Hawkins, 764 N.E.2d 289, 292-93 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002) (quotations omitted) (citations omitted). More simply put, demonstrating that a parcel is landlocked is sufficient to prove necessity. See Kopetsky v. Crews, 838 N.E.2d 1118, 1126 n.4 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005), and Hysell v. Kimmel, 834 N.E.2d 1111, 1115 n.2 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005), trans. denied.
The classic, and most straightforward, example of an easement of necessity is this:
Id. at 293 (quotation omitted) (citation omitted).
This case, of course, differs substantially from the above example. The parties dispute whether the purported easement in this case meets the requirements for an easement by necessity discussed above. Collins first argues that, "[t]he trial court at no time found that the parcel was landlocked or that an easement of necessity was appropriate." Appellant's Br. p. 13 (emphases omitted) (quotation omitted) (no citation in original). Citing the transfer history of the dominant and servient estates, Collins further argues, "[w]hile it is true Howell at one point owned both [the dominant and servient estates], there was no unity of title because the two parcels were mortgaged to separate lenders, retained separate property tax numbers, and were never combined in the county records or otherwise." Appellant's Br. pp. 13-14. Metro, on the other hand, asserts that the dominant estate was landlocked. To the extent that the trial court's order does not make specific findings of fact or conclusions thereon with regard to this issue, we reiterate that a general judgment standard applies. Samples, 12 N.E.3d at 949-50.
The Joint Stipulated Verified Statement of Evidence provides sufficient evidence to affirm the trial court's order. Therein, the parties stated:
Joint Stipulated Statement of Evidence pp. 3-4. Metro's subsequent purchase of the dominant estate does not change the fact that the easement at issue is, by definition, one of necessity. That the dominant and servient estates each changed ownership after their titles were unified in Howell does not change the fact that, as the parties stipulated, there existed unity of title. Nor does it change the fact, to which the parties also stipulated, that the dominant estate was landlocked.
Finally, Collins requests, "should this Court find that an easement of necessity exists across the [servient estate], then the case should be remanded with instructions to allow Mr. Collins to specify the route of the easement." Appellant's Br. p. 17. Collins contends that, even if an easement by necessity does exist, "it is not the 150 foot wide easement purported to be granted by Howell." Id. at 14. We agree that "[e]asements are limited to the purpose for which they are created." Whitt v. Ferris, 596 N.E.2d 230, 233 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992). In Whitt, this court concluded the trial court erred by finding an easement of necessity that was sixty feet wide because the easement was "necessary only as a way to access [the dominant estate]." Id. In light of that purpose, "access over the twenty foot wide graded roadway through the middle of the Disputed Parcel, coupled with sufficient footage over the grassy area on the south side of the road" was all that was necessary." Id. at 233-34. This court stated, "There is no need to burden the servient estate further by allowing use of the grassy areas on the sides of the road for parking." Id. at 234.
In this case, there is no evidence regarding the burden that is necessary on the servient estate. The parties' Joint Stipulated Statement of Evidence offers little information other than that Howell granted himself an easement "to allow access to the [dominant estate]." Joint Stipulated Statement of Evidence p. 3. The text of the easement Howell attempted to create, to the extent it can viewed as evidence, is similarly unhelpful. That document contains nothing more than a catchall statement describing the (attempted) easement as, "[t]he right of ingress and egress at any time over and upon the above described easement for any use and purpose deemed necessary by the grantee including a driveway, and the construction and maintenance of water and electric utilities." Appellant's App. p. 52.
Based on the record before us, the most we can discern is that the dominant estate is landlocked, and an easement over the servient estate is necessary to guarantee access to a public roadway. We know nothing, for instance, about the layout or terrain of the parcels and reach no conclusion regarding whether a 150-foot-wide easement is necessary.
The trial court did not abuse its discretion by concluding an easement exists for Metro's benefit over Collins's property. We affirm.
Kirsch, J., and Robb, J., concur.
Within its waiver argument, Metro cites to one case that generally defines waiver. We note that the purchase agreement was executed by Collins and the lender from whom he purchased the servient estate. This litigation, however, arose between Collins and Metro, the foreclosure purchaser of the dominant estate. Metro was not a party to the purchase agreement. With the exception of the authority mentioned above, Metro does not cite to any authority supporting his unique argument that Collins waived his right to litigate issues related to the servient estate arising against one who was not a party to the purchase agreement. We conclude Metro waived this argument.