The Court of Appeals of Tennessee recently issued an opinion in an easement case involving an issue of first impression in Tennessee regarding the transferability of an express easement. Here are the key facts:
- In 1980, Mahaffey acquired a tract known as the “Holt Farm”
- Holt Farm was 107 acres
- Holt Farm was landlocked
- A lane (“Holt Lane”), ran along the eastern section of Holt Farm
- Before connecting to a public roadway, known as Horse Mountain Road, Holt Lane ran across property adjoining Mahaffey’s which was not owned by Mahaffey
- The adjoining property which Holt Lane ran across was owned by Robertson-Magill
- Robertson-Magill sued Mahaffey in the Bedford County Chancery Court to prevent Mahaffey from using the part of Holt Lane on the Robertson-Magill property
- In 1983, the Chancery Court in the Mahaffey/Robertson-Magill lawsuit ordered that Mahaffey had an easement for ingress and egress to use the portion of Holt Lane located on the Robertson-Magill property
- The order of the Chancery Court was filed with the Bedford County Register of Deeds
- After the order was entered, Mahaffey acquired an additional 640 acres which adjoined the 107-acre Holt Farm Mahaffey owned
- In 2007, Mahaffey sold the Kelloggs a 9.76-acre tract
- The 9.76 acre tract was not part of the 107 acres originally owned by Mahaffey, but was derived from the additional 640 acres purchased by Mahaffey
- In a document, Mahaffey granted what was called a “permanent right-of-way easement” to the Kelloggs, which grant purported to give an easement to the Kelloggs to use the same portion of Holt Lane to which Mahaffey had been granted an easement for ingress and egress by the Chancery Court
- The Robinsons (“Plaintiffs”) purchased the Robertson-Magill property
- Heated disputes arose between the Robinsons and the Kelloggs regarding the Kelloggs’ use of the portion of Holt Lane located on the Robinsons’ property
- The Robinsons filed a lawsuit against the Kelloggs
- The trial court ruled that the easement granted to Mahaffey in the 1983 Chancery Court order amounted only to an easement in gross. Therefore, the trial court held that the easement did not run with the land and did not benefit the Kelloggs.
The two broad categories of easements in Tennessee are easements in gross and easements appurtenant. In Tennessee, easements appurtenant are favored over easements in gross. An easement in gross is a personal right to use the land of another. Easements in gross do not run with the land as there is almost never a dominant estate where there is an easement in gross. Easements appurtenant benefit a dominant estate and burden a servient estate. Critically, easements appurtenant run with land and may be enforced by subsequent purchasers of the dominant estate.
The Court of Appeals started its opinion with an excellent summary of the difference between easements in gross and easements appurtenant. It then held that the easement granted by the 1983 Chancery Court order was not an easement in gross, but was an easement appurtenant.
The fact that the trial court had erred in finding that the easement received by Mahaffey was an easement in gross did not end the inquiry of the Court of Appeals. Although that finding established that the easement created in the 1983 Chancery Court order ran with the land, with the land being Mahaffey’s land (the dominant estate), it did not necessarily establish that the Kelloggs were entitled to the rights to the easement granted to Mahaffey in the 1983 order.
Since the 9.76 acres the Kelloggs purchased from Mahaffey was not part of the 107 acres that benefitted from the ingress/egress easement created by the 1983 Chancery Court order, i.e., it was not part of the dominant estate established by that order, the Robinsons argued that the Kelloggs had no rights to the easement.
The Court of Appeals, relying on the case law of other states and the RESTATEMENT (THIRD) OF PROPERTY: SERVITUDES, agreed with the Robinsons. In reaching its decision, it approved the general rule that the benefits of an easement appurtenant cannot be severed from the dominant estate. The rationale for the general rule is that a servient estate is not to be overburdened: Along those lines, no additional burdens beyond those contemplated when it was granted should be placed on the servient estate.
Tennessee easement lawyers should note that there is a Tennessee case, Rawdon v. Johnston (Tenn. Ct. App. 2010), in which the owner of the dominant estate was allowed to expand the use of the easement to contiguous property he owned that was not part of the original dominant estate. The difference between the Rawdon case and the above-discussed case was that the expansion would not have increased the burden on the servient estate in the Rawdon case. In Rawdon, the easement right was to draw water from a pipe. In that case, the Court of Appeals determined that the expansion of the easement benefits to the adjoining parcel would not result in any additional burden because the water use was limited to one pipe.