March 31, 2014
by J. Skipper Ray
Wilson & Associates, PLLC – USFN Member (Arkansas, Tennessee)
The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently released an opinion regarding the issue of interference with an access easement, one which should provide some comfort to lenders dealing with rural properties in this state. The case, Riegel v. Wilkerson, 2014 Tenn. App. LEXIS 62 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 11, 2014), involved a landowner (Wilkerson) who had erected a gate blocking a road utilized by an adjoining landowner (Riegel) to access his property. An easement, which provides for ingress/egress to the property now owned by Riegel, had been executed by previous landowners in the chain of title; however, the deed to Wilkerson, did not contain a reference to the easement. She took the position that because her deed failed to include a reference to the easement, the easement was not enforceable against her. The trial court did not rule in her favor, however, and enjoined her from further interference with use of the easement. The Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.
As referenced in the court’s opinion, an easement has been defined in Tennessee common law as “an interest in property that confers on its holder a legally enforceable right to use another’s property for a specific purpose.” The easement that was at issue in this case is legally defined as an express easement appurtenant. It is referred to as an express easement because it was in writing. It was an easement appurtenant because it involves two tracts of land, the dominant tenement and the servient tenement. The dominant tenement is the one that is receiving the benefit of the easement, while the servient tenement is the property over which the easement travels, thus serving a benefit upon the dominant tenement. In the subject case, Riegel was the dominant estate owner, as he received the benefit of the easement, allowing him to travel on a road physically situated on Wilkerson’s property (the servient estate).
Neither Riegel nor Wilkerson was party to the original easement. The easement was consummated by individuals who owned the respective properties prior to Mr. Riegel and Ms. Wilkerson obtaining ownership. The easement was recorded in the property records and was granted to the then-property owners, and “their heirs and assigns forever.” This meant that the easement was perpetual, or what is often referred to as “running with the land.” In other words, the easement did not terminate when those who were party to it ceased to own their respective interests in the property. The rights or, in this case, the responsibilities incurred pursuant to the easement pass down to subsequent owners.
The court devoted a large portion of its opinion towards addressing alternative reasons that the easement was enforceable against Ms. Wilkerson. However, its primary holding was that the easement was of record prior to her obtaining ownership of her property and, thus, the fact that it was of record was notice to the world of the existence of the easement. As the court stated, “the ‘grantee of a servient tenement takes the property subject to all duly recorded prior easements whether such easements are mentioned in the grantee’s deed or not ...’” 28A C.J.S. Easements § 134; Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-26-102.
This holding can be an important one for lenders in Tennessee, especially where the collateral consists of rural property. As was the situation in Riegel, easements can become important when the landowner of a large tract of land begins to sell off smaller portions, which often do not abut a publicly maintained road, street, or highway. When a property owner conveys a smaller piece (or parcel) of land to a new owner, the deed will often contain language establishing an easement over the seller’s other, adjoining, property so that the purchaser will be able to access his or her new parcel.
As was the case in Riegel, if the seller later conveys further portions of the original, larger tract, over which the easement for access to other parcels exists, it’s possible that this subsequent purchaser’s deed will not contain a reference to the property being encumbered by an easement. It is reassuring for lenders to know that should they have to foreclose on a property that is accessed via such an easement, that a later purchaser of the servient property cannot block use of the easement simply because he wasn’t aware of its existence and/or his deed failed to contain a reference to it.
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