Iowa Court Finds An Easement By Prescription

April 15, 2015 | Kristine A. Tidgren

The Iowa Court of Appeals again set forth the requirements to prove an easement by prescription as yet another family feud played out in the court system.

This case involved brothers and their mother. The plaintiffs, a husband and wife, lived on Tract A, a property they purchased in a partition auction stemming from the death of the husband’s father. In that same auction, the husband’s brother and mother purchased an adjacent 2.1-acre tract, subject to the mother’s life estate. The mother resided on the property. The brother had a remainder interest.    

As the court described, both properties were originally owned by the brothers’ grandfather. In 1956, the mother and father built a home on the adjacent 2.1-acre tract and installed a septic tank on Tract A. Three years later, the grandfather reserved a life estate in Tract A to himself, gave the father a life estate in the property, and gave the remainder interest in the property to his grandchildren. The grandfather died in 1974, and the father died in 2002.  A partition action following the death of the father led to the separation of the tracts as described above.

In 2013, the plaintiffs, who had purchased Tract A in the partition sale, filed a trespass claim against the brother and mother, arguing that the septic tank servicing the defendants' adjacent 2.1-acre tract should be removed from Tract A. They also sought damages from the defendants for the alleged trespass. The defendants filed a counterclaim asserting numerous claims, including boundary by acquiescence and quiet title claims.

The district court entered judgment for the defendants, finding that the defendants had an easement by implication to the septic system and that the plaintiffs’ claim was estopped by acquiescence. The plaintiffs contested the ruling, alleging that the defendants had not raised the issues of easement by implication and estoppel by acquiescence. In response, the district court affirmed its earlier ruling, but also found that the facts supported a finding that the defendants had a prescriptive easement for the septic system. Despite this lack of procedural clarity, the court of appeals reviewed two issues: Did the defendants establish a claim of estoppel by acquiescence and did defendants establish an easement by prescription?

The court answered both questions in the affirmative. The court explained that an estoppel by acquiescence claim is actually a claim of waiver. As such, it does not require the proof of prejudice required to prove a standard equitable estoppel claim. Here the court found that the district court did not err in finding estoppel by acquiescence. The plaintiffs were aware of the existence of the septic system when they purchased Tract A. The husband had held an interest in the tract prior to the purchase by virtue of his grandfather’s transfer, his grandfather’s death, and then his father’s death. The husband had also stated that the septic tank could remain on Tract A until his mother passed away or vacated the adjacent 2.1-acre tract.

The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the applicable timeframe for determining the estoppel was 9 years, the length of time since the father had passed away, the period of time during which the remaindermen had fully owned the property (as opposed to holding only a remainder interest). Rather, the court found that the plaintiffs’ predecessors had some kind of agreement for the septic system to be located on Tract A. It had been there for more than a half a century. The prior owners had recognized and acquiesced in the placement. At no time had the father or grandfather sought to have the tank removed. As such, the court found sufficient evidence of the defense of estoppel by acquiescence.

The court also sided with the defendants by finding that they had sufficiently shown the existence of an easement by prescription. This generally requires proof of use of another’s land under a claim of right openly, notoriously, continuously, and hostilely for ten years or more. The court noted, however, that the Iowa Supreme Court had relaxed the traditional hostility and claim of right requirements in those situations where the party claiming the easement had expended substantial amounts of labor or money in reliance upon the landowner’s consent. Here, the court found that labor and money had been expended to install the septic system on Tract A and that it had been in place for more than 50 years without complaint. As such, the court found an easement by prescription.

Interestingly, the court stated at the end of the opinion that the plaintiffs, rather than the defendants, likely owned the septic tank. “It appears that the system and tank are affixed to the real estate and became the plaintiffs’ property when they purchased the property, including Tract A.” The court made no further comment, but this is another interesting issue raising a number of other interesting questions, such as who will be responsible for repairs and maintenance?

The case is Woodroffe v. Woodroffe, No. 13-2034 (Iowa Ct. App. Apr. 8, 2015).