Anderson v Quinn (WI)


Anderson v Quinn, 743 NW2d 492 (Wis Ct App 2007).

Summary: Doctrine of merger did not extinguish easements created through declaration of condominium ownership where owners of dominant and servient estates were the same.

Facts: In September 2002, Judith and Matthew Anderson purchased property on Lake Sissabagama in Sawyer County. The land consisted of an 88-foot strip on the lake, which strip extended 170 feet back from the lake where it meets a larger parcel. A condominium development is located on both sides of the strip. Prior to 1984, the land on which the Andersons' property and the condominium units are located was owned as a single parcel and operated as a resort.

In 1984, the owners, Charles and Florence Super and George and Patricia Pfeiffer, recorded a declaration of condominium ownership, which included a number of easements in favor of the unit owners and the condominium association. The three relevant easements granted these rights: (1) a non-exclusive right of ingress and egress over and through a certain road easement, which is now a driveway; (2) the "non-exclusive right for the use of the entire beach area in front of the lodge building, not part of the condominium development, for the benefit of the unit owners to pass and repass, sit upon, walk on and use as though it were part of the Condominium"; and (3) a "non-exclusive easement for all water lines, electrical lines, and similar utilities, including septic, whether now in place or needed in the future for the efficient functioning of the condominium, across Declarant's property between the two parcels of the condominium."

The condominium declaration was recorded and indexed, but not indexed in the grantor index under "Super" or "Pfeiffer," meaning that a person searching the Register of Deeds Office for conveyances by them would not find the declaration. When the Andersons purchased the property, the legal description did not contain any reference to the easements in favor of the condominium development and they were advised by their broker and title insurer that there were no easements of record and they would be able to shut down the driveway across their parcel and build a cabin. In May or June 2003, however, the secretary of the condominium association told Judith Anderson about the easements and gave her a copy of the declaration.

The Andersons filed suit in March 2005, requesting an order voiding the easements in the declaration and a permanent injunction against the unit owners prohibiting exercise of any of their rights under the declaration. After a bench trial, the court held that the easements were valid and enforceable against the Andersons. The Andersons then appealed.

Holding: Affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded. On appeal, the Andersons first contended that the easements were void under the doctrine of merger of title, which basically means that "no man can, technically, be said to have an easement on his own land. And the consequence is, that if the same person becomes owner in fee simple of both estates, the easement is extinguished." When the Supers and Pfeiffers recorded the condominium declaration they owned both the servient parcel, now owned by the Andersons, and the dominant parcel, the land made subject to the condominium. Therefore, the Andersons argued, the easement merged back into the Supers' and Pfeiffers' fee simple title immediately after it was created. However, the unit owners contended that the declaration simply defined relationships between parcels that would be sold in the future and, therefore, no easement came into being until the units were sold. This court agreed with the unit owners, noting that if the Andersons were correct, all rights set out in condominium declarations would be extinguished the moment the declaration is filed. Therefore, the court affirmed the trial court's holding and held that the doctrine of merger did not extinguish the easements.

The Andersons' next argument was based on notice, contending that they were good faith purchasers without notice of the easements and their interest was superior to those belonging to the unit owners. Under the relevant statute, the Andersons' interest would be superior if: (1) the Andersons were without notice of the easements, and (2) the declaration was not identified by definite reference in the Andersons' chain of title. However, the court determined that the driveway was actual, visible, open, and notorious and that the Andersons had notice of the declaration through the unit owners' use of the property. Thus, their interest was not superior to that of the unit owners.

Finally, the Andersons argued that the utility and beach easements were too indefinite to satisfy the statute of frauds, which provides that a transaction "shall not be valid unless evidenced by a conveyance that…identifies the land" with "reasonable certainty." "Reasonable certainty" means that "by the aid of the facts and circumstances surrounding the parties at the time the court can with reasonable certainty determine the land which is to be conveyed," but does not require a legal description. Regarding the utility easement, the court determined that the phrase "between the two parcels of the condominium" described the burdened parcel with reasonable certainty and because of the location of the condominium units, utility lines connecting the units would necessarily run through the central parcel. Therefore, the court affirmed the trial court's holding in favor of the unit owners with regard to the utility easement.

However, regarding the beach easement, the court determined that the description of the easement gave a beginning point for the burdened parcel, but no clear ending point. Therefore, the beach easement was not definite enough to satisfy the statute of frauds and, on remand, the court was ordered to grant judgment to the Andersons with regard to the beach easement.

Opinion Year: 
By: ATG Underwriting Department | Posted on: Fri, 05/30/2008 - 6:15pm