Chicago Title Land Trust Co. v. JS II, LLC (IL)

Summary: Plaintiff’s three prescriptive easements were properly established over a right-of-way owned by defendant. Defendant’s interference with the use of the easements properly resulted in an award of nominal and punitive damages to the plaintiff.

Chicago Title Land Trust Co. v. JS II, LLC, 2012 IL App (1st) 063420 (Ill. App. Ct. 2012).

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Facts: This case concerns two adjacent parcels of land owned by defendant JS II, LLC and plaintiff South Branch and the question of whether South Branch owned or had easements over a right of way connecting the properties. The two adjacent parcels shared a right of way that intersected three driveways on the South Branch property. The properties were bordered on the west by the south branch of the Chicago River and the three driveways were the only way to access a warehouse on the South Branch property. The two properties were originally owned as one lot and full ownership of a strip of land was granted to a railroad as a right of way. The lot was split into two properties in 1919 and changed owners several times over the years. In the 1980s the railroad tracks on the right of way were removed and the right of way was abandoned. When South Branch purchased their parcel in 1999, their title insurance company issued a policy based on the conclusion that South Branch had valid easements over the right of way. JS II began acquiring their parcel in 1998 and in 2000 recorded an objection to South Branch’s use of the right of way. In 2001 JS II excavated a trench on the section of the right of way used by South Branch, rendering one of the driveways unusable. South Branch filed suit in 2002, seeking damages for trespass, an injunction against JS II and a declaration that they owned the right of way by reversion, or that they owned three easements across the right of way.

The trial court held that while JS II had ownership of the right-of-way, South Branch had easements over it at the location of their three driveways. JS II was permanently enjoined from trespassing on or interfering with South Branch’s easements. South Branch was also awarded nominal and punitive damages. JS II appealed, arguing that South Branch should not receive damages and that the injunction was unnecessary. South Branch also appealed arguing that they should have ownership over the entire right-of-way, not JS II.

Holding: Affirmed. On appeal, JS II offered several arguments for why it felt South Branch did not properly establish prescriptive easements over the right-of-way. First, it argued that South Branch had not properly defined the dimensions and locations of the easements. But two of the easements were paved driveways and the third had a gate across it and South Branch offered testimony that the driveways had never been altered since the start of the prescriptive period. The Appellate Court held that it was reasonable to conclude that the dimensions and locations were properly defined.

JS II next challenged the ‘exclusive use’ element of South Branch’s easements, arguing that the railroad to whom the right-of-way was originally granted must have been using the easements at the same time. JS II argued that it would be “common knowledge” that the railroad would have used the easements, but did not offer any evidence of actual use. The trial court failed to accept the common knowledge argument and the appellate court found no reason to disagree.

 JS II then argued that even if South Branch had met all the elements to establish the prescriptive easements, the statute of limitations expired in 1880, 40 years after the establishment of the right-of-way. The trial court held that the clock for statute of limitations could not go back to 1880 because there was a gap in the chain of title before South Branch acquired the property. South Branch was precluded from establishing express easements because of a gap of title in 1958 and the statutory period did not begin until the late 1970s. Therefore, the Appellate Court upheld the trial court’s conclusion that South Branch’s complaint was timely.

Because the Appellate Court did not find any evidence that the trial court’s opinion about the easements was in error, it affirmed the decision to permanently enjoin JS II from trespassing and interfering with the easements and upheld the award of damages.

The Court also upheld the trial court’s decision that JS II was the proper owner of the right-of-way. South Branch had initially filed a claim asserting ownership but had voluntarily dismissed this claim. It was not until four years later and after a bench trial had already been completed that South Branch tried to refile that claim. The trial court decided it would be unfair to the defendant’s to allow South Branch to reinstate its claim and the Appellate Court affirmed that this was within the trial court’s discretion.

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By: ATG Underwriting Department | Posted on: Fri, 03/15/2013 - 4:45pm