E & M Equities, Co. v. Walden Farms, Inc.

A-2074-98T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2000) (Unpublished)
  • Opinion Date: March 8, 2000

EASEMENTS; ESTOPPEL—Although the doctrine of easement by estoppel exists, a party seeking the benefit of it can not claim that to have been misled by an adjacent landowner as to the existence of an easement if that party knew, or should have known, that the use was actually permissive.

For over thirty years, the owner of one piece of property, a manufacturer, used the bordering area of an adjacent property to store garbage dumpsters and to allow access to those dumpsters by garbage trucks. Both parcels of land were originally owned by one individual who had retained an interest in the land on which the dumpsters were located. When the owner wanted to use the land on which the dumpsters were located, but the party storing the dumpsters refused to remove them, the landowner then commenced an action before the Chancery Division to force the removal of the dumpsters, but the manufacturing company responded that it had a right to an easement “by necessity, reservation and/or prescription.” The Chancery Division rejected each of those theories, but found that an easement by estoppel existed. Specifically, it held “that there’s no question that we have no adverse possession here ... there’s certainly no express easement because there’s nothing in writing, ... I see no easement by necessity since he does have access out through the rights-of-way to” the public street. The Chancery Division believed that the original property owner gave permission to the manufacturing company to use the land in question. However, the lower court also believed that when the original land owner sold the property to the manufacturer, he knew that the manufacturer had to use the adjacent land for the dumpsters and should have told it that, at some time in the future, the permission by which the manufacturing company had been using the adjacent land would be revoked. In the words of the lower court, if the adjacent property owner, “in the back of his mind, reserved the right to cutoff the access in and to [the door leading to the dumpsters], he should not have concealed this from” the manufacturing company when he sold the land to the manufacturing company. The Appellate Division disagreed. Although it found no appellate level case in New Jersey expressly recognizing the doctrine of easement by estoppel, it did find the elements of an easement by estoppel in a dissent to a 1983 New Jersey Supreme Court case: “There must be shown as to the party estopped: (1) conduct that amounts to a false representation, or a concealment of material facts, or conduct that conveys the impression that the facts are inconsistent with those that the party subsequently asserts; (2) intention, expectation, or reasonable foreseeability that the other party will act as a result of that conduct; and (3) knowledge of the true facts. As to the party asserting the estoppel: (1) lack of knowledge and of the means of knowledge of the truth as to the facts in question; (2) reliance upon the conduct of the party estopped; and (3) action based thereon of such character that his position has changed prejudicially.” The problem for the manufacturer was that the Appellate Division found no conduct by its seller amounting to “a false representation, or concealment of material facts, or conduct that conveys the impression that the facts are inconsistent with those that [the Seller] subsequently asserts [.]” Even though the Appellate Division agreed with the lower court that when the seller sold the property to the manufacturing company, he was aware of the company’s dependency on the use of the adjacent land, it also found that the manufacturing company was equally aware of the adjacent property and could have bargained for the grant of an express easement at that time. Consequently, the manufacturing company did not have a “lack of knowledge and of the means of knowledge of the truth as to the facts in question.” The Court viewed the use of the adjacent property as permissive and in the nature of a revocable license rather than an easement. There was no evidence that the seller indicated that this permission was permanent and irrevocable. Consequently, the manufacturing company was ordered to cease using the adjacent property for its dumpsters.