Sutton v. Sort & Rag Export Co.

A-4093-96T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1998) (Unpublished)
  • Opinion Date: February 6, 1998

EASEMENTS—The most persuasive evidence of the meaning of otherwise unclear easement language is the actual conduct of the parties who signed the easement agreement.

This case concerns reciprocal easements over adjoining industrial properties. The properties had loading docks facing a common property line. For 10 years, trucks servicing one property frequently passed over the boundary line onto the other in order to facilitate access to, and departure from, their own loading docks. The property owners then executed the reciprocal easement agreement, separately setting forth each grant. For the next 14 years, the parties continued their use of the other property as they had before. One of the properties (Lot A) was purchased in 1996 by a buyer that decided it did not need the easement and erected metal posts along the boundary line. These posts prevented each property owner from using the other’s lot. When the owner of the other lot (Lot B) brought suit to enforce the easement agreement, the owner of Lot A argued that the language of the easement that had been granted over its own land was so vague that it did not include the area around the loading dock. The lower court agreed that the easement over Lot A was unclear and vague, while the easement over Lot B was clear and specific. However, after considering the actual practice and understanding of the parties, the Court held that the easements were mirror images of each other, and directed that the metal posts be removed.

Although the original easement granted by the owner of Lot A was unclear, on appeal, the Appellate Division considered extrinsic evidence, stating that the most persuasive evidence as to the meaning of the language in the easement agreement was the actual conduct of the parties who signed it. The Court found that the parties acted the same way for 14 years after signing the agreement as they had during the 10 years prior to signing it. The Court also found that these were reciprocal easements, not mirror image easements, since neither the properties themselves nor the patterns of use were identical. The Court determined that the intention of the parties was to formalize their unwritten agreement and not to change it in any way despite the discrepancies in the language of each easement. Accordingly, the easement with respect to Lot A was read by the Appellate Division as granting full rights to the owner of Lot B to use Lot A for movement of its trucks in substantially the same manner as it always had.