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Khalil v. Motwani

March 17, 2005

MIKE KHALIL, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
NARESH AND ANITA MOTWANI, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Bergen County, Docket No. SC-1162-03.

Before Judges Wefing, Payne and C.S. Fisher.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued January 5, 2005

In this appeal, we hold that tenants of property benefited by an easement over a neighbor's property were entitled to use the easement, even though"tenants" were not expressly referred to in the instrument that created the easement, and we likewise hold that tenants have the right to sue to enforce this right. As a result, we reject the trial judge's determination that a tenant -- here, plaintiff Mike Khalil -- did not have standing to sue, but we conclude that the property owners burdened by this easement -- defendants Naresh and Anita Motwani -- were, and are, under no obligation to remove snow from the easement and were, and are, only obliged to avoid doing anything in the enjoyment of their property that would unreasonably obstruct or hinder the beneficiaries' use of the easement. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment that dismissed the complaint, but for reasons other than those relied upon by the trial judge. See Isko v. Planning Bd. of Livingston Tp., 51 N.J. 162, 175 (1968).

I.

In 1962, the prior owners of 34 Grunauer Avenue, Saddle Brook, now owned by defendants Motwani, granted to the prior owners of the adjacent 28 Grunauer Avenue, by way of a written and recorded instrument, an easement"for the purpose of freely passing on foot or with animals, vehicles, through and over" a portion of 34 Grunauer Avenue to Claremont Avenue.*fn1

Khalil is a tenant in one of three apartments contained within the structure located at 28 Grunauer. By way of this Special Civil Part action, Khalil sought damages for having allegedly cleared snow within the easement over the course of three years. He sought damages of $2,300, an amount that included the purchase of a snowblower ($399), the cost of gas ($199), and his"pain and suffering." During a non-jury trial, the judge heard the testimony of the parties as well as other tenants of 28 Grunauer. At its conclusion, the judge held that since Khalil was not the owner, but only a tenant, he had no standing to seek relief from defendants concerning this easement and dismissed the complaint.

II.

While our jurisprudence is replete with decisions interpreting instruments that convey property interests and decisions defining the rights of parties that are burdened or benefited by easements, we are unaware of any decisions that define the scope of beneficiaries that may sue to enforce the terms of an easement.

In considering this matter of first impression, we agree with the American Law Institute's logical view that, in general, standing to sue to enforce the use of an easement is commensurate with the right to use the easement, regardless of whether the suitor holds title to the benefited property:

A person who holds the benefit of a servitude under any provision of this Restatement has a legal right to enforce the servitude. Ownership of land intended to benefit from enforcement of the servitude is not a prerequisite to enforcement.... [Restatement (Third) of Property: Servi tudes, § 8.1 (2000).]

While our courts have not previously discussed this issue, we can see no reason to depart from the common sense position that the right to benefit from an easement includes the right to sue to enforce that right. In so holding, we fall in alignment not only with the American Law Institute, but also with other jurisdictions that have considered the same problem. See Coggeshall Dev. Corp. v. United States, 23 Cl. Ct. 739, 743 (1991); Shore Exploration and Prod. Corp. v. Exxon Corp., 976 F.Supp. 514, 523 (N.D.Tex. 1997); Turner Adver. Co. v. Garcia, 311 S.E. 2d 466, 468 (Ga.), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 824, 105 S.Ct. 101, 83 L.Ed. 2d 46 (1984); Old Dominion Iron & Steel Corp. v. Virginia Elec. & Power Co., 212 S.E. 2d 715, 721 (Va. 1975); see also 3 Powell on Real Property ¶ 405 at 34-23 (1990). In circumstances analogous to the matter before us, the court in Old Dominion held that a lessee had standing to enforce the terms of an easement that benefited the leased premises.

The only imaginable repercussion arising from an expansive view of the class of potential suitors beyond property owners in this setting is the potential for multiple suits and conflicting results. Notwithstanding, we would anticipate that future litigants, and our courts, will be mindful that other interested persons beyond the named parties ought to be provided with notice of such a suit. Otherwise, what we view as a common sense approach to standing may be troubled by the possibility that issues ...


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