In this case the plaintiff (Martin) owns a vacant lot that is only accessible via an easement (Way A) over property owned by the defendant (Simmons). Simmons’s property abuts and surrounds Martin’s property, and is burdened by Way A. (The technical terms are that, with respect to his easement, Martin is the dominant and Simmons is the servient property owner.) Simmons’s and Martin’s properties, and Martin’s easement, are all registered with the Massachusetts Land Court. In August, 2007, Martin brought an action against Simmons in the Land Court, alleging that Simmons had “interfered with his right of way by …placing encroachments in, parking on, and improperly placing fill within” Way A. Martin requested that Simmons be ordered to remove all such alleged encroachments from Way A. After an extensive hearing and the submission of much evidence, the Land Court denied Martin’s request for relief and entered judgment in Simmons’s favor, noting among other things that Martin himself had conceded that none of the alleged encroachments had ever had any adverse impact on his ability to use Way A.
Martin appealed to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, which reversed the Land Court’s decision with regard to Way A, primarily on the ground that Martin’s easement was registered with the Land Court, and therefore in the Appeals Court’s eyes was inviolable. Simmons then sought further appellate review from the Supreme Judicial Court, which granted Simmons application.
NELF filed an amicus brief in support of Simmons, in which NAIOP joined as co-amicus. In its brief, NELF called the Court’s attention to its own 2004 decision, M.P.M. Builders, LLC v. Dwyer, 442 Mass. 87, in which the Court adopted §4.8(3) of the Restatement (Third) of Property (Servitudes), which states:
Unless expressly denied by the terms of an easement, as defined in § 1.2, the owner of the servient estate is entitled to make reasonable changes in the location or dimensions of an easement, at the servient owner's expense, to permit normal use or development of the servient estate, but only if the changes do not (a) significantly lessen the utility of the easement, (b) increase the burdens on the owner of the easement in its use and enjoyment, or (c) frustrate the purpose for which the easement was created.
442 Mass. at 91. While M.P.M. dealt with recorded (not registered) land, NELF argued that this difference in status has to do with the validity of title and therefore not with any issue relevant to the application of the Supreme Judicial Court’s adoption of the Restatement section in M.P.M. (As both Simmons and NELF pointed out, no party in this case is questioning Martin’s title to his easement over Simmons land.)
Rather, NELF argued, what is important is the principal, recognized by the Court in M.P.M., that an appropriate balance must be struck between the rights and interests of dominant and servient property owners. As the SJC stated in M.P.M., “an easement is created to serve a particular objective, not to grant the easement holder the power to veto other uses of the servient estate that do not interfere with that purpose.” M.P.M., 442 Mass. at 92.
NELF argued, in support of Simmons, that, under §4.8(3) of the Restatement and in light of the Land Court’s findings and Martin’s admission that Way A has not been unreasonably burdened and he has never been inconvenienced in any way by Simmons’s actions. In accordance with the policy behind § 4.8(3), the land of the servient owner should be permitted to attain its highest and best use when to do so does not adversely affect the dominant owner’s use of his easement. NELF urged the SJC to reject the Appeals Court’s distinction based on the registered nature of the easement.
In a victory for both Simmons and NELF, the SJC, on January 16, 2014, reversed the Appeals Court and affirmed the judgment of the Land Court. Agreeing with NELF, the SJC concluded that the fact that the land and easement in this case were registered with the Land Court made no difference to the analysis. The SJC expressly confirmed and expounded upon its adoption in M.P.M. of § 4.8(3) of the Restatement (Third) of Property (Servitudes) and agreed with the Land Court “that the width of the easement property may be reduced as the defendant has done here, since the plaintiff does not dispute that at all times he has been able to use the remaining unobstructed portion of the easement for the purpose of travel to and from his parcel.”