The Oregon Court of Appeals decision in Bloomfield v. Weakland cuts a broad path in interpreting whether an easement exists.
In December of 2008, the Oregon Court of Appeals resolved a marathon dispute over the existence of an easement on oceanfront property that has been going on since the early 90s and had reached the Court of Appeals on three prior occasions in Bloomfield v. Weakland, 224 Or App 433 (2008), review denied, 346 Or 15 (2009). In doing so, the Oregon Court of Appeals signaled its willingness to look beyond the “four corners of the document” and to interpret writings broadly to establish the existence of express easements.
In the case, the plaintiffs claimed that they had an express easement for beach access across defendant’s oceanfront property and that defendant could not bar their access over defendant’s property. Id. The Court held that to demonstrate the existence of their alleged express easement, the plaintiffs had to produce a document containing “plain and direct language evincing the grantor’s (the person granting the easement) intent to create a right in the nature of an easement” over the grantor’s property. Id. at 445. Though the deeds did not mention an easement, plaintiffs pointed to a notation on a 1957 plat showing a “Private Walk Way” over defendant’s property. Id. at 445-46. Keying on this note on the plat, the Court of Appeals stated that plats are to be read as part of the deed, and that although the 1957 plat did not use the word “easement,” a way could be construed as a type of easement. Id. at 446. The Court held that the “Private Walk Way” was an express easement. Id.
Having found that an easement existed, the Court needed to make sense of the scope and meaning of the easement. Oregon law states that when a court examines a written agreement, the court can only consider the terms as they appear in the writing, and the court cannot consider any extrinsic evidence regarding the formation of the agreement. ORS 41.740. The limits of this rule are set out in three exceptions that provide that the Court also can look to: (1) evidence of the circumstances under which the agreement was made or to which it relates under ORS 42.220; (2) evidence to explain an ambiguity; (3) or to establish illegality of fraud. In this case, the Court relied on the first exception, and the court considered evidence of the circumstances surrounding the dedication of the plat. 224 Or App at 447. By examining the circumstances surrounding the plat, the Court concluded that the trial court was correct in holding that the plat unambiguously established that the walk way was clearly set out to benefit plaintiffs and their neighbors. Id. at 448.
Bloomfield stands as an excellent example of an Oregon Court stretching the facts to establish the existence of an express easement. Prevailing wisdom would have suggested there was inadequate evidence to establish an easement, let alone conclude what the purpose of the easement was. The words “Private Walk Way” would not seem to adequately provide “plain and direct language evincing the grantor’s intent to create a right in the nature of an easement.” Indeed, even where the word “easement” is not mentioned in a writing, courts may be willing to find the existence of an express easement. To be sure, the decision in Bloomfield is well crafted and welcome, but it does seem to give broader and unexpected credence to trivial evidence of an easement.
Following Bloomfield, prospective purchasers should be careful to examine deeds and accompanying documents such as plat maps for any evidence that could be even marginally construed as pointing to an easement. All questionable designations should be identified and discussed in the deeds to assure that they will not later be construed as easements. When questions or issues arise, it is best to spend time with the documents, a title examiner and title report, and even the advice of counsel prior to the purchase to avoid surprises at a later date.
You can find the decision in Bloomfield v. Weakland at the following link:http://www.publications.ojd.state.or.us/S51768.htm
For questions about this case or other similar matters, contact Brad Litchfield at (541) 686-9160, or [email protected].