McElroy v. Stephens

Decision Date21 December 2022
Docket NumberC. A. WC-2014-0575
PartiesMICHAEL R. McELROY and CHRISTINE O. McELROY, Plaintiffs, v. EDWARD STEPHENS, III, Alias John Doe, MARILYN O. STEPHENS, Alias Jane Doe, PAUL G. ANTHONY, Alias John Doe, NANCY L. ANTHONY, Alias Jane Doe, and VIVIAN H. LACROIX, Alias Jane Doe, Defendants.
CourtRhode Island Superior Court

For Plaintiff: Justin T. Shay, Esq.

For Defendant: James A. Donnelly, Esq.



This matter is before this Court following an order of remand to the Superior Court from the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The Supreme Court remanded this case for trial with instruction to this Court to determine "whether an implied easement or easement by necessity exists allowing the McElroys to cross over the Stephens [P]roperty or any of the other defendants' properties." McElroy v Stephens, 226 A.3d 1288, 1292 (R.I. 2020). This matter proceeded to trial without a jury on May 12 and May 13, 2021 and June 4, 2021. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§ 8-2-13, 9-30-1, and 34-16-4 and Rule 52 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure.

I Facts and Travel

Plaintiffs Michael R. and Christine G. McElroy (Plaintiffs) are the owners of real property at 79 Stanton Avenue in Narragansett (the Property). (Am. Compl. ¶ 1.) The Property is separated from Seaweed Beach by three lots, all of which abut Seaweed Beach. The lots are owned by Defendants, Marilyn O. Stephens and Edward Stephens, III; Defendants Paul G. and Nancy L. Anthony; and Defendant Vivian H. Lacroix. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 2-4.) The crux of this dispute concerns whether Plaintiffs have an easement[1] permitting them to cross over Defendants' properties to reach Seaweed Beach. (See generally Am. Compl.)

On October 7, 2014, Plaintiffs filed their Complaint against Marilyn O. Stephens and Edward Stephens, III (the Stephenses), seeking to quiet title, declaratory judgment, and injunctive relief. (Compl.) Plaintiffs subsequently amended their Complaint in October of 2015, adding Paul G. and Nancy L. Anthony (the Anthonys) and Vivian H. Lacroix (Lacroix) as Defendants (with the Stephenses, collectively Defendants). (Am. Compl.) Plaintiffs asserted that they retained an express easement to cross over the Stephens Property as well as the respective properties of the other Defendants, according to the chain of title and G.L. 1956 § 34-11-28. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 3335.) Plaintiffs also maintained that they had previously been able to exercise "their deeded rights as holders of the Easement aforesaid to access the sea over the Stephenses' Property," and that the Dareliuses had orally confirmed Plaintiffs' deeded rights to cross over what is now the Stephens Property to reach Seaweed Beach. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 33-35, 38-39.)

In Count I of the Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs asserted that they were entitled to judgment quieting title to their easement pursuant to chapter 16 of title 34. (Am. Compl. ¶ 45.) In Count II of the Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs asserted that they were entitled to declaratory judgment establishing that they are the "true, lawful and proper owners and users of the [e]asement in and over the Stephenses' Property, the Anthonys' Property and/or the Lacroix Property, or a combination thereof," and that Plaintiffs have a right to use the purported easement pursuant to chapter 30 of title 9, and Rule 57 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. (Am. Compl.

¶ 47.) Finally, in Count III of the Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs sought injunctive relief enjoining Defendants from interfering with Plaintiffs' use of the purported easement to cross Defendants' respective properties and asserting that Plaintiffs have no adequate remedy at law. Id. ¶¶ 49, 50.

In response, Defendants each filed counterclaims along with their answers to the Amended Complaint. Defendants each asserted the following counterclaims as to their respective properties: (1) quiet title; (2) declaratory judgment (seeking declarations that Plaintiffs do not have an easement burdening their respective properties); and (3) injunctive relief enjoining Plaintiffs from crossing their respective properties. (See Stephenses' Answer to Am. Compl., Countercl. attached thereto, ¶¶ 155-163; Lacroix's Answer to Am. Compl., Countercl. attached thereto, ¶¶ 69-77; Anthonys' Answer to Am. Compl., Countercl. attached thereto, ¶¶ 157-165.)

On August 22, 2016, a hearing was held on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. The hearing justice issued a bench decision granting the Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment and denying the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on August 27, 2018.

On October 17, 2018, judgment entered in favor of the Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment. McElroy, 226 A.3d at 1291; see also Judgment, Oct. 17, 2018 (Matos, J.). Defendants timely appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. See Notice of Appeal, November 2, 2018.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case to this Court, holding that "genuine issues of material fact remain" as to whether Plaintiffs have an implied easement or an easement by necessity to cross over Defendants' properties, and as to how such an easement[2] was created. McElroy, 226 A.3d at 1291-92.

The Supreme Court noted that, "The [P]laintiffs may have a right to traverse the Stephens [P]roperty or any of the other [D]efendants' properties to make use of their right to use the beach. The hearing justice did not make any findings or legal conclusions with respect to whether an implied easement or easement by necessity exists allowing the McElroys to cross over the Stephens [P]roperty or any of the other [D]efendants' properties. Such claims must be examined by the finder of fact in the first instance. In order to make this determination, the facts and circumstances at the time of the subdivision of the Davis Heritage, as well as at the time of the 1986 deed to the McElroy [P]roperty, must be considered." Id. at 1292 (emphasis added).

This action proceeded to trial without a jury on May 12 and 13, and June 4, 2021. See Trial Tr., May 12, 2021 (May 12 Tr.); Trial Tr., May 13, 2021 (May 13 Tr.); Trial Tr., June 4, 2021 (June 4 Tr.). At trial, Plaintiffs presented the following witnesses: Ronald C. Markoff, Michael McElroy, and Christine McElroy. See Tr. Index. After conclusion of Plaintiffs' case-in-chief, Defendants presented the following witnesses: Matthew Lacroix, Paul Anthony, and Marilyn Stephens. See Tr. Index. In lieu of closing arguments, the parties submitted post-trial memoranda to this Court. See Docket WC-2014-0575; see also Plaintiffs' Post Tr. Br. and Defs' Post Tr. Mem.

Having reviewed the evidence and exhibits, this Court makes the following findings of fact.

A History of Real Estate Conveyances Relevant to the Instant Dispute

Resolution of this dispute requires an examination of the relevant real estate conveyances from 1925 to the present. Here, the parties do not dispute the conveyances; rather, they dispute the legal effect of the conveyances on Plaintiffs' claim of an easement to cross the properties of the Stephenses and other Defendants to reach Seaweed Beach.

1 Early Real Estate Conveyances Involving Carrie M. Davis

On October 7, 1925, Carrie M. Davis (Davis) acquired title in fee simple by quitclaim deed to an existing lot (Lot 1) in the Town of Narragansett, with fifty feet of northerly frontage on Stanton Avenue, from Susan E. Knowles, (Knowles) Sarah B. Champlin, (Champlin) and Hattie S. Tucker (Tucker). (Joint Statement ¶ 1; Joint Ex. 1-A.) The quitclaim deed included an easement to use the street abutting Stanton Avenue, as well as a restriction that no intoxicating liquors or drugs were to be sold or kept on the property. Lot 1 abutted Seaweed Beach, which was owned by Knowles, Champlin, Tucker, and John R. Champlin, to the south. (Joint Statement ¶ 4; Joint Exs. 3-C, 4-D.)

Davis acquired title in fee simple by quitclaim deed to a second lot (Lot 2) contiguous to the first, from Knowles, Champlin, and Tucker on August 10, 1926. (Joint Statement ¶ 2; May 12 Tr. 7:17-22; Joint Ex. 2-B.) Lot 2 had 100 feet of northerly frontage on Stanton Avenue, abutting Lot 1 on its easterly property line, and another lot to the southwest, but Lot 2 did not abut Seaweed Beach.[3]

On January 17, 1929, Knowles, John and Sarah Champlin, and Tucker granted Davis an easement, by deed, upon Seaweed Beach to reach the ocean. (Joint Statement ¶ 4; Joint Ex. 4-D.) The easement deed was recorded on February 2, 1929 in Book 10 at Page 10 of Narragansett's Land Evidence Records. (Joint Statement ¶ 4; Joint Ex. 4-D.) The express easement benefitted the Davis Heritage-Lots 1 and 2-as the dominant estate and burdened the Knowles-Champlin- Champlin-Tucker beach property (Seaweed Beach) as the servient estate. (Joint Statement ¶ 4; Joint Ex. 4-D.)

The 1929 easement deed contained broad language granting to Davis and her successors in the two contiguous lots of the Davis Heritage, the

"benefit and advantage, from time to time, and at all times, forever hereafter, at her and their respective will and pleasure, and for all purposes connected with the lawful use of Grantee's said lands, to pass and repass with horses, carts, wagons, and other carriages and vehicles, laden and unladen, and on foot, and also to drive cattle and other beasts, through and [over] the entire length and width of [Seaweed Beach]." (Joint Ex. 4-D.)

On September 20, 1937, Davis conveyed Lots 1 and 2 by mortgage deed to the Wakefield Trust Company to secure the payment of a $5,000 loan. (Defs.' Ex. B.) The following month, on October 30, 1937, Davis conveyed Lots 1 and 2 to her daughter Martha Davis (Martha) in fee simple, reserving a life estate to herself, by quitclaim deed,...

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