Wood v. Neuman

Decision Date27 August 2009
Docket NumberNo. 07-CV-670.,No. 07-CV-578.,07-CV-578.,07-CV-670.
Citation979 A.2d 64
PartiesAnne S. WOOD, Appellant/Cross-Appellee, v. R. Michael NEUMAN, et al., Appellees/Cross-Appellants.
CourtD.C. Court of Appeals

John J. Brennan, III, for appellant/cross-appellee.

John E. Scheuermann, for appellees/cross appellants.

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, and KRAMER and THOMPSON, Associate Judges.

THOMPSON, Associate Judge:

This appeal is the continuation of an at-times acrimonious dispute between neighbors —appellant/cross-appellee Anne Wood, the owner of a unit in the Duddington Manor Condominium ("the Duddington"), and appellees/cross-appellants R. Michael and M. Delia Neuman, owners of a townhouse next door to the condominium building. The dispute arose from their inconsistent views about use of the narrow strip of land that separates their properties, and it escalated into conduct that led to criminal charges and a variety of civil claims and counterclaims. In this appeal, Wood and the Neumans challenge several rulings by the Superior Court in the civil litigation. We affirm the judgments of the Superior Court.

I. Background

The Neumans have only about 8.4 inches of yard space between the western wall of their townhouse, which is located at 121 E St., S.E., and their westerly property line. Immediately on the other side of that property line is the lot occupied by the Duddington, whose address is 115-117 E St., S.E. Wood owns condominium unit 102 on the ground floor of the Duddington. As unit owner, Wood has use of an outdoor area—referred to in the record as her "garden" or "patio"—just outside her unit. Wood's garden/patio is about four-and-a-half feet wide and abuts the Neuman's westerly property line. Thus, a plot of land roughly five feet wide separates the parties' dwellings.

In 1999, the Neumans sought to waterproof the westerly wall of their townhouse. To accomplish the work as planned, the Neumans' contractor sought more work space than the 8.4 inches of space in the Neumans' own yard. The Neumans claimed to have an easement for maintenance and repairs that permitted them access to Wood's garden/patio, a claim that Wood disputed. Eventually the Neumans reached an agreement with the Duddington Condominium Board that allowed them access to Wood's garden/patio to perform both the waterproofing work and a drainage project benefitting the Duddington. Wood objected to the resultant damage to her garden and to the Neumans' insistence on maintaining a gateway opening into her garden area. The Neumans complained about Wood's plantings encroaching onto their land. Et cetera.

There followed a number of verbal and physical confrontations between the neighbors. Wood posted signs in her windows disparaging the Neumans. Mr. Neuman dug up Wood's plants. Perching over a fence that had been built between the two lots, Delia Neuman took photos of Wood as Wood dug up paving stones that the Neumans had caused to be laid in her garden area. In response, Wood sprayed Delia Neuman with water from a garden hose. The Neumans called the police and had Wood arrested for assault.

Finally, the Neumans filed a civil suit seeking compensatory and punitive damages for assault and battery, breach of privacy, stalking and harassment, vandalism and trespass, libel, and nuisance. Wood counterclaimed, alleging trespass, abuse of process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and interference with contractual relations. Wood also sought a declaratory judgment that the Neumans had no easement with respect to Wood's garden/patio.

After a bench trial on Wood's counterclaim for a declaratory judgment, the Honorable Neal Kravitz ruled that the the Neumans "have no easement for access upon or across the limited common element assigned to Unit 102 of the Duddington Manor Condominium [i.e., the area of Wood's garden/patio] for the purpose of performing repairs or maintenance to their property." The Honorable Jennifer Anderson presided over a jury trial of the parties' other claims. As to some of the parties' claims, Judge Anderson ruled that the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law and withheld the claims from the jury. The jury returned verdicts in favor of the Neumans on their assault and battery, trespass and nuisance claims, but awarded no damages. The jury found in favor of Wood on her trespass and abuse of process claims and awarded compensatory damages totaling $5,000.

II. The Issues on Appeal

We address the parties' claims of error in turn.

A. The Declaratory Judgment

We turn first to the Neumans' argument that Wood lacked standing to seek a declaratory judgment. The Neumans do not appear to challenge Judge Kravitz's finding that Wood alleged a sufficient injury-in-fact from the Neumans' claimed right of entry into her garden/patio to afford her standing. Instead, their argument is that under District law and the Duddington Condominium instruments, the Duddington Board had authority to grant the Neumans permission to enter onto the "limited common element" assigned to Wood, and that Wood "was required to look to the [C]ondominium"—not to a declaratory judgment action against the Neumans— "for her remedy for any harm or injury to her garden resulting from an easement or agreement made by, or binding upon, the condominium." Accordingly, the Neumans argue, the court erred in "allowing Ms. Wood standing to pursue," and in entertaining, her declaratory judgment counterclaim. This argument is misplaced, because Judge Kravitz explicitly limited his ruling to a determination that the Neumans have no common-law easement of necessity (or other implied easement) that affords them a right to enter into the area of the Duddington's land where Wood has her garden/patio (i.e., a right that would exist irrespective of permission by the Duddington or Wood). Judge Kravitz did not rule on whether the Duddington had authority to give, or validly gave, the Neumans permission to enter onto the land in question (explaining that Wood's counterclaim "was interpreted and understood by all . . . not to include the subject of the Neuman[s'] possible agreement with the Condominium Association for some alternative right of access"). Thus, the "standing" issue about which the Neumans complain did not arise.

Nor did Judge Kravitz err in rejecting the Neumans' claim to have an easement of necessity with respect to Wood's garden/patio. The Neumans rely on Section 2.15 of the Restatement (Third) of Property, Servitudes, which states that "[a] conveyance that would otherwise deprive the land conveyed . . . of rights necessary to reasonable enjoyment of the land implies the creation of a servitude. . . ." They argue that "more than eight inches of exterior clearance would be necessary to perform the maintenance and the repairs to the exterior west wall" of their townhouse; that a right of access to Wood's garden/patio area for the limited purpose of performing maintenance and repairs is necessary to the reasonable enjoyment of their own lot; and that "[u]nder these circumstances[,] the law presumes the existence of a servitude that would permit [them] to maintain and repair their property."

Judge Kravitz analyzed the Neumans' claim in a thoughtful and thorough bench ruling in which he considered whether all of the elements of a common-law easement of necessity were satisfied. We need not independently analyze each of the elements ourselves, because we can affirm Judge Kravitz's ruling on the basis of his finding with respect to whether there is a "continuing necessity for the easement sought." See Douglass v. Lehman, 66 F.2d 790, 792 (D.C.1933) ("an implied . . . grant of an easement can only be said to arise where . . . the . . . servitude is . . . strictly necessary to the enjoyment of the dominant estate"); Kellogg v. Garcia, 102 Cal.App.4th 796, 125 Cal.Rptr.2d 817 (2002) ("[a]n easement by way of necessity arises . . . when it is established that . . . there is a strict necessity for the right-of-way . . ."). Judge Kravitz found that the testimony presented was not sufficient "to establish the existence of a strict or absolute necessity" to access the area of Wood's garden/patio because, even though the Neumans' expert testified that he "knew of no other way" that wall maintenance and repairs could be accomplished, "his level of expertise in the relevant areas of engineering was in the Court's view not compelling;" because the "need" for an easement (in lieu of "making arrangements" with neighbors to facilitate repair work) arose from the parties' "simple inability to get along as neighbors in a productive and cooperative manner;" and because there "appears to be no current need for repairs or maintenance to the Neuman[s'] wall." As these findings are not clearly erroneous, we defer to them, see Tauber v. Quan, 938 A.2d 724, 732 (D.C. 2007), and for that reason affirm Judge Kravitz's ruling that the Neumans have no easement of necessity with respect to the land in issue.

B. Failure to Award at Least Nominal Damages

The Neumans next argue that the law presumes that "some damages" follow the commission of a tort, and that the failure of the jury to award them any damages on their assault and battery, trespass and nuisance claims entitles them to a new trial on damages. We note that the record in this case suggests many reasons why the jury might have determined to award the Neumans zero damages. For example, with respect to the assault and battery charge arising out of Wood's briefly spraying Delia Neuman with a water hose, Judge Anderson (properly) instructed the jury that it could mitigate any damages it had computed to the extent it found that Delia Neuman had provoked Wood (by photographing and hectoring her) to such a degree that a reasonably prudent person in Wood's situation would have likewise lost self-control and acted without reflection.1 The jury could reasonably have shared Judge Anderson's view of the record (...

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