To the unwary, it might be surprising that property dating back to the 1870s could, almost 150 years later, fall prey to a boundary line dispute. But it does happen, as the recent case, Bernier v. Fredette, 85 Mass. App. Ct. 265 (2014), reminds us.
This case went to trial in the Land Court. The trial judge took a view and ultimately ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who had brought the action to remove a cloud on title pursuant to M.G.L. c. 240, §§ 6-10 (among other claims). The decision was affirmed by the Appeals Court because they could not find that the judge erred in this instance, and thus it would "not disturb the judge's findings, particularly where the judge conducted a view and the judge was in 'a superior position to appraise and weigh the evidence.'"*
Without getting into the specifics, which essentially boil down to abutters (plaintiff and defendant) disagreeing about where a common boundary line was located, Bernier offers up some good black letter law reminders when it comes to these kinds of boundary disputes. Here are just a few worth noting:
- "Any competent evidence may be considered in determining the true boundary line between adjoining owners." Holmes v. Barrett, 269 Mass. 497, 500 (1929) (Holmes). It is up to the judge to decide whether upon all the testimony and evidence it is more accurate to rely on one expert over another or ancient plans over more recent plans.
- "The basic principle governing the interpretation of deeds is that their meaning, derived from the presumed intent of the grantor, is to be ascertained from the words used in the written instrument, construed when necessary in the light of the attendant circumstances." Patterson v. Paul, 448 Mass. 658, 665 (2007), quoting from Sheftel v. Lebel, 44 Mass. App. Ct. 175, 179 (1998).
- "Rules of deed construction provide a hierarchy of priorities for interpreting descriptions in a deed. Descriptions that refer to monuments control over those that use courses and distances; descriptions that refer to courses and distances control over those that use area; and descriptions by area seldom are a controlling factor." Paull v. Kelly, 62 Mass. App. Ct. 673, 680 (2004).
- Whenever, in the description of land conveyed by deed, known monuments are referred to as boundaries, they must govern.
- Generally speaking, monuments, including a stake and stones, govern over distances. Temple v. Benson, 213 Mass. 128, 132 (1912). "The only exception recognized is where, by strict adherence to monuments, the construction is plainly inconsistent with the intention of the parties as expressed by all the terms of the grant."
- Abutter calls, which are "statements in a deed that describe the landowner's parcel by reference to the owners of adjoining properties," may be considered monuments. Paull v. Kelly, 62 Mass. App. Ct. at 674 n.4, 680.
- "If the monument cannot be found and its location cannot be made certain by evidence, the measurements and other provisions of the deed are controlling." Holmes, supra at 500.
- It is up to the judge to determine "[t]he weight to be given to the fact that certain terms of the deed would be contravened by the location of the [boundary line]" Id. at 502.
- In interpreting deeds, it is proper to consider the deeded property in relation to the grantor's remaining property and the improbability, for example, that a grantor would seek to retain relatively useless strips of property. Ryan v. Stavros, 348 Mass. 251, 259 (1964) (Stavros).
What all of this law means, in practical terms, is that boundary disputes often require not only a careful eye and interpretation of the documents, but the assistance of qualified experts to review what's on the ground. The court, in turn, will look to all of this evidence (and the parties' arguments in support thereof), and likely also take a view of the property, before rendering a decision. What Bernier also reminds us is that even if both sides have plausible arguments and evidence to support their position, the court only has to agree with one of them in order to issue an unshakable decision. This reality may sometimes lend itself to the parties considering mediated settlement in lieu of trial, though not always.
* The Appeals Court also went on to note that "even if it could be said that the defendants' view [of the evidence] is plausible, '[w]here there are two permissible views of the evidence, the factfinder's choice between them cannot be clearly erroneous.'" [citations omitted]
Written by Kristen M. Ploetz, Esq., of Green Lodestar Communications & Consulting, LLC, on behalf of Jeffrey T. Angley, P.C. Edited by Jeffrey T. Angley, Esq.
Copyright (c) 2011-2014 by Jeffrey T. Angley, P.C. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this post is general in nature and for educational purposes only. No personal legal advice is being provided. If you have an actual legal issue that needs to be addressed, you should seek the advice of competent legal counsel. This post does not create an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Jeffrey T. Angley, P.C., Phillips & Angley or their attorneys.