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Client Profile: Condominium Association

Client Profile #1: Condominium Association

Defeating an Abutter’s Claim of Easement Rights Over the Condominium Common Area

In this matter our office analyzed and argued a series of legal issues including

  • the lawful exercise of power of attorney rights under a condominium master deed;
  • rights to amend a condominium master deed; and
  • the right of a condominium declarant to convey easements over common areas.

This matter required the application of contract law and doctrines of real property law of easements, condominium form of land ownership, and interpretation of written instruments.

The Dispute

The condominium unit owners association (“Association”) of a 34-unit residential townhouse complex located in Middlesex County (“Condominium”) retained our firm to defend against claims brought by an abutter (“Abutter”) asserting easements rights over a portion of the Condominium common area. Specifically, the Abutter claimed it had acquired easement rights from the original Condominium developer to create a 25-space parking lot on the Condominium property. Based on our careful review of the applicable condominium instruments, and an in-depth analysis of condominium, easement and contract law, we were certain that the Association would prevail in this dispute.

Background / Litigation

Under M.G.L. c. 183A, the Condominium was created by the developer (“Developer”) in 1993. Thirty-four Condominium units were to be constructed in a phased development, with each single unit representing a different phase. When the Developer recorded the Master Deed, he created and conveyed the first unit, and created the Association to manage and regulate the Condominium. As part of the Master Deed, the Developer also retained some limited authority to grant easements over the Condominium common areas (for cable lines and drainage only), as well as limited rights to amend the Master Deed (for phasing only). Once the Developer owned less than 50% of the units, any amendments to the Master Deed required a vote duly authorized by the Association.

Thirty-three separate amendments to the Master Deed were recorded over the following eighteen months to complete the entire Condominium project. The last Master Deed amendment was recorded in early 1995. However, unlike the prior amendments, this final amendment contained a provision that purportedly created a reservation of perpetual rights to be held by the Developer to grant a parking easement to the Abutter. Notably, the Developer no longer owned any interest in any of the Condominium units or common areas at this point. Subsequently, in October 1995, the Developer entered into and recorded a written agreement with the Abutter for a reciprocal exchange of easements, including over the parking area in dispute.

In 2000, the Abutter (through counsel) started asserting rights over the purported parking area easement. Through our firm, the Association disputed the Abutter’s purported rights in kind, arguing that notwithstanding any written agreement between the Abutter and the Developer, neither the Master Deed nor any of the amendments thereto ever created such easement rights, much less that those instruments even validly granted such authority to the Developer in the first instance. At that point, the Abutter backed off from pursuing use of the parking easement.

However, in 2008, the Developer unilaterally recorded an easement (“Easement Deed”) that purportedly conveyed a parking lot easement to the Abutter. The Association, through its unit owners, again disputed that the Abutter had any valid easement, asserting that the Developer lacked any authority to grant and record the Easement Deed, and thus it was invalid and unenforceable.

Eventually the Abutter filed a lawsuit against our client, the Association, in Middlesex Superior Court to have the rights of the parties declared by the court. The Association responded by filing an Answer and Counterclaims. Both parties had claims for declaratory judgment to determine the validity of the Easement Deed and the rights purportedly granted thereunder. The Developer was not named as a party to the lawsuit.

The Final Outcome

Following motions for summary judgment filed by both the Association and the Abutter, the court held in favor of the Association for the declaratory judgment counts. The court agreed with the legal analysis advanced by the Association that (1) nothing in the original Master Deed or any of the amendments thereto gave the Developer unfettered authority to grant a parking easement to the Abutter; and (2) the Developer was without authority to make the reservation of rights set forth in the final amendment to the Master Deed. As a result, the Easement Deed was declared invalid because the Developer was without authority to make such a conveyance to the Abutter. Thereafter, an affidavit was recorded in the registry of deeds to establish that the parking easement purportedly granted under the Easement Deed was invalid and did not encumber the Condominium property.