4th and 10… An Improbable Comeback Win at the Washington Court of Appeals

Claims Alleged: Appeal from Summary Judgment Dismissal of Adverse Possession and Prescriptive Easement Claims

The Overview:

Smith Freed Eberhard partner, Ashley Nagrodski, and associate, Jessica Kamish, achieved a compelling win for their clients in the Washington Court of Appeals when the court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the claims against their clients. Ashley and Jessica were assigned the case during the late stages of the underlying action. In order to effectively advocate on behalf of their client, they had to quickly gain command of the complex issues regarding the property dispute, as the plaintiff was appealing the dismissal. Their strategy centered around drafting comprehensive briefs that illuminated their client’s position and precedent, resulting in the court affirming the dismissal.  

The Background:

The underlying case, subject to this appeal, involved complicated claims stemming from a land dispute among neighbors.  The land in dispute was a 30-foot-wide area, that contained a gravel road that the surrounding property owners, including the plaintiff and Ashley’s and Jessica’s clients, used for entry and exit to their homes.  The plaintiff filed a claim to quiet title of this land by claiming prescriptive easement against one household and adverse possession of parts of area against four households, including Ashley’s and Jessica’s clients.  When Ashley and Jessica received the case, the trial court had already dismissed the claims against the defendant named in both actions.  At that time, Ashley and Jessica filed a motion to dismiss the adverse possession claim against their clients specifically.  The plaintiff stipulated to the dismissal of the claims against their clients.

However, the case did not end there.  A few months later, Ashley and Jessica were notified that the plaintiff intended to include their clients in his appeal.  Thus, Ashley and Jessica had to quickly dive into the details of this complicated case in order to effectively advocate for their clients at an appellate level.

Plaintiff’s Theme:

This case arose out of conflicts regarding a strip of land that had been used as a gravel road for entry, exit, and utilities for decades.  The neighbors to the west wanted to move the road to the east, while the neighbor to the east, the plaintiff, opposed that because that would cut into an area he had been using for a front lawn, even though it was not technically his property.  The plaintiff brought a suit against the property owners to the west claiming prescriptive easement, essentially claiming that he had a right to use that area of their property because he, and the previous property owner, had been for decades.  The plaintiff also brought a claim of adverse possession against multiple property owners in the area who used the gravel road, which included Ashley’s and Jessica’s clients. The plaintiff claimed he had acquired title to the area he used as his front yard because it had been used as such for decades. Both claims were originally dismissed on summary judgment.

In appealing the dismissal of this case, the plaintiff, now appellant, argued that both claims were improperly dismissed.  Additionally, in arguing for his prescriptive easement claim, the appellant brought up two new creative theories of “collective use tacking” and “shifting easement.”  Notably, neither of these arguments were presented to the trial court.

Our Strategy:

Ashley’s and Jessica’s approach to handling this appeal was to become well versed in the appellant’s arguments so they could strongly oppose them.  Ashley and Jessica drafted detailed briefs persuasively arguing that the appellant’s use of the easement area for their landscaping was insufficient as a matter of law to establish adverse possession.  Beyond just disputing the elements of the adverse possession claim, Ashley and Jessica advocated for their clients by arguing that even if the appellant acquired title to part of land, that should not extinguish the entry and exit rights that their client, and the surrounding neighbors had.  This argument became especially important when, during oral arguments, the appellant made clear he was not only trying to establish title of the area but extinguish the neighbors’ entry and exit rights as well.

In addition to arguing against the adverse possession claims, which directly involved their clients, Ashley and Jessica also argued against the appellant’s contentions that the prescriptive easement claim was improperly dismissed.  Ashley and Jessica not only argued that the new theories the appellant was raising for the first time on appeal were incorrectly before the court because they had not been advanced before the trial court.  They also conducted extensive research on these unique theories to highlight that they were not applicable to the facts of this case.

The Outcome:

Ultimately, Washington Court of Appeals issued an unpublished opinion affirming the trial court’s dismissal of the appellant’s claims.  The court of appeals’ opinion outlining their reasoning, exemplified why Ashley’s and Jessica’s diligence and approach to the case proved successful.  The court found some arguments improperly raised by the appellant, and other arguments were inapplicable to the facts of the case, just as Ashley and Jessica had stated in their brief.  Ashley’s and Jessica’s head on approach to understanding all of the details of a case, even when coming in at the tail end of case, prove successful once again with this big Washington Court of Appeals win for their clients.

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