Courts - Nation Bonfire of the equities: Do equities trump the black letter law?

By Pat Murphy

The Daily Record Newswire

BOSTON, MA -- A husband and wife unwittingly build their dream house on their neighbor's land.

In another state, a husband and wife who care for a dying stranger are given a home as a token of gratitude -- but then fail to file the legal paperwork required to make the gift complete.

In each case, a strict application of the law will mean the loss of a happy home.

In only one of those cases will judges find that the equities trump the black letter law.

California dreaming

There's the old saying that no good deed goes unpunished. Richard and Irma LaQue have discovered the truth of that bromide first hand.

The LaQues moved into a rented home in Colton, California, and became good friends with Paul Ziegler, a retired teacher who lived in his own home next door.

Ziegler had asthma and Richard LaQue first started helping out the old man by mowing his lawn and doing handyman chores around Ziegler's house. But then Ziegler became seriously ill and the LaQues teamed up to run his errands, prepare his meals, help him get dressed, and generally provide the lonely guy with some company.

For the cynics out there, let's be clear that no one in the case questions that Richard and Irma acted out of the goodness of their hearts.

Ziegler seemed to understand this, too, so in gratitude he decided that the LaQues would have his home upon his death. In 2005, he signed an agreement providing that, in exchange for their continued care, the LaQues would have his house free and clear upon his death.

Two months later, Ziegler died in a hospital. The LaQues, acting upon the agreement, moved into Ziegler's house unopposed.

Since Ziegler apparently had no close relatives, there was no one to dispute the LaQues' right to the home.

That was until W.C. Cox and Company showed up. The firm is in the business of locating missing heirs and it represented nine residents of Germany who claimed to be Ziegler's heirs.

None of that would have mattered had the LaQues taken the steps necessary under California law to enforce Ziegler's written agreement to make a distribution from his estate, but they hadn't and the one-year statute of limitations for such actions had expired.

With the equities so much in the LaQues' favor, a state judge found a way to conclude that their action to enforce the Ziegler contract wasn't time-barred.

But earlier this month the California Court of Appeal decided that the plain letter of the law must prevail, despite the obvious unfairness of the result.

The LaQues tried to argue that the state probate code did not apply because their written agreement was a present promise to convey Ziegler's house -- to be performed upon the man's death -- rather than a promise to make a future distribution from Ziegler's estate.

The court decided that this was a "distinction without a difference," explaining that the LaQues' claim "is indistinguishable from a claim on a contract to make a will. The Agreement was a promise to transfer property upon death. It could be performed only after death, by the decedent's personal representative, by conveying property that otherwise belonged to the estate." (Larsen v. W.C. Cox and Company)

So despite the LaQues' good deeds and Ziegler's undisputed intentions, the house goes to W.C. Cox and Company and some German heirs the old school teacher never knew existed.

Location, location, location?

With laser surveying and satellite imagery, it's hard to imagine how in the heck anybody could build a home entirely on a neighbor's property by mistake.

But that's exactly what Robert and Christina Huntington did when they built their dream house in Skamia County, Washington.

The Huntingtons purchased a 27-acre wooded parcel next to a 30-acre parcel that was later sold to Noel Proctor.

In the summer of 1994, the Huntingtons camped in an area that they concluded would be the perfect spot to build their home.

Unfortunately, while they believed the site was their property, it was actually on the neighboring lot.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that Proctor, when he introduced himself to the Huntingtons, also did not realize that the campsite was on his property.

The problem stemmed from the fact that both parties believed that a nearby surveyor's pin marked the boundary line when in fact it had been placed as a guide for local loggers.

The actual boundary lay 400 feet east of the pin.

So when the Huntingtons went ahead and decided to build on their favorite campsite, they in fact built their house, well, and garage entirely on Proctor's land.

This fact came to light in 2004 when Proctor hired a surveyor to settle a dispute with another neighbor.

After the parties failed to come up with an amicable settlement, Proctor sued to quit title and eject the Huntingtons.

This was the normal remedy under Washington law when an encroachment is not slight, but a state judge refused to issue an injunction forcing the Huntingtons to remove their home.

Instead, the judge ordered Proctor to deed them the acre underlying it and accept payment of $25,000 for the value of the land.

Late last month, the Washington Supreme Court concluded that the equities in the case justified this otherwise extraordinary remedy.

"Here, although encroachment on an acre of Proctor's land (worth $25,000) was not 'slight' in an absolute sense, that was not the key question before the trial court. The question was whether, in equity, it would be fair and just to require the Huntingtons to remove their entire house, garage, and well -- at an estimated cost of over $300,000 -- because of both parties' good-faith surveying mistake. ...

"On these particular facts, the trial court could fairly characterize the benefit to Proctor as minimal. In contrast, ejectment would impose a great hardship on the Huntingtons because they would have to remove and reconstruct their house and garage and drill a new well. The trial court's equitable approach in this case fits comfortably within the good-faith-mistake line of cases ... in which equity allows a court to apply a liability rule in lieu of rote application of a property rule," the court said. (Proctor v. Huntington)

Published: Thu, Sep 9, 2010