Title Insurance Client Alert – Easement Holder Is Necessary and Indispensable Party to Riparian Boundary Suit
By Clark J. Belote, James L. Windsor, Real Estate Claims & Title Insurance Solutions
On December 16, 2021, the Supreme Court of Virginia authored another chapter in its series of cautionary tales regarding necessary parties, particularly in suits involving real estate.
In Garner v. Joseph, No. 201362 (Va. Dec. 16, 2021), the Garners, Ms. Edwards, and the Josephs all owned property near Deep Creek in Newport News, Virginia. In 2015, the Garners filed an action against Edwards to confirm the scope of their rights with respect to the Garners’ ingress and egress easement and riparian rights over Edwards’ property. That case resulted in a judgment confirming that the Garners had the right to construct a pier into Deep Creek in line with their easement.
In 2018, the Josephs sued Edwards to establish and apportion the riparian boundaries between the properties of the Josephs and Edwards. The Josephs did not name the Garners as parties to the 2018 suit. The 2018 suit resulted in a consent judgment which established the riparian boundaries between the Josephs and Edwards. As a result of the boundary adjustment, the Garners’ pier became partially within the Josephs’ riparian area. The Josephs sent the Garners a cease and desist letter, claiming that the Garners’ pier constituted a trespass on the Josephs’ property.
The Garners filed a new suit seeking to set aside the 2018 consent judgment as void for failure to join them as necessary parties. The trial court dismissed the action, sustaining the Josephs’ demurrer and granting Edwards’ motion for summary judgment.
The Supreme Court of Virginia reversed and remanded the case to the circuit court. It reiterated that it has long defined necessary parties broadly. Any person with an interest in the subject matter of a suit “likely either to be defeated or diminished by the plaintiff’s claim,” is a necessary party. Slip Op. at 5 (quoting Raney v. Four Thirty Seven Land Co., Inc., 233 Va. 513, 519-20 (1987)). In addition to being broadly defined, necessary parties are critical. A “judgment in a suit filed in the absence of necessary parties can be set aside as void.” Slip Op. at 6.
Rejecting the Josephs’ and Edwards’ arguments that Garners’ mere easement rights were insufficient to make the Garners necessary and indispensable parties, the Court held “the test is not whether a party has an inferior property interest relative to other participants in the suit — the test is whether an individual has a material interest in the subject matter that is likely to be diminished or defeated.” Slip. Op. at 7 (citations omitted). In this case, the Garners’ easement rights were affected by the riparian boundary adjustment, and therefore, they were necessary parties to the proceeding.
While the Court emphasized there is no bright line rule for easement holders, parties preparing to file suit to establish or adjust interests relating to real estate should carefully analyze the need to identify and include all necessary parties in the litigation. Otherwise, their efforts could result in a void judgment.
A copy of Garner v. Joseph, No. 201362 (Va. Dec. 16, 2021) is available here:
If you have any questions or would like to discuss the impact of this significant new opinion, or title and real property issues in general, please contact Jim Windsor at (757) 873.6308 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Clark Belote at (757) 624.3109 or email@example.com.
The contents of this publication are intended for general information only and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on specific facts and circumstances. Copyright 2023.