Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued an important decision in Chamberlain v. Badaoui reversing a Superior Court judgment and holding that a condominium’s master deed did not create an express easement granting to Plaintiffs’ unit access through the neighboring Defendant’s unit to the fire escape stairs. The Court further held that the Plaintiffs had failed to establish an easement by necessity.
Plaintiffs, owners of unit 201 in a condominium located at 549-551 Boylston Street in Boston, sued the owner of unit 101, who had leased unit 101 to Wendy’s, as without a means of egress to access the fire escape stairs, unit 201 was unrentable as a matter of fact and a matter of law. In support for their claims, Plaintiffs pointed to the master condominium deed, which granted the exclusive right and easement to the owners of units 201, 301, 401, and 501 (in other words, all units in the five-unit condominium other than unit 101) to use certain specific areas, including the fire escape stairs. However, as the Court detailed: “[t]he fire escape stairs are attached to the rear exterior wall of the building. The second-floor portion of unit 101 lies between unit 201 and the fire escape; thus, from the second floor, the fire escape stairs are only accessible from inside the second-floor portion of unit 101,” which was in use by Wendy’s as a mechanical room. Plaintiffs claimed both an express easement and an easement by necessity to a right to open the door to the second-floor portion of unit 101 and to walk through that unit to access the fire escape in the event of an emergency, as well as unfair and deceptive business practices prohibited by M.G.L. ch. 93A on the part of Defendant in refusing to honor the alleged easement. The Superior Court granted Plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment, and a different Superior Court judge found in favor of Plaintiffs at trial, finding that Defendants had violated the Plaintiffs’ rights by blocking access to the fire escape, which made unit 201 “unrentable” as a matter of fact and a matter of law, and awarded double damages and attorneys’ fees pursuant to M.G.L. ch. 93A.
The Appeals Court began its discussion by setting forth the baseline statutory requirement providing that a condominium unit owner is generally entitled to exclusive ownership and control over his unit “as if it were sole and entirely independent of the other units in the condominium of which it forms a part,” M.G.L. ch. 183A, § 3, subject only to the limitations set forth in the master deed and condominium bylaws. The Court explained that ,when an easement is created by deed, it must “identify with reasonable certainty the easement created and the dominant and servient tenements.” See Parkinson v. Assessors of Medfield. The Chamberlain Court noted that the master deed was facially defective by its failure to provide any secondary emergency egress for access to the fire escape from the second floor, and the second-floor plan “shows no words or symbols indicating a second means of egress for unit 201 through the second-floor portion of unit 101 via the fire escape stairs.” The Court further noted that the master deed did expressly provide that each Unit was subject to an easement in favor of the other Units to maintain, repair, operate and replace all HVAC equipment located in such Unit. Therefore, the Court held that the master deed and plans did not grant unit 201 an express easement to pass through the second-floor portion of unit 101 to access the fire escape.
With respect to the Plaintiffs’ claim of an easement by necessity to pass through the second floor portion of unit 201, the Court noted the binding Supreme Judicial Court precedent holding that “[t]he party claiming an easement by necessity has the burden of establishing that the parties intended to create an easement that is not expressed in the deed.” See Kitras v. Aquinnah. The Chamberlain Court held that because “nothing in the master deed here demonstrates the declarant’s intention that unit 201 possess any rights to a portion of the building that the master deed designated as exclusively owned by unit 101,” if the Court were to “read such an easement by necessity into the master deed,” it “would infringe upon [Defendant’s] exclusive use and possession of 101.” The Court stated that it was sympathetic to the impact of the decision on Plaintiffs as to their ownership of unit 201, but it refused to disregard the legal instruments that created the condominium and units. Moreover, the Court explained that “[i]n considering who must bear the consequences of the scope and limitations of the rights of a particular unit, they must fall on the purchaser of the unit rather than on another unit owner in the building.” Therefore, the Court reversed and ordered that a new judgment shall enter declaring that the owners of unit 201 do not possess any easement to access the second-floor portion of unit 101 for purposes of emergency access to the fire escape.
Chamberlain v. Badaoui is a harsh reminder to purchasers of real property, and particularly to purchasers of condominium units, that such purchasers must fully understand the rights and obligations arising from the deed and any other applicable ownership documents. Even in spite of what may seem to be incomprehensible results, the Massachusetts Courts will not read an easement by necessity into a deed unless it finds a clear intent to create such an easement not explicitly stated on the part of the parties who prepared such deed or other applicable document.
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