The CNMI Supreme Court issued Tuesday a ruling that affirms an order of the trial court-sitting in probate-that found an easement implied by prior existing use extending over land owned by Gerald P. Reyes for the benefit of land owned by Akieva C. Reyes.
The deceased, Charles P. Reyes Sr., owned various properties in Chalan Laulau, Saipan. Although these properties were subdivided over the years and included two access easements, there was evidence that Reyes did not strictly follow property boundaries when accessing his properties. After Reyes passed away in September 2006, the family submitted his will to the probate court for distribution of his estate. The probate court distributed Reyes' property in accordance with his will.
In relevant part, Reyes' son Gerald and daughter Akieva received lots that shared a common boundary and the existing access to the carport on Akieva's lot traveled over Gerald's property. After obtaining the property, Gerald erected a chain-link fence around his property. This fence cut off the existing access road to Akieva's lot and forced individuals entering her lot to make a sharp 90-degree turn onto the property from the easement road.
Akieva brought a motion before the probate court seeking an easement over Gerald's property for the benefit of her property. Akieva alleged that she was entitled to an easement based on Reyes' previous use of Gerald's property to access the house on Akieva's property. The probate court granted the easement and Gerald appealed.
On appeal, Gerald argued that the probate court did not have jurisdiction to hear the easement claim because the probate court has only the jurisdiction conferred upon it by statute. The Supreme Court analyzed the probate court jurisdictional statute, which provides probate courts with jurisdiction “over all subject matter relating to the estates of decedents,” as well as other Commonwealth cases and cases from other jurisdictions with similar probate statutes. Noting that the easement dispute between Gerald and Akieva was “related to” Reyes' estate since both properties originated as estate property, the High Court held that the probate court had jurisdiction to hear the easement claim.
As for the merits of the probate court's grant of the easement, the High Court looked to whether Reyes expressed intent not to grant an easement to Akieva and to whether the easement was reasonably necessary to Akieva's use and enjoyment of her property. Regarding intent, the justices affirmed the probate court's holding that there was no evidence of intent not to grant an easement. As for whether the easement was reasonably necessary to Akieva's use of the property, the justices reviewed evidence relied upon by the probate court, including the difficulty of accessing Akieva's property without an easement and testimony that exiting the property currently requires trespassing on another adjacent property. Based on this evidence, the High Court affirmed the probate court's granting of an easement to Akieva.
The Supreme Court's full opinion is In re Estate of Charles P. Reyes, 2012 MP 13, and can be found at http://www.cnmilaw.org/supreme_12.htm. (NMI Judiciary)