Published on: March 13, 2014

Registered Land is unassailable.  This is one of those “truths” Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyers have had drilled into their heads over the years.  Registered Land is supposed to be unassailable because land boundaries, easements and encumbrances are determined through an exhaustive, time consuming and expensive process and ultimately certified in the form of a Certificate of Title signed by a Land Court Judge.  Anybody who goes through that process (which some real estate lawyers think should be eradicated) certainly deserves an unassailable title.  Registered Land is so unassailable that a party cannot obtain title to registered land by adverse possession.

Apparently, not all truths are self evident, as Clifford Martin recently found out when he sued Simmons Properties, LLC for relocating and interfering with portions of an easement he had over the Simmons property land.   The case Martin v. Simmons Properties, LLC can be accessed by clicking here.  Martin of course argued the “unassailable truth” to Land Court Judge Gordon H. Piper, who did his best Jack Nicholson impersonation and decided that Martin “couldn’t handle the [real] truth” [of course Judge Piper did not actually say this—it is a journalistic liberty—-another unassailable truth].  Ironically it was the Land Court that undermined its own unassailability in this context.  As most lawyers know by know, there are fifty shades of grey to every rule or law, even in the usually conservative Land Court.

Martin’s case was filed in the Land Court in 2007, tried in 2009 and ultimately decided in 2011 (which brings up another unassailable truth in the Land Court—“everything in Land Court takes forever”).  Judge Piper based his decision on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s determination in M.P.M. Builders, LLC vs. Dwyer, 442 Mass 87 (2004), which held that under certain circumstances and conditions, the boundaries of an easement could be relocated.  Of course, M.P.M. did not involve registered land.   Interestingly, the Appeals Court subsequently reversed the Land Court’s Decision in Martin.

The Land Court’s Decision however, was reinstated by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.  In doing so, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court confirmed and expanded upon it’s seminal decision in M.P.M. Builders, LLC vs. Dwyer, 442 Mass 87 (2004), noting that in M.P.M. it had adopted the Restatement (third) of property (servitudes), 4.8 by holding that the holder of a servient  estate may make changes in location or dimensions of an easement to permit  normal use or development of the servient estate,  provided that the changes do not lessen the utility of the easement, increase the boundaries in holder of the easement or frustrate the purpose  for which it is created.

In Martin, Simmons Properties relocated rights of access and drainage easements in favor of Martin in order to allow it to better develop a mall on its property.  Martin argued that the easements could not be relocated as they had been identified on a Land Court plan and certified by the Land Court in his Certificate of Title. Martin cited the “certainty of title” of registered land guaranteed by M.G.L. c. 185 § 47.

The Supreme Judicial Court rejected that argument holding that Martin still had certainty of title.  He still had easements and access, just that they were relocated in a reasonable fashion, which furthered the public policy of allowing Simmons to maximize the beneficial use of its land.  So the lesson learned, not everything your lawyer, the Legislature,  the Land Court or the Appeals Court  says is unassailable.  The law is a bunch of moving parts.