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Easement owners necessary parties in boundary dispute

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//January 11, 2022

Easement owners necessary parties in boundary dispute

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//January 11, 2022

Where the owners of an easement over a riparian area were not made parties to litigation involving the land that was subject to the easement, the circuit court’s judgment in that litigation is void.

Because the litigation involved the easement owners’ property interest, and no party to the litigation sought to protect that interest, the easement owners were necessary parties to the case.

“The requirement that all necessary parties be joined in the litigation is ‘designed to prevent a multiplicity of litigation and to avoid depriving a person of his property without giving that person an opportunity to be heard.’”


Edwards and the Josephs own adjacent lots that share a common boundary line. Both lots are on a creek’s shoreline. The Garners are the successors in interest of a 1959 riparian easement over Edwards’ property, which gives them access to the water and the right to maintain a pier or a wharf extending in a straight line from the end of the six-foot-wide easement.

The Josephs sued Edwards to establish the riparian boundary between their properties. The suit resulted in a May 2008 settlement order that moved the riparian boundary but resulted in a portion of the Garners’ pier encroaching on the Josephs’ riparian area. The Josephs then sought to have the Garners remove the encroaching pier.

The Garners responded with a suit to set aside the 2008 order, arguing they were unaware of the Joseph-Edwards litigation. The Garners argued they were necessary parties to the suit. The circuit court held otherwise and ruled that the Garners lacked standing to challenge the 2008 order. The Garners appealed.


“The Josephs and Edwards contend that they were the only necessary and indispensable parties to the 2018 proceeding for riparian apportionment. They stress the limited nature of the Garners’ right as holders of an easement, as compared to the riparian rights of a fee simple owner.

“They further note that the apportionment suit did not take away the Easement, and they stress that the 1959 deed did not specify the location of the Easement.”

Legal standards

“When a landowner grants an easement over a riparian area, that grant includes the riparian rights ‘necessary to fulfill the intent of the grant.’ Irby v. Roberts, 256 Va. 324, 330 (1998). In Irby, the landowner’s grant of a right of way for the purpose of constructing a pier ‘permit[ted] the grantee to utilize the land within given bounds to build a pier and, thus, [conveyed] the necessary riparian right for that purpose.’ …

“Here, as in Irby, the grantors of the 1959 deed granted an easement to construct a pier with ‘the necessary riparian right to fulfill that purpose.’ …

“An easement certainly constitutes a lesser legal interest in real estate than fee simple ownership. But in determining whether a party is ‘necessary,’ 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.”


“It will not always be necessary to include the holders of an easement whenever there is litigation involving land that is subject to an easement; controversies will often be capable of resolution even in their absence. For example, Buxton v. Murch, 249 Va. 502 (1995), involved litigation over an easement that granted a right of way to a river.

“The Buxtons contested a trial court’s order enjoining them from using their easement, in part on the basis that other property owners with a duty to maintain the easement had not been joined in the action. … The court rejected that argument, concluding that the ‘potential duties of maintaining the easement … simply do not constitute an interest which is likely to be defeated or diminished.’

“Thus, the trial court did not err in adjudicating that case in the absence of all the easement holders. … Moreover, even assuming those duties had qualified those lot owners as necessary parties, the Court concluded that their interests were, in any case, identical to those of the defendants, and thus the absent parties did not need to be joined. …

“There are many instances, as in Buxton, where an easement holder’s property interest will not be affected by litigation, or where an easement holder’s interest will be sufficiently protected by other litigants participating as parties in the case. …

“Unlike the non-joined lot owners in Buxton, whose interests in the proceeding were ‘sufficiently represented’ by the named parties, neither the Josephs nor Edwards represented the Garners’ interest in the 2018 apportionment proceeding. …

“In addition, the interest held by the Garners in this case was considerably more likely to be defeated or diminished by the 2018 apportionment proceeding. Relying on what they supposed to be the proper location of their easement, the Garners constructed a pier.

“The action between Edwards and the Josephs resulted in a redrawing of the riparian boundary in a way that locates part of the Garners’ pier on the Josephs’ land. This leaves the Garners open to a trespass action, forcing them to ‘remove[] the allegedly offending portion of the pier.’ …

“Their interest in the 2018 apportionment proceeding was therefore markedly different from that of the non-named lot owners in Buxton, and it warranted their addition as necessary parties.”

Reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Garner, et al. v. Joseph, et al., Record No. 201362 (McCullough) Dec. 16, 2021. From the Circuit Court of the City of Newport News (Hawks). Fairfax County. Elizabeth S. Skilling (Harman, Claytor, Corrigan & Wellman, on brief), for appellants. Joseph F. Verser (Jordan C. Heath; Leonard C. Heath, Jr.; Heath, Old & Verser, on brief), for appellee Ellen R. Edwards. (Michael B. Ware; Schempf & Ware, on brief), for appellees Vincent T. Joseph and Theresa C. Joseph. (Carl A. Eason; Wolcott Rivers Gates, on brief), for appellees Steven M. Back and Julie T. Back. VLW 021-6-077, 8 pp.

VLW 021-6-077

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