Thursday, April 04, 2019

Shoen v. Zacarias (Cal. Ct. App. - April 4, 2019)

I don't teach Property.  I don't want to teach Property.

But if I did teach Property, I'd have my first-year students read this opinion.

It involves a topic that seems much more practically important in the modern world than, say, who owns a wild fox.  A landowner grants a neighbor a (free) license to use part of his property -- here, a cliffside area for meditation -- and the neighbor spends some money improving the area.  Does that give the neighbor a perpetual license to use the thing, or can the landowner revoke the license at his leisure?

The trial court said that the license was perpetual.  The Court of Appeal reverses.

Justice Hoffstadt goes a very good job of exploring the relevant precedent and making sense of it.  You get a "perpetual" license (or at least a long one) if you've made "substantial" improvements to the property at issue or spent a "substantial" amount of money on the thing.  You can readily understand the equity behind that rule.

So the issue becomes:  What counts as "substantial"?

The Court of Appeal goes down the specific facts of this case, and does a great job.  It's a concrete example of a modern property dispute.  Definitely worth reading during one's first year of law school.

Plus, it highlights a practical -- somewhat counterintutive -- part of civil procedure.

Namely, that the parties litigate this case for years, and undoubtedly at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars, even though the property at issue almost certainly isn't worth even nearly that much.  You get into litigation and emotions boil over and everybody loses.  Even the winner.  It makes absolutely no sense that this thing was litigated for as long as it was.  It should have resolved.  It didn't.

So, yes, it made some good precedent.  And one side comes out the "winner" -- at least legally -- in the end.

But it's economically irrational to do stuff like this.  For everyone except the lawyers.