Under California’s easement “merger” (merger of title) doctrine set forth in Civil Code sections 811 and 805, an easement (or servitude) is “extinguished” by “the vesting of the right of the servitude and the right to the servient tenement in the same person” and a servitude “cannot be held by the owner of the servient tenement.” In other words, if parcel A and parcel B have the same owner, then a prior easement across one from the other is usually extinguished.
How strictly is the merger doctrine applied? A case recently published by California’s Second Appellate District — Tariwala v. Mack (order for publication here) — shows that there is some wiggle room, particularly when equitable considerations play a role.
Facts: neighbor blocks driveway easement; claims “merger” based on prior common ownership
Keith Martin Mack (“Mack”) once owned two adjoining residential properties in Thousand Oaks, California. Mack and his family owned the properties for many years, and Mack ended up acquiring sole title to both in 1994 after a series of intra-family transfers. He lost ownership to one of the properties in 2011 as the result of a foreclosure sale after he defaulted on a secured loan.
In 2017, Saifuddin Tariwala and two other individuals (collectively “Tariwala”) bought the property from the foreclosing lender. A recorded access easement over a driveway on the Mack property provided the Tariwala property with its only access to the nearby road.
Immediately after Tariwala bough the property, Mack blocked physical access to the house by locking a gate that spanned the driveway easement.
Tariwala sued to enforce the driveway easement.
Trial court: easement valid; no merger
After a three-day court trial, the trial court ruled in Tariwala’s favor, finding the easement was valid and enforceable. The court rejected Mack’s argument that his prior common ownership of both lots had extinguished the easement through the doctrine of merger.
The trial court’s judgment permanently enjoined Mack from “obstructing, interfering with, or impeding” Tariwala’s use of the easement and ordered him to remove existing encroachments.
Court of Appeal: affirmed; equitable considerations matter
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment, rejecting Mack’s “merger” argument.
Application of the merger doctrine, the court held, “is not automatic.” “Merger will not extinguish an easement if the result would be inequitable or would result in an injustice, injury, or prejudice to a third person.”
The court noted evidence of third party loans on the Tariwala property during Mack’s ownership. The evidence showed that immediately after acquiring ownership of the lot in 1994, Mack encumbered it with a loan and additional loans in the years after. At least one of the deeds of trust executed by Mack expressly referred to the easement in its description of the security property. Strict application of the merger doctrine “would render the lender’s security interest essentially worthless by eliminating the Tariwala property’s only access to the road.”
The court also held the “equitable components” of the case were enough to defeat application of the merger doctrine. Mack did not dispute that the Tariwala property was landlocked without the easement. Nor did he dispute that he pledged the easement as part of the deed of trust to the lender who eventually foreclosed, which “ensured his lender could foreclose on marketable collateral in the event of default.” Tariwala, as the lender’s successor in interest owning the property, would suffer “profound prejudice” if the merger doctrine was strictly applied “and they were left with no means to lawfully access their house.”
California’s “merger” doctrine — extinguishing an easement due to common ownership — is not always strictly applied. Exceptions exist when merger would result in injury or prejudice to a third person.