On May 7, 2012, the Pennsylvania Superior Court entered an Order in the case of Osker and Shean v. Bucciarelli and Graeff. The entry of the Order by the Superior Court ended nearly eight years of real estate litigation by vindicating the positions advanced by William Benner for his clients. The facts in the case are interesting.
The underlying dispute involved a claim against our clients and their neighbor brought by the owner of a land-locked parcel who claimed common law easement rights to cross a portion of the two properties to gain a means of access to the land-locked property. On the day of trial, the parties reached a settlement agreement. William Benner stated its terms on the record. By its terms, the settlement agreement permitted the owner of the land-locked parcel to purchase the access rights if they could obtain final approval to build a single family dwelling on their land-locked parcel within three years.
Instead of seeking the permits needed to satisfy the terms of the settlement agreement, the owners of the land-locked parcel tried to enforce the settlement agreement by offering an interpretation that stretched its plain meaning beyond those stated on the record. Thus, when the three year period ended without any proof that the owners of the land-locked parcel had obtained any of the required permits to build a house on the lot, our client notified the owners of the land-locked parcel that their rights to the easement lapsed.
The owners of the land-locked parcel then tried to enforce the settlement agreement to obtain the access rights relying upon an interpretation that the Bucks County Court, through the Honorable Gary Gilman, found wanting.
Instead, the trial court accepted the arguments advanced by William Benner that the terms of the settlement agreement as stated on the record were clear and unambiguous and thus enforceable according to their terms without the need for any additional or extraneous evidence.
The Superior Court’s Memorandum Opinion, docketed at 1432 EDA 2011endorsed the arguments advanced by William Benner who wrote the brief and argued the case for not only his clients, but also for the neighboring property owner. As a result of this Memorandum Opinion, the owners of the land-locked parcel has now forfeited any right to claim access rights to our clients’ property or to claim access rights against the neighboring property under any common law easement claim. In addition, the Memorandum Opinion also forecloses any right of access to the land-locked parcel under Pennsylvania’s Private Road Act.
This opinion underscores the practice pointer that settlement agreements have to be carefully drafted leaving no room for ambiguity. If drafted in this fashion, the opinion entered by the Superior Court makes clear that courts will enforce settlement agreements according to their terms.