While statutes and regulations have shaped many areas of property law, a student of this topic also must understand how courts have interpreted common-law, statutory, and constitutional principles. Courts have addressed issues such as theories of possession and ownership, the process for transferring property interests, restrictions on the use of property, and intersections with constitutional rights. Below is an outline of key cases in property law with links to the full text of virtually every case, provided free by Justia.
Ownership of property confers a robust set of rights, but clear title may not be easy to prove. As a pragmatic alternative, courts often link ownership to possession. For example, the occupation theory provides that physical occupation inherently confers a right to keep property as long as it is in the control of the occupier.
Pierson v. Post 一 Property in wild animals is acquired by occupancy only. This requires depriving them of their natural liberty and subjecting them to the control of their pursuer.
Commonwealth v. Agway, Inc. 一 A state does not have a property interest in fish in a state of freedom, the invasion of which would support an action in trespass for damages.
Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. McIntosh 一 Native American inhabitants are to be considered merely occupants, to be protected while in peace in the possession of their lands, but deemed incapable of transferring absolute title to others.
Geragosian v. Union Realty Co. 一 An owner of land is entitled to an injunction for the removal of trespassing structures. Only when there is some estoppel or laches on the part of the plaintiff, or a refusal on their part to consent to acts necessary to the removal or abatement, will an injunction be refused.
Peters v. Archambault 一 A landowner is ordinarily entitled to mandatory equitable relief to compel removal of a structure significantly encroaching on their land, even if the encroachment was unintentional, and the cost of removal is substantial in comparison to any injury suffered by the owner of the lot on which the encroachment has taken place.
Edwards v. Sims 一 The owner of realty, unless there has been a division of the estate, is entitled to the free and unfettered control of their land above, upon, and beneath the surface.
A possessor of property may be able to claim ownership if they can prove that their possession was adverse to the true owner. Their possession must be actual and exclusive, open and notorious, continuous during the statutory period, and hostile and under claim of right, without permission from the owner.
Lessee of Ewing v. Burnet 一 An entry by one party on the land of another party is or is not an ouster of the legal possession arising from the title according to the intention with which it is done. If it is made under claim or color of right, it is an ouster; otherwise, it is a mere trespass.
Peters v. Juneau-Douglas Girl Scout Council 一 In determining the exclusive character of possession, the character and locality of the property and the uses and purposes for which it is naturally adopted are considered. Casual and occasional trespasses on the land by a stranger generally do not interrupt the continuity of adverse possession. Finally, hostility of possession means that the possessor must use and enjoy the property continuously for the required period as the average owner would use it, without the consent of the true owner.
McCarty v. Sheets 一 While maintenance activities in a residential area are a factor in a property dispute, standing alone, they are not sufficient to support a divesture of property based upon adverse possession.
Mendonca v. Cities Service Oil Corp. 一 Continuity of possession was broken when the true owner of the contested property removed fences on the property and used it for three or four weeks to store building materials and equipment.
Ennis v. Stanley 一 When the possession is up to a fixed boundary under a mistake as to the true line, and the intention of the parties is to hold only to the true line, such possession is not hostile and will not ripen into title.
Mannillo v. Gorski 一 Any entry and possession for the required time that is exclusive, continuous, uninterrupted, visible, and notorious, even though it is under mistaken claim of title, is sufficient to support a claim of title by adverse possession.
Belotti v. Bickhardt 一 All that is necessary to make an adverse possession effectual for the statutory period by successive persons is that such possession be continued by an unbroken chain of privity between the adverse possessors.
Fallon v. Davidson 一 Until an actual ouster of co-tenants had been established by conduct apart from mere use and occupation of the land, the statute giving rise to a claim of adverse possession did not begin to run.
Conveyances and Types of Property Interests
The process of conveying an interest in real estate usually involves a purchase and sale agreement. However, forming a contract does not transfer title immediately. Ownership of the property is transferred when the deed is delivered to the buyer, which usually occurs at the real estate closing.
Metzger v. Miller 一 A contract concerning real property need not be in any particular form. A letter is a sufficient memorandum of an agreement related to such property to avoid the statute of frauds.
Hayes v. Hayes 一 To take a parol grant or gift of land out of the statute of frauds, there must be not only acceptance but also such a performance in the way of making valuable improvements as would make it substantial injustice or fraud to hold the grant or gift void under the statute.
Micklethwait v. Fulton 一 An escrow deed that was wrongfully delivered and recorded before the performance of the conditions of the escrow is a valid deed of conveyance as to third parties who innocently renew or extend credit to the grantee in reliance on their record ownership of the property.
Hood v. Webster 一 When a deed is held in escrow, but another party is granted the property by another deed and records that deed before the conditions of escrow are met, the party who was granted the property by the deed in escrow may annul the later deed.
Storke v. Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co. 一 A breach of a condition subsequent does not revest title in the original grantor or their heirs. Re-entry is necessary to revest title, and a court will not aid a forfeiture when no right of re-entry is provided in the covenant.
Browning v. Sacrison 一 When a devise is made to a life tenant with a remainder conditioned on an ambiguous form of survivorship, the intent “commonly prevalent among conveyors similarly situated” is deemed to require that the remainderman survive the life tenant rather than the testator.
Ryan v. Beshk 一 The intention to be sought in the construction of a will is what is expressed by the language of the will, rather than what may be presumed by inference to have been in the mind of the testator. Also, a contingent remainder is a remainder limited to take effect in possession on an event that may not happen until after the termination of the particular estate.
Holbrook v. Holbrook 一 When a state has abolished joint tenancy, language purporting to create a joint tenancy creates concurrent estates for life with contingent remainders in the life tenants, the remainder to vest in the survivor.
A tenant receives a possessory interest in property, while the landlord retains an interest expressed by rent. A landlord can regain possession if the tenant fails to pay rent or violates other terms of the lease. Some leases grant possession for a fixed time, while others may continue indefinitely unless they are terminated.
Lemle v. Breeden 一 In the lease of a dwelling, there is an implied warranty of habitability and fitness for the use intended. Since a lease is essentially a contractual relationship, remedies available to a tenant for a breach are the contract remedies of damages, reformation, and rescission.
Hilder v. St. Peter 一 In the rental of any residential dwelling unit, an implied warranty exists in the lease, whether oral or written, that the landlord will deliver over and maintain premises that are safe, clean, and fit for human habitation. This warranty of habitability is implied in tenancies for a specific period or at will.
Reste Realty Corp. v. Cooper 一 Any act or omission of the landlord or of anyone who acts under authority or legal right from the landlord, or of someone having superior title to that of the landlord, which renders the premises substantially unsuitable for the purpose for which they are leased, or which seriously interferes with the beneficial enjoyment of the premises, is a breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment and constitutes a constructive eviction of the tenant.
Javins v. First National Realty Corp. 一 The traditional no-repair rule cannot coexist with the obligations imposed on a landlord by a modern housing code, and this rule must be abandoned in favor of an implied warranty of habitability.
Pennell v. City of San Jose 一 Preventing unreasonable rent increases caused by a city housing shortage is a legitimate exercise of the police powers of the city government.
Braschi v. Stahl Assocs. Co. 一 When an ordinance prohibits a landlord from dispossessing a family member of a deceased tenant who was living with the tenant, “family” should be defined to include a same-sex partner of the tenant.
Easements, Covenants, and Nuisance
Sometimes a property owner holds rights regarding property owned by someone else. An easement usually makes a grant of a right, while a covenant provides a promise to do or not do something. Meanwhile, a nuisance occurs when someone else uses their property in a way that significantly undermines a property owner's use and enjoyment of their property.
Waldrop v. Town of Brevard 一 A covenant or agreement may operate as a grant of an easement if it is necessary to give it that effect to carry out the manifest intention of the parties.
Cox v. Glenbrook Co. 一 The extent of an easement created by conveyance is fixed by the conveyance, if it is clear and unambiguous. When the width is not specified, the conveying instrument must be construed in light of the facts and circumstances existing at its date and affecting the property, the intention of the parties being the object of inquiry. Also, the owner of an easement may prepare, maintain, improve, or repair the way in a manner and to an extent reasonably calculated to promote the purposes for which it was created. However, they may not cause an undue burden on the servient estate or an unwarranted interference with the independent rights of others who have a similar right of use.
Charping v. J.P. Scurry & Co., Inc. 一 The burden of showing that restrictions in a deed are covenants running with the land is on the party claiming the benefit of the restrictions. There must be an indication that the parties who imposed the restrictions intended for the covenant to run with the land.
VanSant v. Rose 一 The right to enjoin the breach of restrictive covenants does not depend on whether the covenantee will be damaged by the breach, nor on whether they own other land in the vicinity.
Streams Sports Club Ltd. v. Richmond 一 A third-party beneficiary of a contract between the original developer of a condominium complex and the condominium owners could enforce its rights under the contract.
Werner v. Graham 一 Parties who desire to create mutual rights in real property must say so in the written instruments exchanged between them that constitute the final expression of their understanding.
Riley v. Bear Creek Planning Committee 一 From the recordation of the first deed that imposes restrictions on the land conveyed and the land retained by the common grantor, the restrictions are binding on all subsequent grantees of affected parcels who take with notice of the restrictions, even if similar clauses are omitted from their deeds. Acknowledgment and recording of a declaration of restrictions by a grantor after a conveyance to another party will not affect property in which the grantor no longer has an interest.
Sanborn v. McLean 一 Reciprocal negative easements arise out of a benefit accorded land retained, by restrictions upon neighboring land sold by a common owner. Such a scheme of restrictions must start with a common owner; it cannot arise and fasten upon one lot by reason of other lot owners conforming to a general plan.
Snow v. Van Dam 一 The existence of a scheme for restricting the lots in a tract undergoing development to obtain substantial uniformity in building and use may be used to show an intention that the restrictions imposed upon the several lots shall be appurtenant to every other lot in the tract included in the scheme.
Russell Realty Co. v. Hall 一 Purchasers’ rights under restrictive covenants are circumscribed and confined by the territorial limits of the plat with reference to which the purchasers bought.
Rhue v. Cheyenne Homes, Inc. 一 A covenant requiring the approval of the architectural committee before the erection of a house in a subdivision is enforceable.
Davis v. Huey 一 Covenants requiring submission of plans and prior consent before construction are valid insofar as they furnish adequate notice to the property owner of the specific restriction sought to be enforced.
Ginsberg v. Yeshiva of Far Rockaway 一 Unless the character of the neighborhood has so changed as to defeat the object and purposes for which the restrictions were imposed, a restrictive covenant is enforceable against a party that purchased the restricted lot with knowledge of the covenant.
Camelback Del Este Homeowners Ass’n v. Warner 一 The test for determining whether restrictive covenants should be enforced is whether or not the conditions have changed so much that it is impossible to secure in a substantial degree the benefits intended to be secured by the covenants. The court must consider the overall relation of the various lots and not merely decide whether it may be in the best interest of particular lot owners in a subdivision to be absolved from the operation of restrictive covenants.
Morgan v. High Penn Oil Co. 一 A private nuisance exists in a legal sense when one makes an improper use of his own property and in that way injures the land or some incorporeal right of one's neighbor. A person who intentionally creates or maintains a private nuisance is liable for the resulting injury to others, regardless of the degree of care or skill exercised by him to avoid such injury.
Prah v. Maretti 一 Private nuisance law has the flexibility to protect both a landowner’s right of access to sunlight and another landowner’s right to develop land.
Boomer v. Atlantic Cement Co. 一 When there is a large disparity in economic consequences between allowing a nuisance and granting an injunction, a court may grant the injunction conditioned on the payment of permanent damages.
Spur Industries, Inc. v. Del E. Webb Development Co. 一 When the operation of a business is lawful in the first instance but becomes a nuisance by reason of a nearby residential area, the operation of the business may be enjoined in an action brought by the developer of the residential area. However, the developer of a completely new town or urban area in a previously agricultural area may be required to indemnify the operator of the business who must move or cease operation because of the presence of the residential area created by the developer.
Each state has enacted zoning enabling legislation for municipalities, although constitutional limits still apply. Zoning allows a local government to control land use. Zoning must not be arbitrary, unreasonable, or capricious, and it should not be retroactive.
Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. 一 A zoning ordinance is not unconstitutional unless it is clearly arbitrary and unreasonable, having no substantial relation to public health, safety, morals, or general welfare.
Nectow v. City of Cambridge 一 The inclusion of private land in a residential district under a zoning ordinance, with resulting inhibition of its use for business and industrial buildings to the serious damage of the owner, violates the Fourteenth Amendment if the health, safety, convenience, or general welfare of the part of the city affected will not be promoted as a result.
Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas 一 The police power is not confined to elimination of filth, stench, and unhealthy places. It is ample to lay out zones where family values, youth values, and the blessings of quiet seclusion and clean air make the area a sanctuary for people.
Pierro v. Baxendale 一 Once selections of particular uses that are congruous in residential zones are made and duly embodied in a zoning ordinance, these selections will not be nullified except upon an affirmative showing that the action taken by the municipal officials was unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious.
Town of Preble v. Song Mountain, Inc. 一 Procedures set forth in zoning statutes must be strictly followed, but only a departure in substance from the formula prescribed by law vitiates the proceedings.
State ex rel. Stoyanoff v. Berkeley 一 Courts will not substitute their judgments for a city’s legislative body if the result is not oppressive, arbitrary, or unreasonable and does not infringe upon a valid pre-existing non-conforming use.
Anderson v. City of Issaquah 一 A design review ordinance must contain workable guidelines. Too broad a discretion permits determinations based on whim, caprice, or subjective considerations.
Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Mt. Laurel (Mt. Laurel I) 一 A municipality must presumptively make realistically possible an appropriate variety and choice of housing. It must affirmatively afford an opportunity for low and moderate income housing to the extent of its fair share of the present and prospective regional need for this housing.
Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Mt. Laurel (Mt. Laurel II) 一 A builder’s remedy generally will be granted when a developer has acted in good faith, attempted to obtain relief without litigation, and thereafter vindicated the constitutional obligation in Mount Laurel-type litigation. The proposed project must include an appropriate portion of low and moderate income housing, and it must be located and designed in accordance with sound zoning and planning concepts, including its environmental impact.
Hills Development Co. v. Bernards 一 When the governor and the legislature substantially occupied the field of enforcing the Mount Laurel doctrine, this response was entitled to deference from courts.
The government cannot take private property for public use without providing just compensation. A physical taking occurs when the government physically invades the property and destroys its present use. A regulatory taking frustrates investment-backed expectations, preventing an economically beneficial or productive use of the property.
Miller v. Schoene 一 When forced to make the choice, the state does not exceed its constitutional powers by deciding upon the destruction of one class of property in order to save another which, in the judgment of the legislature, is of greater value to the public.
Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City 一 There is no set formula for determining when justice and fairness require that economic losses caused by public action be compensated by the government. Factors to consider include the economic impact of the regulation on the property owner, the extent to which the regulation interferes with distinct investment-backed expectations, and the character of the government action.
Loretto v. Teleprompter Manhattan CATV Corp. 一 When the character of a governmental action is a permanent physical occupation of property, there is a taking to the extent of the occupation regardless of whether the action achieves an important public benefit or has only a minimal economic impact on the owner.
Keystone Bituminous Coal Ass’n v. DeBenedictis 一 Since mine operators retained the right to mine virtually all the coal in their mineral estates, a burden placed on the support estate did not constitute a taking. (The support estate is not a separate segment of property for takings law purposes.)
Hodel v. Irving 一 While the government has broad authority to adjust the rules governing the descent and devise of property, the complete abolition of both the descent and devise of a particular class of property may be a taking.
Dolan v. City of Tigard 一 It must be determined whether an essential nexus exists between a legitimate state interest and the permit condition. If one does, it must be decided whether the degree of the exactions demanded by the permit conditions bears the required relationship to the projected impact of the proposed development. In deciding the second question, the necessary connection is “rough proportionality.”
Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council 一 When the state seeks to sustain regulation that deprives land of all economically beneficial use, it may resist compensation only if the logically antecedent inquiry into the nature of the owner’s estate shows that the proscribed use interests were not part of their title at the outset. A total taking inquiry entails an analysis of the following factors: the degree of harm to public lands and resources, or adjacent private property, posed by the claimant’s proposed activities; the social value of the claimant’s activities and their suitability to the locality in question; and the relative ease with which the alleged harm can be avoided through measures taken by the claimant and the government (or adjacent private landowners) alike.
Palazzolo v. Rhode Island 一 A Penn Central claim is not barred by the mere fact that the property owner acquired title after the effective date of the state-imposed restriction.
Murr v. Wisconsin 一 In determining the denominator of the takings inquiry, a court must consider the treatment of the land under state and local law, the physical characteristics of the land, and the prospective value of the regulated land. The endeavor should determine whether reasonable expectations about property ownership would lead a landowner to anticipate that their holdings would be treated as one parcel or as separate tracts.
Berman v. Parker 一 It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well balanced as well as carefully patrolled. If those who govern the District of Columbia decide that the nation's capital should be beautiful as well as sanitary, there is nothing in the Fifth Amendment that stands in the way.
Knick v. Township of Scott 一 Property owners may bring Fifth Amendment claims for compensation as soon as their property has been taken, regardless of any other post-taking remedies that may be available to the property owner.
Horne v. Dept. of Agriculture 一 The Fifth Amendment requires that the government pay just compensation when it takes personal property, just as when it takes real property.
Equal Protection, Due Process, and Property
The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits state action to enforce discriminatory property covenants. Meanwhile, the Due Process Clause may apply to situations that involve property interests outside the scope of the Takings Clause.
Shelley v. Kraemer 一 Private agreements to exclude persons of a designated race or color from the use or occupancy of real estate for residential purposes do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, but it is violative of the Equal Protection Clause for state courts to enforce them.
Barrows v. Jackson 一 The Fourteenth Amendment bars the enforcement of a covenant forbidding the use and occupancy of real estate by non-Caucasians by an action at law in a state court to recover damages from a co-covenantor for a breach of the covenant.
Flemming v. Nestor 一 Particularly when dealing with a withholding of a non-contractual benefit under a social welfare program, the Due Process Clause interposes a bar only if the statute manifests a patently arbitrary classification, utterly lacking rational justification.
Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill 一 While the legislature may elect not to confer a property interest in public employment, it may not constitutionally authorize the deprivation of such an interest, once conferred, without appropriate procedural safeguards.
The Right to Exclude and Constitutional Freedoms
A property owner typically holds a right to prevent certain people from entering their property and prevent certain activities there. However, the First Amendment and state constitutional provisions related to the freedom of speech and association may clash with this right.
Jacque v. Steenberg Homes, Inc. 一 Both the private landowner and society have much more than a nominal interest in excluding others from private land. Thus, nominal damages may support a punitive damages award in an action for intentional trespass to land.
State v. Shack 一 Rights in real property are not absolute, and private or public necessity may justify entry upon the lands of another party.
Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins 一 State constitutional provisions, as construed to permit people reasonably to exercise free speech and petition rights on the property of a privately owned shopping center to which the public is invited, do not violate the property rights or the free speech rights of the shopping center owner under the U.S. Constitution.
Marsh v. Alabama 一 A state cannot impose criminal penalties for distributing religious literature on the sidewalk of a company town contrary to regulations of the town management, when the town and its shopping district are accessible to the general public.
Lloyd Corp., Ltd. v. Tanner 一 A shopping center does not lose its private character merely because the public is generally invited to use it for the purpose of doing business with the tenants of the center.
State v. Schmid 一 Restrictions on private property to accommodate the rights of speech and assembly require considering the nature, purposes, and primary use of the property, as well as the extent and nature of the public’s invitation to use the property and the purpose of the expressional activity undertaken on the property in relation to the private and public use of the property.
Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid 一 The right to exclude is a fundamental element of the property right. A regulation granting labor organizations a right to take access to an agricultural employer’s property to solicit support for unionization was a per se physical taking.
People and entities can hold property in intangible ideas rather than land. Common types of intellectual property include patents, copyrights, and trademarks, each of which is regulated by the government.
International News Service v. Associated Press 一 When a business gathers news with effort and expense for the purpose of lucrative publication, the business has a quasi-property in the results of its enterprise as against a rival in the same business, and the appropriation of those results at the expense and to the damage of one and for the profit of the other is unfair competition.
Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc. 一 The originality requirement of copyright necessitates independent creation plus a modicum of creativity. Although a compilation of facts may possess the requisite originality because the author typically chooses which facts to include, in which order to place them, and how to arrange the data so that readers may use them effectively, copyright protection extends only to those components of the work that are original to the author.
This outline has been compiled by the Justia team for solely educational purposes and should not be treated as an independent source of legal authority or a summary of the current state of the law. Students should use this outline as a supplement rather than a substitute for course-specific outlines.