Miller v. Lutheran Conference & Camp Assoc. Case Brief

Summary of Miller v. Lutheran Conference & Camp Assoc., Supreme Ct. of PA (1938)

Parties: Katherine Miller is the owner of said lake property through first assignment then reacquired after a failed mortgage through a fieri facias sale; DF church is the licensee of property.

Cause of action/remedy sought: The following is an equitable action for injunction.

Procedural History: Trial court issued the injunction. This court affirms, with costs.

Facts: PL Frank formed a company with brother Rufus and other area residents to dam off the water and sell the rights to swim, ski, and bathe in the water (and sell ice) back in 1899. Rufus had one-quarter interest in the land. Rufus died, and his subsequent executors and heirs sold a license to DF in 1929 to use the said waters for skiing, swimming, boating and bathing. However, PL failed on his obligation to pay the mortgage, resulting in a seizure of the property. The property was sold through a foreclosure sale to Katherine Miller, who claimed the rights to the bathing were never granted to anyone originally, b/c the original mortgage failed, which included the first assignment to Rufus.

Further PL contends if there ever were a right to bathing which vested in Frank, it would have been as an easement in gross (see below). DF contends that the 1899 deed should have been construed as transferring the bathing as well as the boating and fishing privileges, but that if Frank did not obtain them by grant he and Rufus acquired them by prescription, and thus all their rights were alienable and divisible.

Issue(s): Under PA property law, does the assignee of a easement in real property have the right to further assign rights in another assignee who takes to those same rights?

Holding: No. The assignee cannot divide the assignment in an easement in gross; instead he must share them. So, Rufus and the church had to share the land alike. One cannot convey a share in the common right.

Court’s Rationale/Reasoning: They said a person could gain title by prescription of certain rights. The fact that no one raised an objection to the Miller’s bathing in the water for the statutory period gave them title by prescription to those rights.

The court, after looking through much of the case for the rule to follow, then looked to the intent of the parties in the original conveyance. It was never Frank’s intent to grant, or Rufus’ to receive, a separate right to subdivide and sublicense the activities on the lake. It was however their intent to share in the business together (3/4 and 1/4 interest). They were, as Mountjoy Doctrine said, “as one stock.”

Thus, Frank acquired title to the boating and fishing privileges by grant and he and Rufus got rights to the bathing by prescription. Frank made a valid assignment of 1/4 interest to Rufus, but they cannot be used and licenses under that assignment without the agreement of both Frank and Rufus (acting as one stock).

Rule: Doctrine of Mountjoy: If an assignee decides to assign his rights further, he “must assign his whole interest to one, two, or more; but then if there be two or more, they could make no division of it, but work together with one stock.”

(the right of a grantee may be assigned, but if to more than one person, the two parties must work together)

Did court avoid issues?: No.

Dicta: There is no inexorable principle of law which forbids an adverse enjoyment of an easement in gross from ripening into a title thereto by prescription.

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