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Carlson v. Latvian Lutheran Church of Boston & Vicinity Patrons: The New Hampshire Supreme Court Addresses Standing To Enforce Rights In A Shared Easement

By Jonathan M. Boutin

This case, decided September 21, 2017, prompted analysis of standing to bring a declaratory judgment action under RSA 491:22. 

The underlying dispute involved two parties that held similar easements allowing them use of a third party’s driveway to access the lakefront.  The owner of the property was no longer a party to the suit in the appeal.  The trial court found that the defendant, Latvian Lutheran Exile Church did not have a use right, but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling finding that the plaintiff, Carolyn Carlson (as trustee) did not have standing to bring the action in the first instance. 

The Court found that a party must show that some right has been “impaired or prejudiced” to bring a declaratory judgment under RSA 491:21, I.  In reaching its holding, the Court relied on Duncan v. State, 166 NH 630, 645 (2014), which held that “the claims raised must be definite and concrete touching the legal relation of parties having adverse interests… .” [Emphasis supplied.]  The Court held that, since neither party had an exclusive right to use the driveway and the Church had not interfered with Carlson’s right to use the driveway, the claimed interests were not inherently adverse.  The Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Carlson’s quiet title petition due to lack of standing to bring that claim. 

This ruling will impact future litigation in land use cases where it potentially blocks litigants from seeking a declaratory judgment to resolve the rights or obligations of the parties where the parties share a non-exclusive easement and where neither party interfered with the other’s rights.