Statute of Frauds Applies to Easement Modifications

Recorded easements are subject to the statute of frauds and cannot be modified without a subsequent writing, proclaimed Ohio’s Tenth District Court of Appeals in a recent Decision in a hotly contested commercial real estate dispute.  Tower 10 LLC v. 10 W Broad Owner LLC, 2020-Ohio-3554.  In Tower 10, the owners of adjacent Downtown Columbus high-rise buildings entered into a written Declaration that granted “easements and cross easements” through pedestrian skywalks and internal passageways, to facilitate access by tenants and guests of both buildings to an attached parking complex.  The written Declaration specified that the pedestrian pathways would “be maintained open at all times during normal business hours … or at such other times as agreed to by the parties.”  The building owners also verbally agreed to create a keycard system that allowed certain individuals to access the pedestrian pathways on a 24/7 basis, and that understanding was in place for over 30 years.  But in 2011, one of those buildings was sold, and the new owner limited the keycard holder access to “normal business hours” only.  The owner of the adjoining building sued to restore 24/7 access for its keycard holders, and obtained temporary and preliminary injunctive relief and summary judgment in its favor.  The trial court concluded that keycard holders had “an express easement” to 24/7 access, even though that was not specifically stated in the written Declaration.

The Court of Appeals reversed, instead deciding that the parties’ agreement on the keycard system only amounted to a license, and did not grant a permanent easement for 24/7 access.  Because the building owners’ agreement had never been reduced to writing or recorded as a modification to the written Declaration, it “could not modify the rights granted in the Declaration.”

The Tower 10 Decision serves as a reminder that any modification of real property rights and interests should be memorialized in writing, preferably with the help of legal counsel.  Even decades of joint performance under a verbal agreement might not be enough to satisfy Ohio’s legal standard for creating or modifying an easement or changing real property rights that are stated in some instrument in the public records.