NPC OFFICES, LLC v. WILLIAM KOWALESKI et al., SC 19408
Judicial District of Middlesex
Easements; Whether Termination of Easement Barred by Doctrine of Disproportionate Forfeiture; Whether Premises Used for Purposes Other than "Professional Offices." The parties own adjoining commercial properties in Middletown that are separated by a driveway leading to a parking area. The driveway is located on the defendants' property. A 1960 agreement between the previous owners of the properties provided for a right-of-way over the driveway for the benefit of the plaintiff's property. The agreement provided that the easement would terminate if the plaintiff's property was used for purposes other than residential uses or professional offices. After a dispute arose over the use of the driveway, the plaintiff brought this quiet title action. The defendants counterclaimed, asking the court to find that the easement had terminated because the plaintiff's property had been used by a mortgage brokerage, a home health care agency and an appliance delivery coordination service. The trial court concluded that the operation of those businesses constituted use of the property for purposes other than residential uses or professional offices, thus terminating the easement. The Appellate Court (152 Conn. App. 445) affirmed the judgment, upholding the finding that the plaintiff’s property was used for nonresidential purposes or professional offices in violation of the easement. The court looked to the dictionary definitions of the words "professional" and "office" and determined that the unambiguous meaning of "professional office" as used in the agreement is a place where business is conducted or services are performed by persons who belong to a learned profession or whose occupation requires a high level of training and proficiency. The court ruled that the businesses at issue here did not qualify as professional offices, as a high level of training and proficiency was not required for their operation. The Appellate Court also rejected the plaintiff's claim that the trial court should have concluded that termination of the easement was barred by the doctrine of disproportionate forfeiture. Under that doctrine, a contracting party, in appropriate circumstances and despite his or her default, may be entitled to relief from the rigorous enforcement of contract provisions that would otherwise amount to a forfeiture. The court noted that the doctrine has been applied by Connecticut’s appellate courts almost exclusively in the insurance context to avoid a loss of coverage due to an insured's failure to comply with the notice provisions of a policy. In that context, unless the insurer has been prejudiced by the untimely notice, courts consider such relief to be warranted since insurance contracts are contracts of adhesion and coverage would otherwise be lost despite the dutiful payment of insurance premiums. The court found that the doctrine was not applicable here because there was no evidence that the easement terms resulted from a lack of bargaining power and because the benefit of the easement had been received for several decades before its termination. Further, the court decided that prejudice is not a proper consideration in the context of express easements. The Supreme Court will now decide whether the Appellate Court properly affirmed the trial court's judgment based upon its conclusions that (1) the doctrine of disproportionate forfeiture does not apply in this matter and (2) the premises had been used for purposes other than "professional offices."