In the recent Washington Court of Appeals case of Buchheit v. Geiger, property owners tried to prevent a neighbor from crossing over their lakeside lot with an antiharassment order.  The neighbor began using the lakeside lot without the owners’ permission, by attaching a floating dock to the lot, storing personal items on it, and walking across the owners’ lot to the dock.  The neighbor claimed that he had a right to use the lot through an easement.

Instead of filing a quiet title or ejectment lawsuit, which could take months to resolve, the property owners instead sought an antiharassment order under chapter 10.14 RCW, alleging that the neighbor was trespassing, and that he was intimidating and aggressive.  The lower court issued the order, and the neighbor appealed the order to the court of appeals.

The court of appeals found that the purpose of an antiharassment order is to provide victims with a speedy and inexpensive method of preventing unwanted contact between parties.  But the applicable statute also states that an antiharassment order cannot prohibit one from using or enjoying real property if that person has a “cognizable” claim to use the property.  The neighbor based his claim of easement on a poorly drafted document that the trial court found did not give him a right to use the owners’ lot.  The court of appeals was faced with the issue of defining “cognizable claim” to determine whether the trial court had the authority to issue an antiharassment order in this case.  If the neighbor had a cognizable claim to use the property, the court did not have the authority to issue the order, and the case would have to be resolved through more traditional methods, such as a quiet title, trespass, and ejection action.

Based on another statute, the court of appeals defined “cognizable claim” as one in which “it is possible that facts could be established that would support relief.”  The neighbor did not need to show that he would likely prevail in establishing his right to use the owners’ land, only that it was possible that he would prevail if certain facts were established.  The court of appeals further noted that the antiharassment statute is not well suited to resolving these factual and legal issues, so that it was not appropriate for the trial court to resolve an easement dispute by way of a speedy remedy under the antiharassment statute.

As a takeaway, the fact that there was a document that purportedly created an easement seems to factor into the court of appeals’ decision.  Antiharassment orders in other real property disputes should still be considered, especially in cases in which there is not enough documentation to support a cognizable claim.