MONIQUE R. FARLEY, JOHN N. MEEHAN, MARCIA J. MEEHAN, PATRICK S.
O'HARA, EMILY C. O'HARA, ALEXIS G. BLANCHARD, WILLIAM J. LEE,
MILLIE L. LEE, MONTY R. WILLIS, LUZ M. WILLIS, and GEORGE D.
PHILLIPS, Plaintiffs, v. LARRY HOLLER, SHARON Y. HOLLER, ROBERT
E. LEE, JR., JANE D. LEE, THERON LEVON McLAMB, LARRY C. LEWIS,
BECKY LEWIS, VICTOR A. ARMSTRONG, JUNE J. ARMSTRONG, CHARLES E.
RUMBLEY, PATRICIA D. RUMBLEY, CURTIS NORTHROP STRANGE, SARA JONES
STRANGE, DAVID T. UPCHURCH, LYNN UPCHURCH, JANICE F. BYNUM, RANDY
GREGORY, MICHELLE GREGORY, RICHARD S. GLADWELL, JR., ROBERT T.
MONK, JR., RICHARD V. WILKINS, AWNI M. HAMAD, THURAIA A. HAMAD,
JACK KELLEY NELSON, JOLENE LOUISE NELSON, MARVIN MILLER, GLENDA
MILLER, TERENCE P. McLAUGHLIN, SHARON MEALOR McLAUGHLIN, ANTHONY
M. HASLAM, LYNN B. HASLAM, CARLTON S. ASHBY, JR., CORA B. ASHBY,
V. DIXON PROPERTIES, LLC, MANLEY EDWARD McLAWHORN, JOHN G. EAGAN,
ELLEN S. EAGAN, CHARLES A. RIDGWAY, VIVAIN RIDGWAY, HUNTER B.
HADLEY, III, DIANE HADLEY, ROBERT S. DAVES, LYNN A. DAVES,
WILLIAM S. SMITH, SR., LAURA T. SMITH, NIKKI L. WHITLEY, and MART
L. BELL, INC., Defendants
Filed: 7 August 2007
Laches_action on the closing of a road_summary judgment
The trial court did not err by granting summary judgment for defendants on their claim of
laches in an action arising from the closing of a road in a subdivision where the undisputed facts
showed a delay of 9 years in bringing the claim, $100,000 spent to repair the street one year
before the claim was brought, and the purchase and sale of properties in the subdivision. These
facts satisfy all of the conditions for laches.
Appeal by plaintiffs from judgment entered 21 August 2006 by
Judge Gary E. Trawick in Carteret County Superior Court. Heard in
the Court of Appeals 21 May 2007.
Davis, Murrelle, Lyles & Huber, P.A., by Edward L. Murrelle,
Wheatly, Wheatly, Weeks, Valentine, & Lupton, P.A., by Claud
R. Wheatly, Jr. and Claud R. Wheatly, III, for defendants-
MARTIN, Chief Judge.
Plaintiffs appeal from a judgment granting defendants' motion
for summary judgment based on the affirmative defense of laches.
Plaintiffs and defendants are all property owners in Spooners
Creek subdivision in Morehead City, North Carolina. The
subdivision was created in April 1973 when a plat, showing thirty-
five residential lots, was filed in the Carteret County Registry.
The plat showed two streets, Harbor Drive and South Spooners
Street, both of which intersected with Lands End Road. South
Spooners Street runs from Harbor Drive at its north end to Lands
End Road at its south end. All of the lots in the subdivision are
located on either Harbor Drive, South Spooners Street, or Lands End
Road. Plaintiffs' lots all have access to Harbor Drive, while
defendants' lots access either South Spooners Street or Lands End
Between 1994 and 1996, some residents of the subdivision
attempted to get all residents to sign a Road Closing Agreement
to close South Spooners Street at its south end where it intersects
with Lands End Road. Although all the residents did not sign the
agreement, the southern terminus of South Spooners Street at Lands
End Road was closed in 1996 and made into a cul-de-sac, at a cost
of approximately $18,000.00. In approximately 2004, residents on
South Spooners Street, including some of the defendants,
contributed $100,000 to resurface and repair the street, and to add
In 2005, property to the east of the subdivision, on Lands End
Road, was purchased by a developer and was rezoned for construction
of a number of multi-family homes, which increased traffic over
Harbor Drive to Lands End Road. Plaintiffs, who own lots on HarborDrive, filed this action against defendants, who own all of the
other lots in the subdivision, seeking relief in equity to reopen
South Spooners Street in order to diffuse the extra flow of traffic
to Lands End Road which the new development will bring.
complaint alleged that the closing of South Spooners
Street in 1996 was wrongful and unlawful and constitutes a
continuing trespass and nuisance on the easements and rights of
ingress and egress, which are covenants running with the land.
Defendants answered, asserting the affirmative defense of laches,
based on plaintiffs' delay of nine years in bringing this action
and defendants' alleged injury of purchasing their lots in reliance
upon the road ending in a cul-de-sac and spending $100,000 to
improve the road during the intervening time.
Both plaintiffs and defendants moved for summary judgment.
The trial court found [t]he pleadings, affidavits, and exhibits do
not show any dispute as to the facts the defendants rely on to show
laches on part of the plaintiffs, and these undisputed facts
establish plaintiffs' laches and granted defendants' motion for
A trial court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment is
reviewed de novo
as the trial court rules only on questions of
law. Coastal Plains Utils., Inc. v. New Hanover County
, 166 N.C.
App. 333, 340-41, 601 S.E.2d 915, 920 (2004). A court shall grant
a motion for summary judgment if the pleadings, depositions,
answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together withthe affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to
any material fact . . . . N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1A-1, Rule 56(c)
By their first three arguments, plaintiffs assert that the
trial court erred when it granted summary judgment based on the
finding that [t]he pleadings, affidavits, and exhibits do not show
any dispute as to the facts the defendants rely on to show laches
on part of the plaintiffs, and these undisputed facts establish
plaintiffs' laches; therefore, it is appropriate that defendants'
motion for summary judgment . . . be granted. We are guided in
our review by the following principles:
In determining whether plaintiffs' suit
is, at [the summary judgment] stage of the
proceeding, barred by the doctrine of laches,
we face a three-fold question: (1) Do the
pleadings, affidavits and exhibits show any
dispute as to the facts upon which defendants
rely to show laches on the part of plaintiffs?
(2) If not, do the undisputed facts, if true,
establish plaintiffs' laches? (3) If so, is it
appropriate that defendants' motion for
summary judgment . . . be granted?
Taylor v. City of Raleigh
, 290 N.C. 608, 621, 227 S.E.2d 576, 584
Plaintiffs first argue that the court erred in finding that
the undisputed facts established plaintiffs' laches. The
undisputed facts before the court show that (1) plaintiffs waited
approximately nine years to bring this claim, although they knew
the road had been improperly closed during that time, (2)
defendants spent $100,000 to repair the street one year before theclaim was brought, and (3) properties in the subdivision have been
bought and sold during the time the road has been closed.
To establish the affirmative defense of
laches, our case law recognizes that 1) the
doctrine applies where a delay of time has
resulted in some change in the condition of
the property or in the relations of the
parties; 2) the delay necessary to constitute
laches depends upon the facts and
circumstances of each case; however, the mere
passage of time is insufficient to support a
finding of laches; 3) the delay must be shown
to be unreasonable and must have worked to the
disadvantage, injury or prejudice of the
person seeking to invoke the doctrine of
laches; and 4) the defense of laches will only
work as a bar when the claimant knew of the
existence of the grounds for the claim.
MMR Holdings, LLC v. City of Charlotte
, 148 N.C. App. 208, 209-10,
558 S.E.2d 197, 198 (2001). The undisputed facts in the case
before us establish the existence of each of these principles.
With regard to the first principle, the undisputed facts show
that the delay of time has resulted in both a change in the
condition of the property through the $100,000 in repairs to the
street and a change in the relations of the parties through the
changing of the owners of the lots in the subdivision. With regard
to the second principle, the delay has been approximately nine
years, and although this passage of time alone is not sufficient
for finding laches, it creates an obstacle to overcome in the third
consideration: the reasonableness of the delay. We note: The
defense of laches is one frequently raised by summary judgment
motion. When it is so raised the plaintiff, of course, is
permitted to counter by showing a justification for the delay, and
whenever this assertion raises triable issues, defendant's motionwill not be granted. Taylor
, 290 N.C. at 622, 227 S.E.2d at 584
(internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Plaintiffs
offered no justification, explanation, or reason for the delay in
bringing their claim, other than the expenses associated with legal
action. However, these expenses ceased to deter plaintiffs from
bringing their claim when their incentive to reopen the street
increased. A reason more compelling than the one given would be
needed to justify a nine-year delay. With regard to the second
part of the third consideration, defendants have shown
disadvantage, injury, or prejudice where they spent $100,000 to
repair the road, believing that the traffic on the road would
continue to be minimal due to the presence of the cul-de-sac and
plaintiffs' failure to assert their claim to have it reopened. As
for the final principle, it is an undisputed fact that plaintiffs
were aware of the existence of their claim when the road was
Notwithstanding that the undisputed facts satisfy all the
conditions for laches, plaintiffs cite evidence which they claim
creates a genuine issue as to the existence of laches, including
(1) that there was no Road Closing Agreement signed by all lot
owners, (2) that the owner of the land on which the cul-de-sac was
built did not convey his interest or agree to the closure, (3) that
defendants knowingly violated the County Planning Department's
instructions regarding the appropriateness of the barrier, (4) that
many of the defendants were on notice that the road was improperly
closed when they bought their lot, and (5) that circumstanceschanged in 2005. Although this evidence may bear on the propriety
of the defendants' action, it is insufficient to negate any of the
conditions required to find laches.
Plaintiffs also suggest that the undisputed facts could not
establish laches because laches requires a change in conditions
that is substantial. See Hatfield v. Jefferson Standard Life Ins.
, 85 N.C. App. 438, 446, 355 S.E.2d 199, 203 (1987) (To
constitute laches a change in conditions must have occurred that
would render it inequitable to enforce the claim. (quoting East
Side Builders v. Brown
, 234 N.C. 517, 521, 67 S.E.2d 489, 491
(1951)). Plaintiffs' analogy to Hatfield
distinguishing characteristics. To establish the affirmative
defense of laches, our case law recognizes that . . . the doctrine
applies where a delay of time has resulted in some change in the
condition of the property or in the relations of the parties. MMR
, 148 N.C. App. at 209, 558 S.E.2d at 198. In Hatfield
the change in the condition of the property was that defendant,
believing plaintiffs did not have an easement through its alleyway,
built a wall that was one foot high and extended one foot
underground with areas for plants. Hatfield
, 85 N.C. App. at 441,
355 S.E.2d at 200. This Court found that laches did not apply in
because these changes were not substantial. Id.
355 S.E.2d at 203. In the present case, plaintiffs argue that the
barrier placed by defendants is even less substantial than the wall
. However, the barrier is not the change in condition
that establishes laches. Rather, it is the repairs made to theroad at a cost of $100,000. Accordingly, the change in condition
in the present case is substantial enough to render it inequitable
to enforce the claim. East Side Builders v. Brown
, 234 N.C. at
521, 67 S.E.2d at 491.
Plaintiffs also contend summary judgment was improper because
laches only bars plaintiffs' equitable claims; thus, their claims
in law should have survived summary judgment. See Scott Poultry
Co. v. Brian Oil Co.
, 272 N.C. 16, 22, 157 S.E.2d 693, 698 (1967)
(Ordinarily equitable defenses such as estoppel and laches are not
recognized as pleas tenable in a court of law . . . .). However,
plaintiffs sought only two remedies, either that the court grant a
mandatory injunction requiring defendants to reopen South Spooners
Street, or that the court grant plaintiffs the right to reopen the
street and enjoin defendants from interfering with the reopening or
attempting to re-close the street after it is reopened. It is
fundamental that an injunction is an equitable remedy. Pelham
Realty Corp. v. Bd. of Transp. of N.C.
, 303 N.C. 424, 431, 279
S.E.2d 826, 831 (1981). Thus, both remedies sought by plaintiffs
are equitable remedies, and the trial court did not err in
concluding that the relief sought by plaintiffs was barred by
Finally, plaintiffs argue that the doctrine of unclean hands
prevents defendants from relying on laches as a defense and bar to
plaintiffs' claims. Plaintiffs contend that, because the doctrine
of unclean hands defeats the equitable defense of equitable
estoppel, the doctrine of unclean hands should also defeat theequitable defense of laches. Plaintiffs have presented no
authority for such application of the doctrine of unclean hands,
and we find no precedent for its application to the doctrine of
laches; therefore, we reject plaintiffs' argument that the trial
court erred in failing to consider the doctrine of unclean hands.
We conclude that there is no genuine issue as to any material
fact, and the court properly granted summary judgment in favor of
Judges STEELMAN and STEPHENS concur.
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