The Supreme Court of Virginia put on a little tutorial last week on the subject of “necessary parties” to a lawsuit. It’s a smart lesson and a useful reminder that when we try a case, we have to be careful to remember to invite everyone along who needs to be there. If we don’t, our expensive and time-consuming trial may be for naught.
The Supreme Court took up this issue in Garner v. Joseph in the context of a dispute over riparian rights (i.e., water rights) in Newport News. It shouldn’t be surprising that access to waterfront property is the sort of thing people in Tidewater take seriously. The litigants in this case certainly did.
The Garners own property near, but not next to, Deep Creek in Newport News. So they could enjoy the waterfront, in 1959 the Garners acquired an easement from their neighbors, the Edwards, whose property does abut the Creek. The Garners’ easement gave them the right to cut across the Edwards’ property to the creek and to build a pier from the shoreline into Deep Creek in the Edwards’ riparian (i.e., water) right of way.
So far, so good.
In 2018, though, things got a little squirrely.
The Josephs, next door and waterfront neighbors to the Edwards, got into a boundary dispute with the Edwards. They litigated with each other for a little while but came to an agreed final judgment order that resolved the boundary dispute. Good for them, you say. What could possibly have gone wrong?
You guessed it. That deal the Edwards and the Josephs struck shifted the property line. The shift was just enough that the new line left part of the Garners’ Deep Creek pier in the Edwards’ riparian right of way and part of the pier in the Josephs’.
Since the Garners never had an agreement with Josephs for an easement, the Garners got nervous that their easement from Edwards was effectively undercut. Their pier, after all, would be on the Josephs’ property.
And what do nervous people do? They sue the people who made them nervous.
In this case, the Garners sued the Josephs, in 2019, to set aside the 2018 judgment order between Josephs and Edwards.
It’s worth pausing here for a minute to consider what a big deal it is, in Virginia, to set aside a final judgment order. Rule 1:1 of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Virginia says judgments are final after 21 days. It’s not an accident that that rule is our first rule and the deadline appears in the first sentence of that first rule. Finality is a big deal.
The Garners, though, had an argument against finality. Their argument was that the 2018 final judgment between Edwards and Josephs wasn’t final because that lawsuit was fatally flawed from the beginning.
The fatal flaw? The lawsuit, even though it affected the Garners’ right to build and use their pier, went forward in 2018 with only Edwards and Joseph participating. The Edwards and Josephs got to litigate in 2018 but the Garners weren’t invited to the proceedings.
How can it be fair, the Garners asked, to affect their property rights in a lawsuit without first including them in the lawsuit?
Short answer: it’s not.
The Supreme Court made clear, as it has in the past, that “’all persons interested in the subject matter of a suit and to be affected by its results are necessary parties.’” Joining all the necessary parties in a lawsuit is important or the courts could be saddled with proliferating lawsuits. Worse, people with rights at stake might lose them without an opportunity to be heard in the case.
Most importantly: “the judgment in a suit filed in the absence of necessary parties can be set aside as void.” Take that Rule 1:1. Skip the necessary parties and your judgment isn’t final after 21 days or 21 years.
Which is what happened in Garner v. Josephs. The 2018 “final” judgment between Edwards and Josephs wasn’t final after all. It was void. Their boundary dispute is back alive. If they want to resolve it, they’ll have to invite the Edwards to that party. They, and we, are all suitably reminded that it’s necessary to tend to the necessaries.