May 2013 Bar Bulletin

A New Framework:

Depicting Appellate Courts, Facts and Results

By Robert W. Zierman


Last month's article provided a theoretical framework for representing and depicting case merits.1 Though its presentation related to adverse possession, it was posited that its approach could extend to other arenas of law.

The challenge taken up in this article is to link the overall framework provided in that article by using both a Likert scale of 1-5 and 3D representation to tackle a limited sample of information in the examined cases2 as provided below.

The list (see Figure 1) starts with Chaplin v. Sanders, a 1984 Washington Supreme Court case which eliminated "subjective intent" (aka, "good faith") as a required element when determining adverse possession for the 10-year statutory period per RCW 4.16.020.

The list then seeks to identify all other adverse possession cases with 10-year statutory periods in which the appellate court analyzed the number (and nature) of the facts in the respective cases subsequently decided to identify sufficiency. Including Chaplin, 22 different cases were analyzed and three of those cases had separate sufficiency components, bringing the total analytical set up to 26.3

Beyond date and case citation,4 each case is further identified by its appellate court, land type, number of facts and disposition regarding adverse possession. While not providing an overwhelming degree of information, culling patterns from this black-and-white chart is not obvious for most individuals.

This is where using some of the tools applied to big data - particularly by Seattle's own Tableau Software5 - can greatly assist. Despite that potential assistance, graphic designer Curtis Dickie was again called upon to create two sample "visualizations" to demonstrate how graphical representation of cases can increase understanding and predictive ability.

These visualizations allow analysis of four fact categories: court (the first visualization) and land type (the second visualization); case date;6 number of facts, and dispositive strength or weakness. Here, dispositive strength needs clarification.

This dispositive strength for the one claiming adverse possession is illustrated by a legend titled "AP Holding Strength" (see Figure 2). This legend assists to demonstrate how the use of color adds another variable in a manner that makes the visualizations below operate essentially in 3D. In the mind's eye, rotate 90 degrees along the middle axis line such that green is in the foreground and the red is in the background.

Exact definition of terms is soon presented. For now though, know that dark green equals a "Big Win;" light green equals a "Win;" gray equals a remanded case; light red equals a "Loss;" and dark red equals a "Big Loss." The total result of this colorful "3D" presentation is a depiction of use on a 1-5 Likert scale.

Proceeding to first analyze the "court visualization" (see Figure 3), the two Supreme Court cases - because of their definitive determination by the state's highest court - are both represented as an extremely "Big Win" with Chaplin v. Sanders (1984) and an extremely "Big Loss" with ITT Rayonier, Inc. v. Bell (1989). "Big Wins" and "Big Losses" for the various appellate divisions are also represented in dark green and dark red, respectively. These occur when the trial court's summary judgment ruling was upheld.

Nickell v. Southview Homeowners Assoc. (2012) was a remanded case and is presented in gray. All other cases went all the way to trial and were upheld or the trial court's holding was overturned by the Court of Appeals.

In this first visualization, the number of facts descends for each of the courts. Though the sample size is not huge, this is where some analysis of overall differences can be performed.

Moving past the two Supreme Court decisions and the single remand, all the division courts granted adverse possession when at least four facts were present - a total of 11 case situations.7 On the other hand, when there are only three demonstrative facts, an adverse possession claim becomes a risky proposition. There are six winning adverse possession cases offset by five losing cases. Though the sample set is admittedly too small, reduced to pure statistics this suggests adverse possessors with three or fewer facts demonstrating sufficiency have a mere 50/50 chance of prevailing.

Moving to the second "land visualization" (see Figure 4) again allows an analysis of four fact categories: land type, case date, number of facts and dispositive strength. However, in this visualization, instead of listing the number of facts in descending order, they are ordered by dispositive case strength for the adverse possession claimant from strong to weak.

Here, one can readily "see" that a city land case with three or more facts will generally allow an adverse possessor to prevail. However, the remanded case jumps out, too. In preparing a case, one might decide that it would be a good idea to take a look at this remanded case to further understand its disposition and possible implications for the client's case.

Cases involving exurban lands also follow a typical pattern - any case with four or more facts supporting adverse possession consistently wins. While a single fact allowed a win in Shelton v. Strickland (2001.04.30) - in that it involved a shed built on the property line - it was a rather significant fact. All the other cases are failures for the adverse possession claimant.

These two bounds are significant macro-jurisprudential insights that likely are normally lost on practitioners with little adverse possession/quiet title experience. However, this one visualization allows this penetrating insight to be culled by practitioners having no experience in this legal arena in a matter of minutes.

Continuing, for an agricultural case with fairly sparse facts, one would likely want to compare and contrast Roy v. Cunningham (1986.12.30); Crites v. Koch (1987.08.06); and Thor v. McDearmid (1991.10.10). For a timber lands case, one would immediately seek to check out Bryant v. Palmer Coking Coal Company (1997).

This visualization is rounded off with what appears to be an inversion. Here, the Supreme Court handed the adverse possessor in ITT Rayioner a loss despite four (slight) facts, whereas one (ground) fact was all that was necessary to secure a win in Stokes v. Kummer (1997.04.10).8

The minutia of all this might seem irrelevant because these cases are very specific in scope. Yet that's the whole point. Imagine if all of this research had been done for cases in those areas of law in which the reader practices. Wouldn't that information tremendously increase research efficiency?

The ability to "drill down" on very specific information is the direction that data visualization is advancing in other fields. In law, this approach currently takes considerable upfront effort.

Notwithstanding, it is very likely that law will also be advanced by reducing cases and their content to more readily recognizable and manipulative forms of data. These and other data visualization techniques will then allow greater "macro-micro" insights; ease of relating predictive information to visually thinking clients; and perhaps even increase legal access to clients who speak languages other than English.

Robert W. Zierman is the principal attorney of Justice Smiles, pllc, a firm that primarily assists clients in resolving disputes with their neighbors. Zierman authors a blog on these topics at: He can be contacted at

The icons and depictions produced here are the property of Robert W. Zierman, Attorney at Law, pllc (dba Justice Smiles, pllc) and are provided for use by the King County Bar Association Bar Bulletin with express consent. Additional use may legitimately be made only with the written consent of Robert W. Zierman.

1 See

2 Three cases - Bryant v. Palmer Coking Coal Company (1997.05.05), Maier v. Giske (2010.01.04), and Lloyd v. Montecucco (1996.10.18) - have 2, 3 and 2 respective components of analysis contained within their content, which is broken out as if they were separate cases.

3 See id.

4 The author expresses his apology to citation purists. The program used to design the graphs does not readily allow italic type for the case names.

5 See

6 Space restrictions required truncation of cases to this more condensed level of information.

7 The four facts in ITT Rayonier, Inc. v. Bell (1989.06.15) were so slight that their aggregate effect might be the equivalent of one or two facts as represented in most of the other cases.

8 ITT Rayonier was argued by a timber company and as such might actually be better identified as a timber lands case. Regardless, the land at issue appears to have been in a remote location.

Figure 1. Adverse Possession cases

Figure 2. AP Holding Strength

Figure 3. Court Visualization

Figure 4. Land Visualization


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