December 2015 Bar Bulletin
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December 2015 Bar Bulletin

Depicting Case Timelines from the Top Down

By Robert WM Zierman


Western timelines generally run left to right. This seems completely logical. Eastern timelines by contrast though have historically run top to bottom. The reason for this is due to the traditional difference in writing sequence. Instead of from left to right on papyrus as originally practiced in Egypt, in Asia -or at least in China -the tradition was to write on bamboo strips from top to bottom.

In keeping, the Chinese language identifies the past as being above and the future being below. Presently some may see this rendering on their calendars as when a horizontal timeline drops across a calendar of one’s daily meetings.

I have found this top-to-bottom timeline construct helpful in rendering an overview of boundary law cases. In such cases, as with any other, there are activities. Beyond this though, there is a boundary line that is in contention. As a result, the timeline can also be used to separate parties involved in a boundary dispute and then with the addition of symbols the activities performed by each party, their predecessors in interest, and their agents can be clearly separated both in time and with respect to the other party.

Provided is a case that seeks to depict this. Notably, I do not seek to pass this case off as one in which I was involved.

As noted in the timeline depiction, Reitz v. Knight is a King County case decided by Washington’s first appellate district on August 26, 1991. It was a matter occurring in the city. It also is a case, which though on a lake, did not involve a fence (demonstrated by the icons at the lower left). That’s the big picture overview.

Now, in the center is the timeline of the basic facts. In 1958, the house in which Knight resided at the time of the lawsuit was built. There is also testimony that bushes were planted in 1976. Knight purchased the property in 1979. Sometime after that in 1979 or 1980, Reitz purchased. Initially, Reitz rented his property out. Okay, so far, so good.

However, in 1986 Knight surveyed his property. His surveyor determined that the line of record title lay under the house immediately to the north of Reitz. (Here I should mention that at the bottom of the timeline is an “N,” which indicates the left side of the sheet as north.)

At any rate, in August of 1986 Reitz decided to reside (i.e., live) in the house. Reitz then had a survey performed, which placed the line of recorded title within the property of Reitz’s northern neighbor, slightly south of that neighbor’s house foundation. However, this survey placed the Reitz southern line past Knight’s maintained bushes and slightly under his eaves (as well as an unrepresented cantilevered second story).

So, what we have here is a failure to communicate. Specifically, this is a dueling survey where the respective surveyors are sought to defend the opinions they have rendered as to where the line of recorded title actually meets the ground.

Let’s now look at the procedural history. The King County Superior Court rendered its verdict in favor of plaintiff Reitz, both with respect to the survey and the line of record title. This is all depicted to the left of the King County Superior Court caption, which also happens to be bottom left of Reitz’s name. (The survey, holder of record title, and plaintiff icons are all bolded respectively.) The corollary is that at the lower court Knight lost both with respect to the dueling survey and with respect to adverse possession. (See the survey, holder of the clod of dirt, i.e., claimant of adverse possession, and defendant icons without bold respectively.)

The story of course is not over. On appeal, although the Reitz survey was deemed appropriate, the trial court should have then conducted an analysis of adverse possession. The appellate court further determined that there was sufficient evidence for the lower court to have rendered a verdict of adverse possession … and then remanded it to the trial court to enter a judgment accordingly.

Obviously, I have determined not to deprive myself of a summary of the most salient details. These are provided below the overall depiction in a squib note, reference to the facts supporting adverse possession, and additional comment. Yet most importantly, I only need to use those notes when wanting to refresh my understanding as to the details after determining that the case is likely applicable.

Overall, I believe this to be a very good way to outline or “storyboard” facts. I also believe that considering that our culture is becoming increasingly driven by visual content, as evidenced by the proliferation of social media, data visualization, infographics and video, this approach serves as a way to assist in explaining cases to non-lawyers who may benefit by a concise distillation of the relevant facts.


Robert WM Zierman is the founder of Justice Smiles, pllc, a firm that primarily assists clients in resolving disputes with their neighbors. Zierman authors a blog on these topics at:

The depiction and icons herein are the property of Justice Smiles, pllc and are provided for use by the King County Bar Association Bar Bulletin with express consent.

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