Monday, August 18, 2008

Summary 2008 WY 96

Summary of Decision issued August 15, 2008

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Summaries are prepared by Law Librarians and are not official statements of the Wyoming Supreme Court

Case Name: R.C.R., Inc. v. Deline

Citation: 2008 WY 96

URL: http://

Docket Number: S-07-0029

Appeal from the District Court of Carbon County, Honorable Norman E. Young, Judge

Representing Appellants (Defendants): Steven F. Freudenthal of Freudenthal Salzburg & Bonds, Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Representing Appellees (Plaintiffs): J. Kent Rutledge of Lathrop & Rutledge, Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Frederick B. Skillern of Montgomery Little Soran & Murray, Denver, Colorado

Date of Decision: August 15, 2008

Issues: Whether principles against splitting causes of action, of judicial estoppel, of collateral estoppel and of res judicata, as applied to the facts contained in the pleadings, evidence, findings, conclusions and rulings in the easement litigation and the private road litigation, bar the Appellees' claims. Whether the district court erroneously applied Lozier v. Blattland Investments, LLC, 2004 WY 132, 100 P.3d 380 (Wyo. 2004), without regard to the factual differences in that the Appellees do not own the property and no common source of title for the lands at issue, or the applicable rules against splitting causes of action, of judicial estoppel, of collateral estoppel and of res judicata. Whether controlling legal principles prohibit the unilateral expansion of the size of the dominant estate to be served by the easement.

Holdings: Wyoming has recognized the rule against splitting causes of action. In the present action, it appears that Appellant has relentlessly pursued legal, as well as perhaps some extra-legal, remedies in his campaign to frustrate the Appellees' enjoyment of their property. It is Appellant who has created, or recreated, causes of action that the Appellees, of necessity, had to pursue in self-defense. The purpose of the rule against splitting causes of action is "to promote fairness to the parties by protecting defendants against fragmented, harassing, vexatious, and costly litigation, and the possibility of conflicting outcomes." While Appellant is nominally the "defendant" in this litigation (as he has been in the past as well), it is Appellant's conduct/misconduct that has necessitated all of the legal proceedings. Although Appellant did not develop this issue in much detail or with much clarity, it is evident from the record that the Appellees' lawsuit was prompted by harassment from Appellant. The Appellees' action was not barred by the rule against splitting causes of action.

Judicial estoppel is applied to foreclose a party from maintaining inconsistent positions in judicial proceedings. The doctrine is applied sparingly and not in a highly technical manner that prevents litigation on the merits. Judicial estoppel is sometimes referred to as a doctrine which estops a party to play fast and loose with the courts or to trifle with judicial proceedings. It is an expression of the maxim that one cannot blow hot and cold in the same breath. A party will just not be allowed to maintain inconsistent positions in judicial proceedings. Judicial estoppel requires that where a man is successful in the position taken in the first proceeding, then that position rises to the dignity of conclusiveness. Appellant's claim of judicial estoppel is based upon his contention that the Appellees should be estopped from claiming that the easement benefits Rainbow Canyon, Inc., lands because they did not seek to have Rainbow Canyon, Inc., added as a party to earlier private road litigation. The present litigation does not, however, seek to adjudicate the right of Rainbow Canyon, Inc., or any of its owners to use the easement. Rather, this litigation concerns the Appellees' use of the easement. Thus, judicial estoppel does not apply to the circumstances presented here.

Collateral estoppel bars re-litigation of previously litigated issues (as contrasted with "claims"), as well as issues which could have been but which were not raised in the prior litigation. These factors are used in the analysis of collateral estoppel: (1) Whether the issue decided in the prior adjudication was identical with the issue presented in the present action; (2) whether the prior adjudication resulted in a judgment on the merits; (3) whether the party against whom the collateral estoppel is asserted was a party or in privity with a party to the prior adjudication; and (4) whether the party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the prior proceeding. The prior litigation in question dealt only with the location of the easement and not its scope and hence collateral estoppel did not bar the Appellees from pursuing this litigation. Moreover, it was Appellant's conduct in attempting to unilaterally limit the Appellees' use of the easement and otherwise interfere with their property rights that necessitated this litigation. The only one of those four factors that is met here is that the parties are the same. The issues are not identical, there was a determination on the merits but both the issues and the claims are entirely different here, and the Appellees did not have an opportunity to litigate the issues now before us because they had not yet come to light. The Appellees' action was not barred by the principles that constitute collateral estoppel.

Res judicata bars the re-litigation of previously litigated claims or causes of action, as well as claims that could or should have been raised in the prior litigation. These factors are applied to the analysis of res judicata: (1) Identity in parties; (2) identity in subject matter; (3) the issues are the same and relate to the subject matter; and (4) the capacities of the persons are identical in reference to both the subject matter and the issues between them. The resolution of the collateral estoppel contentions applies equally to res judicata. Res judicata did not bar this litigation, which was prompted almost exclusively by Appellant's improper interference with the Appellees' property rights.

Appellant contends that the interpretation the district court placed on Lozier v. Blattland, changes the law dramatically because its "implicit" holding requires a new evidentiary hearing in all cases to determine the intention of the parties, even where the matter has been previously and fully litigated. Appellant postulates that such a construction will substantially chill the free transferability of any real property which is a subservient estate to any easement since the scope and burden of that easement would be subject to re-interpretation and re-evaluation at any time a dominant estate holder requested. It suffices to note that Appellant grossly exaggerates the doom that the district court's application of that case, in these circumstances, spells for owners of servient estates. To allay any lingering concerns, the district court's decision in this case is not viewed as altering/expanding/contracting the essence of the holding in Lozier in any way.

Appellant also contends that the district court's order amounts to allowing the Appellees to unilaterally expand the size of the dominant estate. Appellant has made no claim that the "burden" on the easement had been expanded and the facts establish that the Appellees used the easement at issue only a few times a year. The district court did not err in taking evidence about the circumstances which surrounded the creation and use of the easement and none of its findings of fact is clearly erroneous. Indeed, the district court took a very sensible and rational approach to resolving this festering conflict. The uses the Appellees make of the easement are reasonable in every respect, given the language used in the written conveyance. Those uses are much the same as the uses made prior owners. The district court did not err by going outside the four corners of the easement to ascertain its "extent" or "scope," and its conclusions are wholly consistent with governing law.

There is no merit in any of Appellant's contentions. Therefore, the judgment of the district court is affirmed.

J. Hill delivered the opinion for the court.

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