Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Summary 2012 WY 45

Summary of Decision March 27, 2012

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Docket Number: S-11-0122

Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County, Honorable Thomas T.C. Campbell, Judge

Representing Appellant (Plaintiff/Defendant):  Karen Budd-Falen, Franklin J. Falen, Kathryn J.B. Morrow of Budd-Falen Law Offices, LLC, Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Argument by Ms. Morrow.

Representing Appellee (Plaintiff/Defendant): Nicholas G.J. Healey and Timothy L. Woznick of Dray, Dyekman, Reed & Healey, PC, Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Argument by Mr. Healey.

Date of Decision: March 27, 2012

Facts: Rex I. Lewis and Vickie R. Lewis, as trustees of the Rex I. Lewis Living Trust and the Vickie R. Lewis Living Trust, (Lewises) and Brad and Brenda Carnahan (Carnahans) own property in a subdivision in Laramie County.  The Lewises filed a complaint seeking a declaration that the Carnahans did not have authority to block their use of a public easement to access their property, an injunction requiring the Carnahans to remove a fence they erected across the easement and nuisance damages allegedly caused by the blocked easement.  The Carnahans filed counterclaims for ejectment and trespass against the Lewises and a third party complaint against the Lewises and Laramie County (which they alleged had an interest in the easement) to have title to the easement quieted in them. 

Both parties moved for summary judgment and, after a hearing, the district court issued a decision letter ruling that the Lewises had standing to bring their claim for declaratory relief but not to collect damages for nuisance; Laramie County was not a necessary party; issues of material fact existed precluding summary judgment as to the Carnahans’ statute of limitations and laches defenses; and the Board of Laramie County Commissioners’ (Board) 2003 denial of an application to replat the subdivision did not estop the Carnahans from maintaining a quiet title claim.  Subsequently, the district court ruled that an affidavit recorded in 1994 was not effective to vacate the public easement because it did not comply with state statute.  Consistent with that ruling, the district court dismissed the Carnahans’ trespass claim.  The district court set for trial the Carnahans’ statute of limitations and laches defenses.  After trial, the district court concluded neither the statute of limitations nor laches barred the Lewises’ declaratory judgment action.  Further, the district court declared that Laramie County continued to hold the easement in trust for the public, meaning the Lewises have the right to use the easement and the Carnahans do not have the right to obstruct their use.  The Carnahans appealed.

Issues:  The Court re-phrased the issues the Carnahans presented as follows:

                1.            Whether the district court correctly held:

                                a.            the Lewises had standing to seek declaratory relief;
                                b.            the Lewises’ claims were not barred by the statute of limitations;
                                c.             the Lewises’ claims were not barred by the doctrine of laches;
                          d.            the Carnahans’ predecessors-in-interest did not properly vacate the public       easement in accordance with Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 34-12-101 et seq.; and
                    e.            the Carnahans’ trespass claim must be dismissed.

The Lewises contended the district court ruling was correct on all of the above issues and raised the additional issue that the Carnahans’ appeal should be dismissed as premature.

Holdings:  The Court found that this action resulted from an unfortunate set of circumstances.  Laramie County played a direct role in allowing a private landowner to build a home on a public easement.  Despite the seeming inequities, however, the law does not provide a means to rectify the situation.  It would be this Court’s hope that the parties, together with the County, could work together to resolve this matter by relocating Mountain View Loop a reasonable distance from the Carnahans’ home to allow them at least to sell the property if it is not acceptable to them to live there with the road crossing their property.  While it is difficult to tell without actually seeing the property, it appears from some of the trial exhibits that where the current road jogs to the east and runs into the residence, it could instead head southeast across what appears to be prairie and rejoin the existing road where it turns west toward the Lewises’ property. 

The Lewises had standing to maintain an action for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief.  Their claims were not barred by the statute of limitations or the equitable doctrine of laches.  The Griffiths’ 1994 Affidavit did not comply with Wyoming law and was not effective, therefore, to vacate the easement dedicated to public use through the subdivision.  The Lewises have the right to use Mountain View Loop, including the portion that crosses the Carnahans’ property.  The Carnahans are permanently enjoined from obstructing access along Mountain View Loop.  The orders and judgment of the district court are affirmed

Chief Justice Kite delivered the opinion for the court.

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