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Stephens v. Lavitt

September 23, 2010

HARRY E. STEPHENS, APPELLANT (PLAINTIFF),
v.
GREGORY D. LAVITT AND DEBRA C. LAVITT, APPELLEES (DEFENDANTS).



Appeal from the District Court of Albany County, The Honorable Keith G. Kautz, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kite, Chief Justice.

Before KITE, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, VOIGT*fn1, and BURKE, JJ.

[¶1] Harry E. Stephens appeals from the district court‟s order adjudging him in contempt of court for violating an injunction that required him to lock a gate on his easement across property owned by Gregory D. and Debra C. Lavitt (Lavitts). The district court terminated Mr. Stephens‟ easement as a sanction for the contempt. He claims the district court did not have jurisdiction over a criminal contempt because it was not commenced in a separate case and, in any event, the court should not have extinguished his easement. We affirm on the grounds that the contempt was civil rather than criminal in nature and termination of his easement across the Lavitts‟ property was a reasonable remedy under the circumstances of this case. We conclude, however, that the district court abused its discretion by terminating Mr. Stephens‟ easement across properties other than the Lavitts‟ and, accordingly, reverse that portion of the order.

ISSUES

[¶2] The parties raise various issues on appeal, but we have identified the following issues as dispositive:

1. Was the contempt proceeding criminal in nature, in which instance the district court did not have jurisdiction over the action because it was not brought as a separate case; or, was it civil in nature, so that the district court had jurisdiction under the original case?

2. Did the district court abuse its discretion by declaring forfeiture of Mr. Stephens‟ easement to remedy his violation of its injunction and misuse of the easement?

FACTS

[¶3]Mr. Stephens and the Lavitts own mountain property in Albany County, Wyoming. Historically, Mr. Stephens accessed his property by using two routes- Luman Road which traverses the Lavitts‟ property,*fn2 or Mart Miller Road. In 2001, the Lavitts placed a locked gate across the road on their property to prevent unwanted access by the public and to avert acts of vandalism. Mr. Stephens was provided with a key to the lock so he could access his property.

[¶4] Mr. Stephens and his family members became dissatisfied with the locked gate, and, in 2007, he commenced a declaratory judgment action seeking a ruling that he had a valid easement along Luman Road and an injunction prohibiting the Lavitts from interfering with his access by placing a locked gate across the road. The Lavitts counterclaimed for a declaration that Mr. Stephens did not have a legal easement or, if he did have an easement, it had been terminated by his misuse. They also sought injunctive relief prohibiting him from entering or damaging their property.

[¶5] The district court held a hearing on the competing claims for a temporary restraining order and granted the Lavitts‟ request by prohibiting Mr. Stephens from entering their property while the action was pending. The Lavitts subsequently alleged that Mr. Stephens had violated the temporary restraining order on several occasions.

[¶6] In the meantime, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Stephens declaring that he had a valid appurtenant easement across the Lavitts‟ property on Luman Road. The court concluded there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether Mr. Stephens had misused the easement and "what reasonable conditions may be placed on the use of the easement."

[¶7] The district court conducted a bench trial on the outstanding issues, including whether Mr. Stephens had violated the temporary restraining order. The court ruled that Mr. Stephens had violated the restraining order but sanctions were not imposed at that time. It also concluded that the locked gate was reasonable and necessary for the Lavitts‟ use, enjoyment and protection of their property. The district court ordered Mr. Stephens to lock the gate immediately after his access and prohibited him from leaving the gate unlocked. It also permanently enjoined him from venturing off the easement or harassing the Lavitts.

[¶8] On June 11, 2009, the Lavitts filed a motion for order to show cause as to why Mr. Stephens should not be found in contempt of court for violating the court‟s prior order by failing to lock the gate and stamping the combination on the lock so that anyone could open it. They also alleged that Mr. Stephens had harassed and intimidated them. The district court issued an order to show cause, held a hearing and issued the following findings of fact, conclusions of law and judgment of contempt:

This action came before the Court on September 1, 2009. . . . The Court advised Mr. Stephens as required by law in a hearing for Criminal Contempt, and then heard testimony and evidence. The Court makes the following findings beyond a reasonable doubt:

1. On September 25, 2008, the Court entered an Order which placed the following requirements on [Mr. Stephens]:

a. [Mr.] Stephens and his guests who access the Luman [R]oad shall close and lock the Gate immediately following such access, and shall not leave the Gate open or unlocked and unattended.

b. [Mr.] Stephens . . . (is) hereby PERMANENTLY ENJOINED AND RESTRAINED . . . from in any way harassing or intimidating [the Lavitts] . . . and from violating (the ...


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