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Jason Thornock and Tracy Thornock v. Erick W. Esterholdt

April 11, 2013

JASON THORNOCK AND TRACY THORNOCK, APPELLANTS (PLAINTIFFS),
v.
ERICK W. ESTERHOLDT, AS TRUSTEE OF THE ERICK W. ESTERHOLDT REVOCABLE TRUST DATED AUGUST 6, 2009, AND JEANNE M. ESTERHOLDT, AS TRUSTEE OF THE JEANNE M. ESTERHOLDT REVOCABLE TRUST DATED AUGUST 6, 2009, APPELLEES (DEFENDANTS).



Appeal from the District Court of Lincoln County The Honorable Dennis L. Sanderson, Judge

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

Before KITE, C.J., and HILL, VOIGT, BURKE, and DAVIS, JJ.

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in Pacific Reporter Third. Readers are requested to notify the Clerk of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Building, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002, of any typographical or other formal errors so that correction may be made before final publication in the permanent volume.

[¶1] The Thornocks filed an action against the Esterholdts and others, seeking to quiet title to certain lands in Lincoln County, Wyoming. The district court eventually granted summary judgment to the Thornocks as to some of the land, but denied summary judgment as to a certain strip of property. After a bench trial, the district court quieted title in the disputed strip of land in the Esterholdts. The Thornocks appealed. The district court's findings of fact are not clearly erroneous in any material way, and they support the court's conclusions of law, so we affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] 1. Whether an appurtenant easement was created by a deed that granted, in addition to tracts of fee title land, "[a]lso that right of way to be used in connection with said land and described as follows: . . ."

2. Whether, if the answer to the first question is in the negative, an appurtenant easement was created by a deed that granted "[a] right-of-way, described as follows, to wit: . . ."

FACTS

[¶3] While somewhat oversimplified, it is helpful to visualize the lands involved in this case as being in the form of a capital letter "H." The right upright of the H is a public highway. The left upright of the H is a railroad right-of-way. The crossbar of the H is the parcel of land in dispute--the parcel in which the district court quieted title in the Esterholdts. This parcel is 80 feet wide and 617 feet long, and it lies in the midst of the Esterholdts' property.

[¶4] It is uncontested that the Esterholdts own land between the railroad right-of-way and the public highway. It is also uncontested that the Thornocks own land west of and adjacent to the railroad right-of-way. A dam and ponds were constructed on the disputed parcel by the Esterholdts' predecessor in title during the 1950s and the parcel has not been used historically to access the Thornocks' land.

[¶5] For some time, the Thornocks accessed their property from the public highway via a road across the Esterholdts' neighbor to the north. When the neighbor began to deny use of the road to the Thornocks, they began to look for alternatives. That search led them to the strip of land now in dispute. Resolution of the quiet title dispute requires the interpretation of numerous deeds relating to the strip of land, itself, and to the surrounding lands. Those deeds will be identified and discussed in further sections of this opinion.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶6] "The applicable standard of review is that we derive the meaning of an easement from its language, much as we would in the case of a deed or other written agreement." Edgcomb v. Lower Valley Power & Light, Inc., 922 P.2d 850, 854 (Wyo. 1996) (quoting Steil v. Smith, 901 P.2d 395, 396 (Wyo. 1995) (citing Tibbets v. P & M Petroleum Co., 744 P.2d 651, 652-53 (Wyo. 1987); 25 Am. Jur. 2d Easements and Licenses § 75 (1966))). "If the language of the easement is not ambiguous and if the intent of the parties can be gathered from its language, that should be done as a matter of law." Edgcomb, 922 P.2d at 854 (quoting Steil, 901 P.2d at 396 (citing Glover v. Giraldo, 824 P.2d 552, 554 (Wyo. 1992); Smith v. Nugget Exploration, Inc., 857 P.2d 320, 323 (Wyo. 1993); Tibbets, 744 P.2d at 653)).

[¶7] In Mueller v. Hoblyn, 887 P.2d 500, 504 (Wyo. 1994), we explained the review process as follows:

The findings of fact made by the district court will not be set aside unless clearly erroneous. Hopper v. All Pet Animal Clinic, Inc., 861 P.2d 531, 538 (Wyo. 1993). "'A finding is "clearly erroneous" when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.'" Id. (quoting United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395, 68 S.Ct. 525, 542, 92 L.Ed. 746 (1948)). The district court's conclusions of law are not binding upon this ...


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