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Miner v. Jesse & Grace, LLC

Supreme Court of Wyoming

February 4, 2014

Terry MINER and Colleen Miner, Husband and Wife, Appellants (Plaintiffs),
v.
JESSE & GRACE, LLC, a Wyoming Close Limited Liability Company, and Snowy Range Housing, LLC, f/k/a Zhao & Zhou, LLC, a Wyoming Close Limited Liability Company, Appellees (Defendants).

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Representing Appellants: Dennis C. Cook and Craig C. Cook of Cook and Associates, P.C., Laramie, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Dennis C. Cook.

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Representing Appellees: Kelly Neville Heck and Elisa M. Butler of Brown & Hiser, LLC, Laramie, Wyoming. Argument by Ms. Heck.

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

KITE, Chief Justice.

[¶ 1] Appellants Terry and Colleen Miner purchased vacant property in Laramie, Wyoming. Shortly thereafter, they discovered that the back of a four-plex apartment building on an adjacent property encroached five feet onto their property, along the length of the apartment building. The Miners brought an action seeking a declaration that they own the encroaching portion of the apartment building and an order requiring that the building be partitioned and that Appellees Jesse & Grace, LLC and Snowy Range Housing, LLC (collectively the LLCs) be ejected from the encroaching portion of the building, or that the encroaching portion of the building be removed. The Miners also requested damages for trespass and an apportionment of rental income earned from the apartment building.

[¶ 2] The district court entered partial summary judgment against the Miners on their claim to an ownership interest in the apartment building. Having concluded that the Miners had no ownership interest in the apartment building, the district court denied the Miners' requests to eject the LLCs from the building, their request to partition the building, and their demand for a proportional share of the apartment building's rental income. A bench trial was held on the remaining issues, and following that trial, the court ruled that the LLCs were entitled to an implied easement on the Miners' property to accommodate the apartment building. The court then entered an order granting the LLCs an implied easement on the Miners' property and enjoining the Miners from interfering with the LLCs' use of that easement.

[¶ 3] We affirm the orders of the district court.

ISSUES

[¶ 4] The Miners present the following issues on appeal:

I. Whether the district court erred by denying [the Miners'] ejectment and trespass claims to assert ownership of the property underlying 20% of 388 Buchanan and the improvements thereon?
II. Whether the district court erred when it interpreted the clear and unambiguous language of [the Miners'] deed to their property and found as a predicate to its determination of an implied easement that the 20% of 388 Buchanan that is located on [the Miners'] property is not an improvement to that property?
III. Whether the district court erred by finding that [the LLCs] have an implied easement to occupy [the Miners'] property with their encroaching building and then by enjoining [the Miners'] access to that implied easement on their property?
IV. Whether partition of the co-owned building known as 388 Buchanan or whether an injunction to remove the encroaching part of that building from [the Miners'] property is the appropriate remedy in this case?

The LLCs phrase the issues on appeal as:

I. The District Court correctly decided that the physical structure of 388 Buchanan belongs to [the LLCs] and as such, [the Miners] are not entitled to recover under their claims for partition and ejectment.
II. The District Court correctly decided that [the LLCs] have an implied easement over the portion of [the Miners'] property underlying 388 Buchanan and the requisite setback area.

FACTS

[¶ 5] The present dispute centers on an apartment building located on Lot 1 of Block 29 in West Laramie, Wyoming, with a street address of 388 Buchanan. The apartment building was constructed by Susan Jaycox in 2005, who at that time owned all of Lot 1. At the same time Ms. Jaycox was constructing

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the apartment at 388 Buchanan, she was also constructing a second apartment building on Lot 1, at 382 Buchanan. The buildings were situated perpendicular to each other, with the unit at 388 Buchanan facing east and the unit at 382 Buchanan facing north.

[¶ 6] To finance the construction of the apartments at 388 and 382 Buchanan, Ms. Jaycox obtained separate loans for each building and secured each loan with a mortgage on a respective 70' x 130' area of Lot 1 on which each building was to be constructed. The recorded mortgage for 388 Buchanan encumbered a portion of Lot 1 described as: " The North 70 feet of the East 130 feet of Lot 1, Block 29, Town of West Laramie, now the City of Laramie, Albany County, Wyoming" (hereinafter referred to as the North Parcel). The recorded mortgage for 382 Buchanan encumbered a separate portion of Lot 1 described as: " The South 70 feet of the North 140 feet of the East 130 feet of Lot 1, Block 29, Town of West Laramie, now the City of Laramie, Albany County, Wyoming" (hereinafter referred to as the South Parcel). The mortgages for the North Parcel and the South Parcel were each recorded on May 20, 2005.

[¶ 7] Ms. Jaycox experienced financial difficulties and was unable to remain current on her mortgage payments on the North Parcel and the South Parcel. In 2007, the mortgagee for the North Parcel foreclosed upon the mortgage, and the North Parcel was sold to the mortgagee at a foreclosure sale in December 2007. Also in 2007, the mortgagee for the South Parcel foreclosed upon that mortgage, and the South Parcel was sold to that mortgagee at a foreclosure sale in January 2008.

[¶ 8] In August 2008, Le Zhou and Hong Zhao, husband and wife, purchased the North Parcel. In November 2008, they transferred the North Parcel to Snowy Range Housing, LLC (f/k/a Zhao & Zhou, LLC). In October 2008, Le Zhou and Hong Zhao purchased the South Parcel, and in November 2008, they transferred that property to Jesse & Grace, LLC.[1]

[¶ 9] Ms. Jaycox continued to own the remainder of Lot 1 until July 2009, when she sold her remaining interest in Lot 1 to Dale Hansen. Shortly thereafter, in August 2009, Mr. Hansen sold part of his interest in Lot 1, as well as additional property he owned in Lot 2, to the Miners, who also already owned property in Lot 2. The Miners paid $15,000 for the property they purchased from Mr. Hansen, and the recorded warranty deed described the conveyed property as:

The North 140 feet of the West 44 feet of Lot 1, Block 29 and the South 140 feet of the East 17 feet of Lot 2, Block 29 And the North 90 feet of the East 84 feet of the Lot 2, Block 29, West Laramie, Albany County, Wyoming

Hereinafter, we will refer to the portion of Lot 1 that Mr. Hansen conveyed to the Miners as the West Parcel.

[¶ 10] Shortly after purchasing the property from Mr. Hansen, the Miners had their property surveyed to determine the property boundary so they could build a fence on the property's east boundary. Through that survey, the Miners discovered that the back of the apartment building at 388 Buchanan encroached onto their property, the West Parcel of Lot 1, by a little over five feet along the 64-foot length of the building. The record, for both the summary judgment and bench trial proceedings, contains the following map, which illustrates the property holdings after Mr. Hansen transferred the shaded portion to the Miners, the property boundaries, and the encroachment of the apartment building at 388 Buchanan onto the West Parcel.

(Image Omitted)

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[¶ 11] On December 14, 2011, the Miners filed a Complaint against the LLCs seeking a declaration that they own the encroaching portion of the apartment building and an order requiring that the building be partitioned and that the LLCs be ejected from the encroaching portion of the building, or that the encroaching portion of the building be removed. The Miners also requested damages for trespass and an apportionment of rental income earned from the apartment building. The LLCs counterclaimed seeking a declaration that the North Parcel and South Parcel have an implied easement over the portions of the West Parcel occupied by the apartment building and its parking lot and requesting an injunction to enjoin the Miners from interfering with the LLCs' implied easement. In the alternative, the LLCs sought relief in the form of deed reformation and quiet title.

[¶ 12] The parties filed competing motions for summary judgment, and on December 21, 2012, the district court issued a decision ruling as follows:

The Court concludes as a matter of law that the portion of the apartment building that encroaches upon the West parcel is not an " improvement" or " appurtenance" attached to the West parcel. Consequently, the Court concludes that the July 2009 Warranty Deed from Susan Jaycox to Dale Hansen did not pass title to any portion of the apartment building at 388 Buchanan. Likewise, the August 2009 Warranty Deed for the West Parcel from Dale Hansen to Plaintiffs did not pass title to any portion of the apartment building at 388 Buchanan. Accordingly, Plaintiffs hold no title to any part of the apartment building, including the approximately 20% of the building that currently rests on the West parcel.

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Lacking title to a portion of the apartment building, Plaintiffs' requests to eject Defendants from the apartment building and to partition the building must fail. Likewise, Plaintiffs' demand for a proportional share of the rental income for the apartment building cannot survive summary judgment.

* * *

Summary judgment is granted in Defendants' favor as far as ownership of the apartment building. Plaintiffs own no portion of the apartment building, approximately 20% of which encroaches upon Plaintiffs' land known as the West parcel. Consequently, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted as to Plaintiffs' requests to eject Defendants from the apartment building and for partition of the apartment building. Plaintiffs have no legal right to these remedies absent any ownership interest in the building. Likewise, Plaintiffs ['] request for a proportional share of the rental income earned from the building also fails.
The Court, however, cannot order anything further at this time because genuine issues of material fact exist as to the appropriate remedy to correct the encroachment. Thus, the remedy and the amount of damages (if any) remain to be addressed at trial.

[¶ 13] A bench trial was held on the remaining claims shortly thereafter on January 8-9, 2013, and on January 18, 2013, the district court issued its decision. The court ruled that the LLCs had established the existence of an implied easement over the West Parcel for the benefit of the apartment building at 388 Buchanan. Because the court found an implied easement, it denied the LLCs' alternative claim for deed reformation. The court further ruled that due to the existence of the implied easement, the LLCs had not unlawfully kept the Miners out of possession of the land underlying the apartment building, and the Miners' claims for trespass and ejectment must therefore fail.

[¶ 14] The district court granted the LLCs' request for injunctive relief, finding and directing as follows, record citations omitted:

The Court finds an injunction is warranted in this case to enjoin Plaintiffs from interfering with Defendants' implied easements. The evidence presented at trial established that Plaintiff Terry Miner has acted in a way that interferes with Plaintiffs' implied easements and their tenants' privacy. Specifically, Plaintiff Terry Miner testified that he has threatened to tow tenants' vehicles and he has reported them as trespassors for entering the area covered by the implied easements. Additionally, Mr. Miner parked a broken-down trailer from a tractor-trailer combination directly behind the apartment building, blocking the sunlight from entering the windows of the lower apartments. After tenants complained to Defendants, city officials required Mr. Miner to move the trailer away from the apartment building to ensure that the tenants could escape through the windows in the event of a building fire. Mr. Miner moved the trailer to just outside of the five-foot setback area, where it sits today despite Mr. Miner's testimony at trial that he has plenty of space on his several other lands to store the trailer. He testified at trial that he parked the trailer there because he could. Mr. Miner's actions have amounted to little more than outright harassment and have been, to be kind, less than neighborly.
Mr. Miner's actions have unreasonably burdened Defendants' implied easements over the premises and have impeded Defendants' ability to use and enjoy the implied easements. Additionally, monetary damages are insufficient to compensate Defendants for their loss of privacy and the harassment sustained by their tenants. The court finds that an injunction is appropriate here to prohibit the servient estate owner from interfering with the dominant estate owners' use of their implied easements. Mr. Miner is enjoined and ordered to refrain from interfering or threatening to interfere in any manner with any use of the areas described above by Defendants or Defendants' agents, employees, tenants, guests or others.

[¶ 15] The Miners timely appealed the orders of the district court.

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STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶ 16] The Miners appeal the district court's summary judgment order and its bench trial order. Motions for summary judgment come before the trial court pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Wyoming Rules of Civil Procedure, which requires that

[t]he judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.

Formisano v. Gaston, 2011 WY 8, ¶ 3, 246 P.3d 286, 288 (Wyo.2011). We review a grant of summary judgment as follows:

We review a summary judgment in the same light as the district court, using the same materials and following the same standards. Id.; 40 North Corp. v. Morrell, 964 P.2d 423, 426 (Wyo.1998). We examine the record from the vantage point most favorable to the party opposing the motion, and we give that party the benefit of all favorable inferences that may fairly be drawn from the record. Id. A material fact is one which, if proved, would have the effect of establishing or refuting an essential element of the cause of action or defense asserted by the parties. Id. If the moving party presents supporting summary judgment materials demonstrating no genuine issue of material fact exists, the burden is shifted to the non-moving party to present appropriate supporting materials posing a genuine issue of a material fact for trial. Roberts v. Klinkosh, 986 P.2d 153, 155 (Wyo.1999); Downen v. Sinclair Oil Corp., 887 P.2d 515, 519 (Wyo.1994). We review a grant of summary judgment deciding a question of law de novo and afford no deference to the district court's ruling. Roberts v. Klinkosh, 986 P.2d at 156; Blagrove v. JB Mechanical, Inc., 934 P.2d 1273, 1275 (Wyo.1997).

Lindsey v. Harriet, 2011 WY 80, ¶ 18, 255 P.3d 873, 880 (Wyo.2011).

[¶ 17] With respect to the rulings made by the court following the bench trial, we apply the following standard of review:

Following a bench trial, this court reviews a district court's findings and conclusions using a clearly erroneous standard for the factual findings and a de novo standard for the conclusions of law. Piroschak v. Whelan, 2005 WY 26, ¶ 7, 106 P.3d 887, 890 (Wyo.2005).
The factual findings of a judge are not entitled to the limited review afforded a jury verdict. While the findings are presumptively correct, the appellate court may examine all of the properly admissible evidence in the record. Due regard is given to the opportunity of the trial judge to assess the credibility of the witnesses, and our review does not entail re-weighing disputed evidence. Findings of fact will not be set aside unless they are clearly erroneous. 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.
Piroschak, Harber v. Jense Jensen 2004 WY 104 97 P.3d 57
we assume that the evidence of the prevailing party below is true and give that party every reasonable inference that can fairly and reasonably be drawn from it.

Id.

Claman v. Popp, 2012 WY 92, ¶ 22, 279 P.3d 1003, 1012 (Wyo.2012) (quoting Pennant Service Co., Inc. v. True Oil Co., LLC, 2011 WY 40, ¶ 7, 249 P.3d 698, 703 (Wyo.2011)). We review the district court's conclusions of law de novo. Lieberman v. Mossbrook, 2009 WY 65, ¶ 40, 208 P.3d 1296, 1308 (Wyo.2009).

DISCUSSION

A. Miners' Ownership Interest in Apartment Building

[¶ 18] We address first the Miners' argument that the district court erred in ruling that they have no ownership interest in the ...


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