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Meckem v. Carter

Supreme Court of Wyoming

April 22, 2014

WILLIAM E. MECKEM, individually; LORRAINE W. MECKEM, individually; and DUBOIS HEIGHTS SUBDIVISION, INC., a Wyoming corporation, Appellants (Defendants),
v.
WILLIAM CARTER and DANNA CARTER, Husband and Wife, Appellees (Plaintiffs)

Page 638

Appeal fro the District Court of Fremont County. The Honorable Norman E. Young, Judge.

Representing Appellants: William L. Miller of Miller & Fasse, P.C., Riverton, Wyoming.

Representing Appellees: Aaron J. Vincent of Vincent Law Office, Riverton, Wyoming.

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

OPINION

Page 639

DAVIS, Justice.

[¶1] Appellants William and Lorraine Meckem challenge an order holding them in civil contempt for violating a judgment directing them to remove obstructions from a road easement that traverses their property.[1] We affirm the district court's determination that Appellants' conduct was contumacious. However, the district court erred when it ordered Appellants to pay a penalty of $100 per day to the court until the obstructions are removed, and we therefore reverse that part of the order.

ISSUES

[¶2] Appellants present the following issues for our review:

I. Whether the district court exceeded its authority to amend its original judgment with its order of contempt?
II. Whether the district court erred in finding that the Appellants were in contempt of court?

FACTS

[¶3] William and Danna Carter and the Meckems own abutting tracts of land near Dubois, Wyoming. Since purchasing their property in 1991, the Carters have accessed their parcel by traveling over the Meckems' property pursuant to an easement for a road right of way, which grants:

An easement twenty feet in width over and across the NE1/4NE1/4, Section 7, Township 41 North, Range 106 West, 6th P.M., Fremont County, Wyoming, and over and across the dedicated road through the Dubois Heights Subdivision, Fremont County, Wyoming, said access to be over the presently existing road, or such other location reasonably similar as the grantor may determine, from time to time.[2]

[¶4] For years, the Carters have utilized two routes over the Meckems' property--the Dubois Heights Road and the Solitude Road. However, the Meckems recently placed locked gates across both roads, thereby denying Carters access to their property by the route they had historically used. The Meckems also obstructed the Carters' use of the Dubois Heights Road by, inter alia, placing a utility service box and a septic system leach field in or near the road where it intersects with the Solitude Road. The practical effect of these obstructions is to prevent the Carters from driving logging trucks to and from their property, where they operate a small sawmill.

[¶5] In 2012, the Carters filed an action for a declaratory judgment determining the parties' rights, duties, and obligations under the easement, a mandatory injunction requiring the Meckems to remove the obstructions limiting their access, and a permanent injunction restraining them from interfering with their use of the easement. The Meckems counterclaimed, asserting that under the language of the easement they have the right to move the easement and that they have constructed a reasonably similar road (Sussman Road) for the Carters to use. They therefore asked the district court to declare

Page 640

that the Carters could only use this newly constructed road to reach their property.

[¶6] The district court began a hearing on the application for a preliminary injunction on April 18, 2012. Although some evidence was presented, the parties were unable to complete the hearing in the allotted time and the matter was continued to May 1, 2012. The parties subsequently stipulated that the district court could consolidate the preliminary injunction hearing with a bench trial on the merits as permitted by W.R.C.P. 65(a)(2), which it did.

[¶7] Trial on the merits took place on May 1, 2012, and the district court subsequently entered clear and cogent Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Judgment on August 31, 2012. It made the following pertinent findings of fact:

14. To access their property, the Plaintiffs have used primarily two routes. The first was described as the " Dubois Heights Road" . Since approximately 1979, the Plaintiffs or their predecessors have used the Dubois Heights Road to access their property.
. . .
21. The Defendants have prohibited the Plaintiffs' use of the Dubois Heights Road and the Solitude Road by placing locked gates across both.
22. The Defendants have also obstructed Plaintiffs' use of the Dubois Heights Road by placing utility service and septic system leach field in or near the Dubois Heights Road in the area it intersects with the Solitude Road. Defendants have also placed a significant ditch or dip ...

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