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Little Medicine Creek Ranch, Inc. v. D'Elia

Supreme Court of Wyoming

October 10, 2019

LITTLE MEDICINE CREEK RANCH, INC., a Wyoming corporation, f/k/a BURNETT RANCH, INC., Appellant (Defendant/Counterclaimant),
SERGE M. D'ELIA and LILIAN C.S.L. D'ELIA, Trustees of the D'Elia Family Trust and WAGONHOUND LAND & LIVESTOCK, LLC, a Wyoming limited liability company, Appellees (Plaintiffs/Counterclaim Defendants).

          Appeal from the District Court of Albany County The Honorable Tori R.A. Kricken, Judge

          Representing Appellant: David G. Ditto of Associated Legal Group, LLC, Cheyenne, Wyoming; Eric C. Rusnak of K&L Gates LLP, Washington, DC; Michael E. Zeliger and Ranjini Acharya of K&L Gates LLP, Palo Alto, CA. Argument by Ms. Acharya.

          Representing Appellee Serge M. d'Elia and Lilian C.S.L. d'Elia, Trustees of the d'Elia Family Trust: Peter C. Nicolaysen and Pamala M. Brondos of Nicolaysen & Associates, P.C., Casper, Wyoming; Keith P. Tyler, Casper, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Nicolaysen.

          Representing Appellee Wagonhound Land & Livestock Company, LLC: Kermit C. Brown and William L. Hiser of Brown & Hiser, LLC, Laramie, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Hiser.

          Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, and GRAY, JJ.


         [¶1] This is an adverse possession case involving two cattle ranches. The Appellant, Little Medicine Creek Ranch, Inc., f/k/a Burnett Ranch, Inc., owns a ranch in Albany County that has historically been known as Burnett Ranch. The Appellees-Serge and Lilian d'Elia, Trustees of the d'Elia Family Trust, and Wagonhound Land & Livestock, LLC-are the most recent owners of Warbonnet Ranch.[1] The Appellees filed a Complaint for Declaratory Judgment and Petition to Quiet Title with respect to three non-contiguous parcels of property that are deeded to the Appellees but fenced into Burnett Ranch. The Appellant counterclaimed for adverse possession of those parcels and moved for summary judgment. The district court denied the Appellant's motion and granted summary judgment to the Appellees. It also denied the Appellant's subsequent motion to alter or amend its order. Because genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment, we reverse and remand for trial.


         [¶2] The Appellant raises three issues on appeal, rephrased as:

1. Does the district court's failure to follow the procedural safeguards of Rule 56(f) necessitate reversal and remand for trial?
2. Does the district court's improper determination of witness credibility on summary judgment necessitate reversal and remand for trial?
3. Does the district court's reliance on the absence of objections by the deed holders to find permissive use necessitate reverse and remand for trial?

         The Appellees phrase the third issue differently:

3. Whether the record and Wyoming law support the District Court's finding of permissive use based on multiple factors including the fence-out doctrine and neighborly accommodation.

         [¶3] The dispositive issue is whether genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment in favor of the Appellees.[2]


         The Land

         [¶4] This fact-intensive adverse possession case involves three non-contiguous parcels of land that are deeded to Warbonnet Ranch's owners but located within Burnett Ranch. Burnett Ranch's perimeter is fenced, except where land characteristics make fencing impossible, but the parcels are not separately fenced within the ranch. Parcel 1 consists of approximately 640 acres and has also been referred to as "Lindsey Place" and "the peach orchard." Parcel 2 consists of 40 acres. Parcel 3 consists of two 120-acre parcels, 210 of which are fenced into Burnett Ranch and subject to this litigation.[3]

         [¶5] The following map depicts the general location of Parcels 1, 2, and 3 within Burnett Ranch:

         (Image Omitted)

         The map does not, however, clearly depict Burnett Ranch's perimeter fence or Burnett Ranch's location relative to Warbonnet Ranch.

         The History

         [¶6] The history of the two ranches and the three families-the Burnetts, the Crosses, and the d'Elias-who have been associated with them over the years provides important background. The Burnetts' ancestors homesteaded much of the land that constitutes Burnett Ranch. Richard Burnett managed the ranch for approximately 65 years; Wally Burnett managed the ranch next; and John Burnett became president of Burnett Ranch, Inc. in 2000 and managed it for the next sixteen years. The Burnetts sold their cattle in 2000 to avoid foreclosure and continuously leased the ranch to various individuals-including Lynn Carter, Jim Hageman, Art Hageman, Warren Manning, and the Crosses-from 2000 until 2016 for grazing. The leases included use of Parcels 1, 2, and 3. The Crosses leased the ranch for summer pasture from 2007 or 2008 until 2016.

         The Dispute

         [¶7] Warbonnet Ranch borders Burnett Ranch to the east and north. The Crosses owned Warbonnet Ranch off-and-on from the 1950s until they sold it to Farm Credit in 1985. Mr. d'Elia purchased the ranch in 1987 and, a couple of years later, he conveyed it to himself and his wife as ...

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