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Byrnes v. Johnson County Commissioners

Supreme Court of Wyoming

January 13, 2020

J. MICHAELA BYRNES, Appellant (Plaintiff),
v.
JOHNSON COUNTY COMMISSIONERS; JOHNSON COUNTY ROAD AND BRIDGE; and STATE OF WYOMING ex rel. WYOMING DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, Appellees (Defendants).

          Appeal from the District Court of Johnson County The Honorable Thomas W. Rumpke, Judge

          Representing Appellant: J. Michaela Byrnes, Pro se

          Representing Appellees Johnson County Commissioners; Johnson County Road and Bridge: Richard Rideout, Law Offices of Richard Rideout, P.C., Cheyenne, Wyoming

          Representing Appellee State of Wyoming ex rel. Wyoming Department of Transportation: No appearance

          Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, and GRAY, JJ., and DAY, D.J.

          DAY, DISTRICT JUDGE.

         [¶1] Appellant, J. Michaela Byrnes, filed an inverse condemnation action alleging that a road expansion project took part of her real property located in Johnson County. The district court entered a judgment as a matter of law after the close of her case in chief during a jury trial. The trial court concluded that Ms. Byrnes, representing herself at trial, did not meet her burden to show a taking occurred. The trial court also concluded that the evidence would be inadequate to prove any measure of damages for a partial taking. We affirm the decision of the district court.

         ISSUES

         [¶2] There is one issue before this Court:

Whether the trial court erred in granting a directed verdict based on insufficient evidence of the value of the Appellant's property.

         To the extent Ms. Byrnes raised ancillary issues about the timing of the motion, burdens of proof, and jury instructions, the Court incorporates those issues into its analysis.[1]

         FACTS

         [¶3] Ms. Byrnes owns a parcel of real property in Johnson County. A public road called County Road 13, also called Trabing Road, is adjacent to that property. Ms. Byrnes has two gated driveways on her property that connect to that road.

         [¶4] A road expansion project was planned for the road. In December 2010, an engineering firm sent a letter to Ms. Byrnes asking her to sign a "Permit to Survey" to allow it to survey her land for the road project. According to her appellate brief, Ms. Byrnes asked for additional information, which she asserts was not received, and she did not grant access for the survey. Her trial testimony, however, indicates that she did allow the survey, although she was out of town working in Texas at the time. Regardless of whether consent was obtained for the survey, the survey did occur at some point, and that survey was submitted to Johnson County and the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT).

         [¶5] In July 2011, the Johnson County Road and Bridge Department (Johnson County) provided an update to all affected landowners regarding the project. Ms. Byrnes asserts that she again asked for more information, which was not provided. In September 2011, the Johnson County Attorney asked Ms. Byrnes by letter to grant an easement for the construction permit. According to Ms. Byrnes, that letter was threatening and stated that if she did not grant the easement, then her fences and roadways would not be realigned with the project. According to the County, that letter was an offer consistent with that provided to all other landowners affected by the road expansion. The offer was to replace 420 feet of fencing along the length of Ms. Byrnes's property, to pave her two driveway approaches, and to realign those approaches in relation to the new road. The County also explained in that letter that it already had a right of way across the property and therefore no permission or easement was needed for the road expansion, i.e., that the project would move forward whether she accepted the County's offer or not. Communications continued between the parties. Ms. Byrnes continued to deny access for the project.

         [¶6] In July 2012, the County began its road expansion project. Ms. Byrnes alleged that the road was moved onto her property approximately 33 feet, resulting in what she asserted was an unconstitutional taking of a space 33 feet wide and 420 feet long. She also asserted her mailboxes were moved and damaged; her private driveways were blocked during construction; there were conflicts with the flagging and construction crews during the project; the crews littered on her property; permanent survey markers were removed; and the driveways to her property were shortened to such an extent to make them unsafe.

         [¶7] Ms. Byrnes filed a complaint against WYDOT and Johnson County for trespass, conversion, fraud, harassment, and an unlawful taking of property. In an order entered on February 5, 2018, the district court dismissed all claims against WYDOT. The district court also dismissed all claims against Johnson County except the claim for inverse condemnation. The inverse condemnation claim was set for a jury trial.

         [¶8] Before the trial occurred, Ms. Byrnes filed two interlocutory appeals, docketed as S-18-0051 and S-18-0052. This Court dismissed both appeals. The appeal in docket S-18-0051 was of a non-appealable order regarding the disqualification of the presiding judge. The appeal in docket S-18-0052 was of the trial court's dismissal of all claims against WYDOT. This Court determined that the decision Ms. Byrnes sought to appeal in docket S-18-0052 was not a final order since the remaining claim for inverse condemnation against Johnson County had not yet been decided.

         [¶9] A jury trial occurred on November 5 and 6, 2018. Ms. Byrnes represented herself at trial. Ms. Byrnes presented three witnesses: her daughter, herself, and Andy Campbell. At the close of Ms. Byrnes's case in chief, Johnson County moved for judgment as a matter of law. After the trial court allowed Ms. Byrnes to present some additional testimony and to move for the admission of certain exhibits, the motion was renewed. The district court granted the motion. This appeal timely followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         [¶10] When reviewing a trial court's judgment as a matter of law:

We undertake a full review of the record without deference to the views of the trial court. The test to be applied is whether the evidence is such that, without weighing the credibility of the witnesses or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there can be but one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable persons could have reached. We view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the evidence. When the facts permit the drawing of more than one inference, it is for the jury to choose which will be utilized. Since a judgment as a matter of law deprives the party opposing the motion of a determination of the facts by a jury, it should be cautiously and sparingly granted.

Stevens v. Anesthesiology Consultants of Cheyenne, LLC, 2018 WY 45, ¶ 25, 415 P.3d 1270, 1280 (Wyo. 2018) (citations omitted). "A judgment as a matter of law is appropriate when reasonable jurors could reach but one conclusion as to the verdict." Anderson ...


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