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Charles Coward and Anne Coward, Husband and Wife v. Crystal Hadley

December 20, 2010

CHARLES COWARD AND ANNE COWARD, HUSBAND AND WIFE, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
CRYSTAL HADLEY, AN INDIVIDUAL, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



Appeal from the District Court of the First Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Bonner County. Hon. Steve Verby, District Judge.

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

2010 Opinion No. 133

Stephen W. Kenyon, Clerk

The judgment by the district court is affirmed in part and reversed in part. This case is remanded to the district court to award reasonable attorneys fees to Respondent. Costs and attorney fees on appeal are awarded to Respondent.

I. NATURE OF THE CASE

Charles and Anne Coward appeal from the trial court's decision following a bench trial that they do not have either an express or implied easement over an alleyway connecting their home to a public street through the rear of Crystal Hadley's lot. Crystal Hadley cross-appeals the district court's refusal to grant attorney fees below.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

This controversy surrounds three neighboring residential lots in the Law's Second Addition in Sandpoint, Idaho. Lot 1, which is owned by Crystal Hadley, Respondent, sits on a corner with Superior Street and Boyer Avenue bordering its north and west sides, respectively.

Lot 2, which is owned by a trust controlled by Charles and Anne Coward, lies directly to the south of lot 1 along Boyer Avenue. Lot 11, owned by persons not parties to this case, is the next lot south of lot 2. A twelve-foot-wide strip of land in the rear of lots 1 and 2, along the eastern edge of the properties, was originally used as an alley to access the back of lot 11.

Freeman Daughters, an individual, acquired lots 1, 2, and 11 together in 1907. In 1922, Daughters conveyed lots 1 and 2 to Ole Sleteger. That deed (―the 1922 deed‖) provided that Daughters and ―his heirs and assigns shall have a permanent right of way over and across twelve feet on the east side [of lots 1 and 2] for the purpose of an alley.‖ Daughters later conveyed away lot 11 with a deed noting that a permanent right-of-way existed over the alley on lots 1 and 2 benefiting lot 11.

Both lots 1 and 2 apparently came to be owned simultaneously by Martin and Nellie Mushrow a few years later, and they conveyed the lots separately to different third parties.*fn1 The deed first conveying away lot 1 to Hadley's predecessor did not reserve any easement rights benefiting lot 2, which is now the Cowards' lot. None of the deeds in either chain of title refer to such a right-of-way either. The easement did continue to benefit lot 11 until 1950, when the owner of lot 11 at that time quitclaimed the easement back to the owners of lots 1 and 2. The next day, Hadley and her now-deceased husband, Irvin, purchased lot 1. After that time, the alley was a grassy area occasionally used by occupants of lot 2 to reach an old garage at the back of the lot.

Mrs. Coward bought lot 2 in 1994, then conveyed it to a trust controlled by her and her husband in 2004.*fn2 In 2007, the Cowards and Hadley executed an Agreement as to Boundary Line (―boundary agreement‖) after they discovered that a fence between them intruded into both sides of the property line. The boundary agreement provided that the parties each owned title to their lots unaltered under any legal or equitable theory. Later that year, however, the Cowards began using the alley to construct a garage in the rear of their lot, leading to a dispute as to whether they had any easement rights over Hadley's property.

The Cowards filed a complaint against Hadley seeking a declaratory judgment that they had obtained an easement by prescription over Hadley's lot. Five days before trial, the Cowards moved to amend the complaint to add claims for an express easement and an easement by implication, which the trial court granted the day of trial. Hadley also moved at trial to have the prescription claim dismissed, and the court granted the motion from the bench at the end of the trial, finding that there had been only occasional use of the alley over the years and that it was usually permissive. The court later issued a memorandum decision finding in favor of Hadley on the merits of the express- and implied-easement claims as well, but amended the decision in response to motions from both parties. In the amendment, the court withdrew the portions ruling on the merits of the Cowards' easement claims and held instead that the parties' boundary agreement extinguished any interests the Cowards might have in Hadley's lot. The court also refused to award attorney fees to Hadley under I.C. § 12-121, finding that the Cowards had not pursued the action frivolously.

The Cowards appealed and Hadley filed a cross-appeal. The Cowards assert that the 1922 deed reserving an easement for lot 11 also expressly reserved an easement benefiting their lot. Alternatively, they ask the Court to find that the 1922 deed impliedly created an easement in favor of both lots 2 and 11 by identifying the easement as an ―alley‖ in the same way that developers dedicate streets and rights-of-way to public use in a plat. Hadley responds that there was no express easement in the 1922 deed and that there could be no implied easement because the Cowards' lot adjoins a public street and there is no evidence that anyone continuously used the alley before lots 1 and 2 were conveyed to separate buyers. In her cross-appeal, Hadley asks this Court to award fees below under I.C. § 12-121 for defending against the Cowards' unsuccessful claims.

III. ISSUES ON APPEAL

1. Whether the Cowards have an express easement ...


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