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Telford Lands LLC v. Cain

Supreme Court of Idaho

June 20, 2013

TELFORD LANDS LLC, an Idaho Limited Liability Company; MITCHELL D. SORENSEN, an individual; and PU RANCH, a general partnership, Plaintiffs-Respondents,
DONALD WILLIAM CAIN and CAROLYN RUTH CAIN, husband and wife, Defendants-Appellants.

2013 Opinion No. 73

Appeal from the District Court of the Seventh Judicial District of the State of Idaho, in and for Butte County. The Hon. Joel E. Tingey, District Judge.

The judgment of the district court is affirmed in part and vacated in part.

Gary D. Slette, Robertson & Slette, Twin Falls, argued for appellants.

Robert L. Harris, Holden Kidwell Hahn & Crapo, Idaho Falls, argued for respondents.

EISMANN, Justice.

This is an appeal out of Butte County from a judgment condemning an easement across the appellants' real property for an irrigation pipeline installed by the respondents so that they can save water by avoiding the conveyance losses that occurred while using the Moore Canal to transport their water. We affirm the judgment as to the right to condemn the easement, direct the court to modify the easement as to one party, and vacate the dismissal of appellants' counterclaim.

I. Factual Background.

Telford Lands LLC, Mitchell D. Sorensen, and PU Ranch ("the Ranchers") are each owners of farmland in an area of Butte County known as the Era Flat, and they each have both surface water and groundwater rights to irrigate their respective farmlands. Mike Telford leases the property of Telford Lands. Telford Lands has an irrigation well on its property known as the Burnett Well, Mr. Sorensen has an irrigation well on his property known as the Old Moss Well, and PU Ranch has an irrigation well on its property known as the PU Well. Prior to 2009, PU Ranch and Mike Telford each pumped groundwater from their respective wells into the Moore Canal, owned by the Big Lost River Irrigation District, in order to transport the water to their respective authorized places of use. They each had entered into transport agreements with the Irrigation District, which permitted them to use the canal to transport their water. Their water was comingled with the District's water as it flowed down the canal, and due to conveyance losses the amount of water they could divert back out of the canal was substantially less than the amount they pumped into the canal.

In the spring of 2009, the Ranchers joined together to construct pipelines to convey water from their respective wells to a ditch they constructed in an unused portion of a canal known as the Blaine Canal. The water then flowed to a portion of the Blaine Canal that was still in use, known as the Timberdome Canal, which conveyed the water to the Ranchers' respective farmlands. They did so to avoid having to use the Moore Canal because of the high conveyance losses of water as it flowed down the canal. This lawsuit involves the condemnation of an easement to run the buried pipeline across a strip of real property owned by Donald and Carolyn Cain.

The Ranchers built two separate pipelines. One pipeline has one branch beginning at the PU Well and running in a southwesterly direction to a point south of the Sorensen property where it connects to the other branch running south from the Old Moss Well. The pipeline then continues in a southwesterly direction to a point where it crosses a 100-foot-wide strip of land owned by the Cains. After crossing the Cains' property, it goes under Highway 93, which runs north-south, and then near the Burnett Well. The second pipeline begins at that well, and then both pipelines continue parallel to each other in a southwesterly direction to the ditch in the Blaine Canal.

The Ranchers contend that Mr. Cain gave them oral permission to run the pipeline across the Cains' property, but in August 2009 the Cains began protesting the pipeline across their property. The Ranchers attempted to purchase an easement from the Cains, but Mr. Cain demanded more than $100, 000 for the easement. In May 2010, he dug up the pipeline on his property, punched a hole in it to disable it, and then sent a letter to the Ranchers informing them about what he had done.

On May 17, 2010, the Ranchers filed this action seeking: (1) specific performance of the alleged oral agreement to permit them to construct the pipeline across the Cains' property; (2) a finding that the Cains were estopped from forcing removal of the pipeline; (3) damages for a civil conspiracy among Mr. Cain and the unknown person(s) who assisted him in digging up and damaging the pipeline; (4) condemnation of an easement across the Cains' property for the pipeline; (5) damages for injury to the pipeline, including crop losses. On May 25, 2010, the Cains filed an answer and a counterclaim for trespass.

The Ranchers filed a motion for partial summary judgment regarding their condemnation claim, and the Cains filed a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of all of the Ranchers' claims. The district court granted the Ranchers' motion, and it granted the Cains' motion with respect to the Ranchers' remaining claims. The issue of damages for the taking of the Cains' property was set for trial. Prior to filing this lawsuit, the Ranchers had offered the Cains amounts ranging from $500 to $5, 000, but the Cains refused those offers and demanded more than $100, 000 for an easement. In preparation for the trial, the Ranchers engaged a certified appraiser to provide an opinion as to the value of the property to be condemned. The land subject to the easement was an old railroad right-of-way that the Cains had purchased in 1995, but which had remained unused. The appraiser determined that such land had a value of $27.55. Because of the low value, he concluded that the easement would have "a token value of $500, " which "would represent the time and effort required for the property owner to sign an easement." The Cains ultimately stipulated to that amount as their damages for the condemnation of the easement.

The Cains filed a motion for reconsideration of the district court's decision granting the Ranchers' motion for a partial summary judgment on their condemnation claim, and the Cains presented additional evidence in support of the motion. After hearing argument, the district court denied the motion for reconsideration. Both sides requested an award of court costs and attorney fees, but the district court denied both requests on the ground that there was no prevailing party. The district court entered a final judgment on September 30, 2011, and the Cains timely appealed.


Were the Cains Denied Due Process of Law?

The Ranchers installed the pipeline across the Cains' property in May or June of 2009. According to the Ranchers, they had received oral permission from Mr. Cain to do so, but he later changed his mind as a result of pressure from others who wanted the Ranchers' water to be in the Moore Canal. The Cains contend that they were denied due process of law as a result of the Ranchers constructing the pipeline across the Cains' property before the amount of just compensation owing to the Cains was determined and paid in the manner provided by law. They rely upon the last sentence of Article I, § 14, of the Idaho Constitution, which states, "Private property may be taken for public use, but not until a just compensation, to be ascertained in the manner prescribed by law, shall be paid therefor." They argue that because the Ranchers were in possession of the Cains' land before instituting condemnation proceedings, "the decision of the district court on the issue of eminent domain should be vacated with instructions to the district court to enter a judgment in favor of the Cains on the trespass claim they asserted in their Counterclaim."

Assuming that the Ranchers committed a trespass when they installed the pipeline across the Cains' real property, they would not be barred from thereafter instituting proper condemnation proceedings. If a person or corporation vested with the power of eminent domain enters upon the land of another without lawful authority, the person or corporation may, by proper proceedings, still condemn the property wrongfully entered upon. Blackwell Lumber Co. v. Empire Mill Co., 29 Idaho 421, 434, 160 P. 265, 269 (1916).

The Cains are correct that "under the provisions of the constitution private property may be taken for public use, but not until just compensation, ascertained in a manner prescribed by law, shall be paid therefor." Big Lost River Irr. Co. v. Davidson, 21 Idaho 160, 168, 121 P. 88, 91 (1912). However, in Yellowstone Pipe Line Co. v. Drummond, 77 Idaho 36, 287 P.2d 288 (1955), we held that where the installer of a pipeline across the property of another did not do so by forcible entry or by deliberate trespass, but under a belief that the installer had the right to do so, "it would be inequitable and cause unnecessary damage to require respondent to dig up its pipeline and surrender possession of the right-of-way pending the final determination of this cause." Id. at 44, 287 P.2d at 293. In this case, there is an issue of fact as to whether Mr. Cain initially gave the Ranchers oral permission to install the pipeline across the Cains' property. However, that issue of fact is immaterial to the resolution of this issue on appeal.

If a private person, who is entitled under Article I, § 14, to condemn an easement across the property of another, enters onto the property without first obtaining an order of condemnation and paying just compensation, the owner of the property "may maintain his action to oust and eject the trespasser, or he may enjoin him from using and occupying the land, or he may waive both such remedies and sue upon an implied contract to pay reasonable compensation for the property taken." Boise Valley Constr. Co. v. Kroeger, 17 Idaho 384, 397, 105 P. 1070, 1074 (1909). In this case, the Cains did not raise this issue until after the judgment was entered in this case and they had filed their notice of appeal. They raised it in their reply brief in support of their motion to disallow the ...

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