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Thornton v. Pandrea

Supreme Court of Idaho

September 14, 2016

JOHN F. THORNTON, Plaintiff-Counterdefendant-Appellant,
v.
MARY E. PANDREA, a single woman individually and as Trustee of the Kari A. Clark and Mary E. Pandrea Revocable Trust u/a April 9, 2002, Defendant-Respondent, and VAL THORNTON, Intervenor-Appellant, and KENNETH J. BARRETT and DEANNA L. BARRETT, husband and wife, Defendants-Counterclaimants-Respondents.

         2016 Opinion No. 103

         Appeal from the District Court of the First Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Bonner County. Hon. John T. Mitchell, District Judge.

         The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

          Thornton Law Office, Sandpoint, for appellant. Valerie P. Thornton argued.

          Lukins & Annis, PS, Coeur d'Alene, for respondent. Michael G. Schmidt argued.

          J. JONES, Chief Justice.

         Appellant John Thornton ("Mr. Thornton"), represented by his wife Val Thornton ("Ms. Thornton"), sued sisters Mary Pandrea and Kari Clark to quiet title to an easement reserved in their names on real property he owns that is adjacent to real property that was jointly owned by the sisters. Clark counterclaimed against Mr. Thornton, seeking declaratory relief establishing her rights in the easement and damages for interference with her easement rights. While this case was pending, the real property jointly owned by Pandrea and Clark was judicially partitioned in a separate proceeding; now Pandrea is the sole owner of the property adjacent to the easement in question and Clark owns nearby non-adjacent property.

         The district court granted Clark's motion for summary judgment on all of Mr. Thornton's claims against her and on all her counterclaims except her claim for damages. The court denied Mr. Thornton's motion for summary judgment and subsequent motion for reconsideration. By stipulation, the court dismissed Mr. Thornton's claims against Pandrea and Clark's damages claim against Mr. Thornton. After all claims were adjudicated, the district court awarded attorney fees to Clark against Mr. Thornton under Idaho Code section 12-121 and against both Mr. Thornton and Ms. Thornton jointly and severally as Rule 11 sanctions. Mr. Thornton appeals several decisions of the district court. Ms. Thornton, as intervenor, appeals the district court's imposition of sanctions. After entry of judgment, Kenneth Barrett and Deanna Barrett ("the Barretts") purchased Clark's property and substituted in the stead of Clark in the underlying action and in this appeal. Mr. Thornton moved for a stay of execution and waiver of supersedeas bond, which the district court denied. The court granted the Barretts' motion for sanctions against Mr. Thornton and Ms. Thornton based on the motion for stay.

         I.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         The primary decision appealed from is the district court's grant of summary judgment to Clark. Accordingly, this factual background focuses on those facts that are relevant to this appeal and were in evidence before the district court at the time of the summary judgment hearing.

         The real property at issue in this case is located in Bonner County. Prior to the events relevant to this appeal, Pandrea and Clark jointly owned lands referred to herein as Parcels A, B, and C. In 1992, Pandrea and Clark quitclaim deeded Parcel A-real property lying southeast of Tavern Creek-to Pandrea and her then-husband Robert Lee Wiltse, Sr. This deed, recorded as Instrument No. 416381, has been referred to as the "1992 Quitclaim Deed." The face of the deed expressly reserved an easement: "Subject to and reserving a 30.0 foot easement for a road right of way and utilities." The easement was described in the deed by metes and bounds, and burdened a portion of Parcel A. Mr. Thornton admits that Pandrea and Clark owned this land, as well as the adjoining Parcel B and Parcel C to the northwest, as tenants in common at the time of the 1992 conveyance.

         Mr. Thornton rented Parcel A from Pandrea and Wiltse from 1993 to 1998. In 1998, Wiltse conveyed Parcel A to Mr. Thornton by a warranty deed recorded as Bonner County Instrument No. 525386.[1] This has been referred to as the "1998 Warranty Deed." The deed included the following language:

EASEMENT AND CONDITIONS THEREOF RESERVED BY INSTRUMENT:

IN FAVOR OF: MARY E. PANDREA WILTSE, A MARRIED WOMAN DEALING IN HER SOLE AND SEPARATE PROPERTY; AND KARI A. CLARK, A SINGLE WOMAN

FOR: A 30.0 FOOT EASEMENT FOR A ROAD RIGHT OF WAY AND UTILITIES

INSTRUMENT NO.: 416381

         Thus, the easement documented in the deed to Mr. Thornton describes by reference the same easement reserved by Pandrea and Clark in the 1992 Quitclaim Deed to Pandrea and Wiltse. Mr. Thornton refers to the part of Parcel A on which the easement sits as the "Shoreline Piece."

         When the easement was reserved in 1992, Pandrea and Clark jointly owned two other relevant pieces of property: an approximately five-acre parcel adjoining the Shoreline Piece (Parcel B), and an approximately fifteen-acre parcel north of the five-acre parcel that did not adjoin the Shoreline Piece (Parcel C).[2] Mr. Thornton alleges, apparently without dispute, that before Pandrea and Clark became tenants in common as to each parcel, Parcel B was Pandrea's sole and separate property and Parcel C was Clark's sole and separate property.

         Pandrea and Clark no longer own Parcels B and C jointly as tenants in common. In a separate matter litigated in 2014, Parcels B and C were judicially partitioned between Pandrea and Clark. A survey conducted in conjunction with that matter had determined that the land at issue comprised over twenty-three acres rather than twenty acres. The judgment awarded Pandrea 12.739 acres in the southeast portion of the whole ("Pandrea's New Parcel") and Clark 10.423 acres in the northwest portion ("Clark's New Parcel"). Pandrea's New Parcel includes all of the original Parcel B and part of the original Parcel C. Clark's New Parcel includes the remaining portion of the original Parcel C, and does not adjoin the Shoreline Piece. The outer borders of Pandrea's New Parcel plus Clark's New Parcel are coextensive with the outer borders of the original Parcel B plus the original Parcel C. The judgment partitioning the parcels described an easement appurtenant benefiting Clark's New Parcel over Pandrea's New Parcel. This easement apparently has its point of beginning where Mr. Thornton's Shoreline Piece meets the boundary of Parcel B, the original five-acre parcel. A copy of the partition judgment was in evidence before the district court in this case.[3]

         Clark claims that Mr. Thornton wrongfully interfered with her easement rights by erecting a locked gate across the road. She also claims that he posted a sign stating "NOTICE KARI CLARK is prohibited from entering upon this property for any reason under penalty of criminal trespass. I.C. 18-7011. John F. Thornton, 4685 Upper Pack River Road, Sandpoint, Idaho 83864, Owner." According to Clark, in July 2013 she and her family attempted to access her parcel through the easement road on Mr. Thornton's property in order to scatter the ashes of her deceased son following a memorial service. She asserts that Mr. Thornton stopped them and refused to let anyone pass the gate unless they agreed to sign a document purporting to grant Clark limited access to use the easement. Mr. Thornton argued that he "has a right to question those who claim to have the right to cross his property, and it is not unreasonable to ask for identification and verification of such claims."

         B. Procedural Background

         In August of 2013, Mr. Thornton sued Pandrea and Clark to quiet title and for damages with respect to the Shoreline Piece and the "Well Piece, " a small piece of land between Tavern Creek and the northwest boundary of Parcel A. Notably, Mr. Thornton's complaint included as exhibits re-typed "property descriptions" describing the metes and bounds of Parcel A, including the Shoreline Piece-but these exhibits were not certified documents and did not acknowledge the easement referenced in the deed from which the property descriptions must have been copied. Title to the Well Piece is not at issue in this appeal and it will not be further discussed except as relevant to this appeal. Both defendants filed answers. Clark also counterclaimed, seeking to quiet title to the easement over the Shoreline Piece and to recover damages for Mr. Thornton's alleged interference with her easement rights.

         On January 30, 2014, Clark moved for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of Mr. Thornton's complaint against her and seeking entry of judgment on her counterclaims against Mr. Thornton. Clark's motion was accompanied by a supporting memorandum and by sworn affidavits from Clark's counsel, Joel P. Hazel, and Clark's niece, Terri Boyd-Davis. Hazel's affidavit included three relevant exhibits. Exhibit A is a certified copy of the 1992 Quitclaim Deed. Exhibit B is a certified copy of the 1998 Warranty Deed. Exhibit C is a copy of the Revised Judgment and Decree of Partition that divided Parcel B and Parcel C between Pandrea and Clark into Pandrea's New Parcel and Clark's New Parcel.

         Mr. Thornton objected to Clark's motion for summary judgment. With his objection he also filed an affidavit he had sworn, as well as a memorandum of law. In addition, Mr. Thornton moved to dismiss or to continue the hearing on Clark's motion for summary judgment and sought sanctions. He alleged that Clark's motion and supporting filings pled matters outside of the scope of her answer and counterclaim and alleged facts omitted from her response to discovery. He further alleged that the affidavits of Boyd-Davis and Hazel were submitted in bad faith.

         The district court held oral argument on Clark's motion for summary judgment on March 14, 2014. The court granted Clark's motion at the conclusion of the hearing, while also indicating it would issue a written decision. The court issued that decision on April 9, 2014. In addition to ruling on the motion for summary judgment, the court's order documented a concern it had raised at the hearing that Mr. Thornton's wife and attorney Ms. Thornton would violate the Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct by acting as an advocate at trial where she was likely to be a witness. The court noted it had sent Ms. Thornton a letter after the hearing indicating that the court would report her to the Idaho State Bar unless there were a timely substitution of counsel. Ms. Thornton did not withdraw, but instead stated to the court that bar counsel had indicated that she could continue representing Mr. Thornton during the pre-trial process.

         In ruling on summary judgment, the court made two legal conclusions relevant to this appeal. First, the court concluded that there is no genuine issue of material fact that Clark had a right to use the easement on the Shoreline Piece. Second, the court concluded that Mr. Thornton had interfered with Clark's right to use the easement.

         The district court rejected the argument made by both Pandrea and Mr. Thornton that the easement at issue benefits only Parcel B, which they referred to as Tax Lot 40. The court noted that no admissible evidence depicted Tax Lot 40 or described it by a metes and bounds description. The district court concluded that by its plain language, the easement was created to benefit the lands of Pandrea and Clark, which at the time of creation included both Parcels B and C. The district court further concluded that no language in the easement limited it to Parcel B or to "Tax Lot 40." Therefore, the present ownership of Parcel B is irrelevant because the easement was intended to benefit both Parcel B and Parcel C. The court also rejected Mr. Thornton's argument that a property benefited by an easement appurtenant must be adjacent to the property burdened. The court noted that Mr. Thornton offered no legal authority to support that proposition, and indeed that no such authority exists. After rejecting these arguments, the district court concluded that the 1992 Quitclaim Deed reserved an easement appurtenant on the Shoreline Piece for the benefit of Parcels B and C, and therefore, Clark had a right to use the easement because she was an owner of part of the dominant estate at all relevant times.

         Next, the court considered Clark's counterclaim that Mr. Thornton wrongfully interfered with her easement rights by erecting a locked gate across the road. First, the court rejected Mr. Thornton's claim he was unaware of Clark's easement rights, charging Mr. Thornton with record notice of the easement based on Wiltse's deed to Mr. Thornton that expressly named Clark as an easement holder. Further, the court concluded that the recorded 1992 deed reserving the easement also put Mr. Thornton on constructive notice of Clark's easement rights. The district court found that "Thornton erected a locked gate across the easement road and posted a sign dated July 5, 2013, next to the gates, which read . . . 'NOTICE KARI CLARK IS PROHIBITED FROM ENTERING UPON THIS PROPERTY.'" Further, the court criticized Mr. Thornton for failing to present a certified copy of either of the deeds acknowledging the easement, and it disagreed with Ms. Thornton's contention that locking the gate and opposing Clark's counterclaims were not frivolous.

         Ultimately, the district court concluded that Clark met her burden on summary judgment by showing that she had a right to use the easement over the Shoreline Piece and that Mr. Thornton impermissibly interfered with that right. The court also concluded that Mr. Thornton failed to state a lawful basis for preventing Clark from exercising her rights under the easement. In its order, the court granted summary judgment in favor of Clark as to Mr. Thornton's claims and granted partial summary judgment in favor of Clark as to Clark's counterclaims, except for the issue of damages, which was to be litigated at trial. However, based on a stipulation by Clark and Mr. Thornton, the district court dismissed the damages claim, leaving nothing to be tried.

         On May 1, 2014, the court entered judgment consistent with its summary judgment order. Mr. Thornton moved for reconsideration, which the court denied. In its order, the court addressed several arguments Mr. Thornton made. First, the court rejected Mr. Thornton's challenge to the court's reliance on an affidavit filed by Joel P. Hazel, Clark's counsel. Although Mr. Thornton had challenged Hazel's personal knowledge and the truthfulness of his sworn statements, the court noted that in its summary judgment order it relied on certified documents attached to Hazel's affidavit rather than Hazel's testimony within the affidavit.

         Next, the court addressed Mr. Thornton's contention that the court had erred by relying on Clark's pleadings and affidavits for the proposition that the two parcels comprise one big twenty-acre parcel of land. The court noted that "Thornton's argument completely ignores the fact that District Judge John P. Luster . . . found that Clark and Pandrea owned twenty acres of land as tenants in common." Mr. Thornton appeared to believe, mistakenly, that whether the dominant estate was comprised of one parcel or two parcels was relevant.

         The court also rejected as irrelevant Mr. Thornton's argument that Clark had adequate access to her land via a road other than the easement. The court observed that access via another means is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether Clark has an express easement over Mr. Thornton's land.

         Next, the court again rejected Mr. Thornton's assertion that a dominant estate benefited by an easement appurtenant must be adjacent to the servient estate. The court reiterated that Clark's easement depends on the fact that her name is on a recorded easement that burdens Thornton's land.

         Finally, the court rejected Mr. Thornton's argument that Clark no longer owns the dominant estate as lacking a factual basis. The court regarded the dominant estate as "the property held as tenants in common (until earlier this year) by Pandrea and Clark" at the time the easement was created. The court perceived that the partition action that divvied up the jointly- held land into separate parcels had no impact on the easement over Mr. Thornton's property because "Pandrea and Clark still own the dominant estate."

         The district court addressed additional matters in its order on reconsideration. Clark had objected to Mr. Thornton's affidavit, requesting that the court strike it. The court refused:

While Thornton's affidavit provides no relevant evidence to rebut the express easement of record Clark has across Thornton's land, Thornton's affidavit is relevant to show the absurd lengths he is willing to travel to try and trump Clark's easement. Drawing twelve maps with colored pencils in an attempt to show what happened at various times in history, does nothing to change the fact that Clark has a written express easement across Thornton's land.
. . . . Throughout summary judgment, Thornton refused to discuss that easement[;] instead he chose to make irrelevant arguments to the Court. Now, Thornton supplies the Court with additional documents that do nothing to dispute the language of [the deeds]. The hand-illustrated maps made by John Thornton alleging to depict the properties and easements involved in this case are of no relevance. Clark shifted the burden to Thornton to show that there is a genuine issue of material fact and Thornton has failed to meet his burden via admissible and relevant evidence.

         Clark timely moved for attorney fees and costs and Mr. Thornton timely objected. The district court granted Clark's request for attorney fees and costs in the amount of $41, 530.17. The award was granted against Mr. Thornton based on a conclusion that the case was brought frivolously under Idaho Code section 12-121, and it was granted jointly and severally against Mr. Thornton and Ms. Thornton as a Rule 11 sanction. The Rule 11 sanction was based on the failure to produce a copy of the deed earlier in the litigation. The court reasoned that Mr. Thornton and Ms. Thornton were not candid with the court and that had they produced the deed, instead of waiting on Clark to produce it, the case would have been resolved much sooner.

         Mr. Thornton timely appealed. While the appeal was pending, the Barretts filed a Notice of Substitution with the Court, indicating that Clark had transferred to the Barretts both the title to her real property that is the subject of this appeal and her interest in the instant cause of action. Clark also filed a motion before the Supreme Court to temporarily remand the case to the district court to rule on the motion to substitute parties. Mr. Thornton objected and moved to strike and disallow the substitution. The substitution was approved both by the district court and by this Court.

         Additionally, Ms. Thornton petitioned to intervene in the appeal for the purpose of challenging the Rule 11 sanctions imposed against her. Over the Barretts' opposition, the Court granted the petition. Pandrea also filed a pro se brief as a respondent on appeal.

         Finally, Mr. Thornton moved the district court for a stay pending appeal and waiver of supersedeas bond, relying on Idaho Appellate Rule 13(b)(14). The Barretts opposed the motion and sought Rule 11 sanctions against Mr. Thornton and Ms. Thornton on the grounds that I.A.R. 13(b)(14) does not allow a stay on a money judgment such as the award of attorney fees at summary judgment. The district court denied Mr. Thornton's motion and granted the Barretts' motion for sanctions.

         II. ISSUES PRESENTED ON APPEAL

         A. Mr. Thornton's Issues on Appeal

1. Whether the district court abused its discretion by determining factual issues on summary judgment where the matter was set for jury trial.
2. Whether the district court erred by interpreting the 1998 Warranty Deed as giving notice of an easement in favor of Clark, as a matter of law, regardless of whether she still owned the dominant estate.
3. Whether the district court abused its discretion by refusing to hear Mr. Thornton's motion for sanctions and continue the hearing on summary judgment.
4. Whether the district court erred in refusing to determine the dimensions of the easement or the burden on the servient estate.
5. Whether it was clearly erroneous for the district court to find that Mr. Thornton knowingly and intentionally interfered with Clark's easement.
6. Whether the district court abused its discretion by awarding attorney fees to Clark under Idaho Code section 12-121.
7. Whether the district court abused its discretion by imposing Rule 11 sanctions against Mr. Thornton prior to the appeal.
8. Whether the district court erred in substituting the Barretts for Clark as parties in interest.
9. Whether the district court abused its discretion in imposing Rule 11 sanctions against Mr. Thornton for his motion for a stay pending appeal ...

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