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Schweitzer Basin Water Co. v. Schweitzer Fire District

Supreme Court of Idaho

November 28, 2017

SCHWEITZER BASIN WATER COMPANY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
SCHWEITZER FIRE DISTRICT, Defendant-Appellant.

         2017 Opinion No. 116

         Appeal from the District Court of the First Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Bonner County. Hon. Barbara A. Buchanan, District Judge.

         The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

          Marshall Law Office, Sandpoint, for appellant. Angela R. Marshall argued.

          Stephen F. Smith, Attorney at Law, Chartered, Sandpoint, for respondent. Stephen F. Smith argued.

          HORTON, JUSTICE.

         Schweitzer Fire District (the District) appeals the decision of the district court granting a writ of prohibition on behalf of Schweitzer Basin Water Company (the Company) that prevents the District from taking proposed enforcement action against the Company related to perceived flow-rate deficiencies of fire hydrants owned by third-party homeowners and installed on the Company's private water system. The district court granted the writ of prohibition after concluding that the District did not have jurisdiction over the Company under Idaho Code section 41-259. The district court awarded attorney fees and costs to the Company after determining that the District's position was without a reasonable basis in fact or law. The District timely appealed. The State Fire Marshal submitted briefing as amicus curiae because the writ of prohibition at issue involves interpretation of the scope of its duties under Idaho Code.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The Company has operated a private water system for delivery of domestic water to residents in the Schweitzer Mountain area since 1989. Beginning in 1992, the Company has allowed homeowners to add fire hydrants to its water system under a standard contract requiring the homeowners to be responsible for maintenance of their hydrants. The District was formed in 1994. The Company and the District have had repeated disputes about the flow-rate requirements of hydrants since that time.

         The present dispute began when the District sent an Order to Repair and Remedy to the Company (the Order) on May 3, 2014. Initially, the Company filed a request for a contested hearing on the issues raised in the Order. However, instead of proceeding with the contested hearing, the Company turned to the district court, seeking relief by way of a writ of prohibition. The district court issued an alternative writ of prohibition on March 20, 2015, and scheduled a show cause hearing for March 25, 2015. Following the hearing, the district court left the alternative writ of prohibition in effect and the parties attempted mediation. Mediation was unsuccessful.

         Following a hearing on January 20, 2016, the district court granted the Company's request for a writ of prohibition. In its Memorandum Decision granting the relief, the district court explained that the District had no statutory authority under Idaho Code section 41-259 to compel the Company to repair the water system because the water system could not be considered a "building or structure." The district court heard the Company's motion for attorney fees on March 23, 2016, and entered an order awarding attorney fees shortly after. The district court entered the peremptory writ of prohibition and judgment on April 21, 2016. After several other post-trial motions not at issue in this appeal, the District timely appealed.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Appeals concerning jurisdiction are questions of law over which this Court exercises free review. State v. Dist. Court of Fourth Judicial Dist., 143 Idaho 695, 699, 152 P.3d 566, 570 (2007). A writ of prohibition is only proper when the petitioner can show "that the tribunal, corporation, board[, ] or person is proceeding without or in excess of the jurisdiction of such tribunal[, ] corporation, board, or person." Id. at 698, 152 P.3d at 569 (quoting Clearwater Timber Protective Ass'n v. Dist. Court of Second Judicial Dist. In and For Clearwater Cnty., 84 Idaho 129, 135, 369 P.2d 571, 574 (1962)). A party seeking a writ of prohibition must show that "there is not a plain, speedy, and adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law." Id. The petitioner bears the burden of proof as to these two requirements. Id. at 699, 152 P.3d at 570 (citing Clark v. Ada Cnty. Bd. of Comm'rs, 98 Idaho 749, 752, 572 P.2d 501, 504 (1977)).

         In the context of a writ of prohibition, the term "jurisdiction" has a specific meaning. As we explained in Henry v. Ysursa:

The word "jurisdiction" when used in reference to a writ of prohibition includes the power or authority conferred by law. Crooks v. Maynard, 112 Idaho 312, 319, 732 P.2d 281, 288 (1987) (where administrative orders were within the "power and authority" of the administrative district judge, a writ of prohibition would not issue); Stein v. Morrison, 9 Idaho 426, 455, 75 P. 246, 256 (1904) (quoting from Maurer v. Mitchell, 53 Cal. 289, 292 (1878)) ("The word 'jurisdiction, ' when used in connection with 'prohibition, ' would be at once understood as being employed in the sense of the legal power or review." State v. District Court, 143 Idaho 695, 699, 152 P.3d 566, 570 (2007)).

148 Idaho 913, 915, 231 P.3d 1010, 1012 (2008). The District's claim of authority over the Company is grounded in statute. "Statutory interpretation is a question of law over which this Court exercises free review." Estate of Stahl v. Idaho State Tax Comm'n, 162 Idaho 558, 562, 401 P.3d 136, 140 (2017) (quoting Carrillo v. Boise Tire Co., 152 Idaho 741, 748, 274 P.3d 1256, 1263 (2012)).

         Attorney fees awarded by a district court under Idaho Code section 12-117 are reviewed for abuse of discretion. City of Osburn v. Randel, 152 Idaho 906, 908, 277 P.3d 353, 355 (2012). In determining whether a district court has abused its discretion, this Court examines whether the district court: "(1) correctly perceive[d] the issue as discretionary, (2) act[ed] within the bounds of discretion and applie[d] the correct legal standards, and (3) reache[d] the decision through an exercise of reason." American Semiconductor, Inc. v. Sage Silicon Solutions, LLC, 162 Idaho 119, 132, 395 P.3d 338, 351 (2017) (quoting O'Connor v. Harger Constr., Inc., 145 Idaho 904, 909, 188 P.3d 846, 851 (2008)). The appellant bears the burden of showing that the trial court abused its discretion. Id. (citing Merrill v. Gibson, 139 Idaho 840, 843, 87 P.3d 949, 952 (2004)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The district court correctly concluded that the District did not have jurisdiction over the Company's water system under Idaho Code section 41-259.

         In its Memorandum Decision and Order Granting Writ of Prohibition, the district court considered the District's claim of authority over the Company under Idaho Code section 41-259. The district court concluded that "the Company's water system can in no way be construed as a 'building or other structure which, for want of repairs, . . . or by reason of age or dilapidated condition, or due to violation of the International Fire Code or from any other cause, is especially liable to fire . . . .' " The district court also decided that the administrative hearings proposed by the District did not present an adequate remedy at law for the Company. Having concluded that the two requirements for issuance of a writ of prohibition had been satisfied, the district court granted the petition. Based upon the legal arguments presented to it, the district court did not err.

         As a preliminary matter, we must consider the extent to which arguments advanced by the State Fire Marshal, appearing as amicus curiae, may be properly considered when deciding this appeal. Stated summarily, the State Fire Marshal advances the thesis that the district court did not properly interpret Idaho Code section 41-259 within the context of the entire statutory fire-safety scheme. The extent to which amicus briefing may inject new legal issues into an appeal has ...


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