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Mortensen v. Berian

Supreme Court of Idaho

December 21, 2017

JADE MORTENSEN and KYLIE MORTENSEN, Plaintiffs-Counterdefendants-Respondents,
GALUST BERIAN and YVETTE N. STURGIS, Defendants-Counterclaimants-Appellants.

         2017 Opinion No. 128

         Appeal from the District Court of the Seventh Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Madison County. Hon. Alan C. Stephens, District Judge.

         The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

          Dunn Law Office, PLLC, Rigby, for appellants. Robin D. Dunn argued.

          Rigby, Andrus & Rigby Law, PLLC, Rexburg, for respondents. Hyrum D. Erickson argued.

          HORTON, Justice.

         Galust Berian filled in a ditch on property owned by Yvette Sturgis. The ditch served property owned by Jade and Kylie Mortensen. The Mortensens sued Berian and Sturgis seeking damages and to have the ditch reopened. Berian counterclaimed for trespass. Following a court trial, the district court ruled in favor of the Mortensons on their claim regarding the ditch and awarded the Mortensens damages for the cost of repairing the ditch. The district court also found in favor of Berian on his counterclaim for trespass but awarded only nominal damages. Berian and Sturgis appealed. We affirm.


         The Mortensens, Sturgis and Berian own adjacent parcels that were once part of a single parcel. A previous owner divided the larger parcel and sold two of the three lots to Berian in 1989. In 2004, the Mortensens purchased the remaining lot. In 2011, Berian encountered financial difficulties and one of his lots was repossessed and subsequently purchased by Sturgis. Sturgis' lot is situated between the Mortensens' parcel and that owned by Berian.

         Berian is an artist. Sturgis and Berian entered into an agreement whereby Berian is providing Sturgis with artwork as payment for Sturgis' parcel. The agreement also gives Berian the right to Sturgis' parcel until payment is complete.

         This dispute relates to a ditch crossing Sturgis' parcel to the Mortensen property. In September of 2014, Berian decided to fill in the ditch. After receiving permission from Sturgis to do so, he hired an unidentified individual to fill in the ditch over the length of the Sturgis property. The following spring, Mr. Mortensen entered the Sturgis property to perform maintenance on the ditch only to find that it had been destroyed. Although Berian had posted "No Trespassing" signs around the perimeter of his property, Mr. Mortenson entered Berian's property to confront him about the destruction of the ditch.

         The Mortensens own four shares of capital stock in the Reid Canal Company which entitles them to receive water from the Reid Canal. After weighing conflicting evidence, the district court found that the Mortensens had received water from the Reid Canal Company by way of the ditch across Sturgis' property and rejected Sturgis and Berian's claim that the ditch had been abandoned.

         The district court's initial findings of fact and conclusions of law briefly addressed Berian's counterclaim, stating that it had been "dropped during trial" and therefore would not be addressed. The Mortensens moved for reconsideration, asking the district court to dismiss Berian's counterclaim with prejudice. After a hearing on the motion, the district court issued amended findings of fact and conclusions of law and a corresponding judgment. The judgment ordered that the ditch be reopened, awarded Mortensen $1, 020 for the cost of repairing the ditch, and awarded Berian $50 in nominal damages for Mortensen's trespass. Berian and Sturgis timely appealed.


         "Following a bench trial, this Court's review is 'limited to ascertaining whether the evidence supports the findings of fact, and whether the findings of fact support the conclusions of law.' " Morgan v. New Sweden Irrigation Dist., 160 Idaho 47, 51, 368 P.3d 990, 994 (2016) (quoting Borah v. McCandless, 147 Idaho 73, 77, 205 P.3d 1209, 1213 (2009)). "This Court will not set aside a trial court's findings of fact unless the findings are clearly erroneous." Borah, 147 Idaho at 77, 205 P.3d at 1213 (2009).

         "Clear error will not be deemed to exist if the findings are supported by substantial and competent, though conflicting, evidence." Pandrea v. Barrett, 160 Idaho 165, 171, 369 P.3d 943, 949 (2016) (quoting State Dep't of Health & Welfare v. Roe, 139 Idaho 18, 21, 72 P.3d 858, 861 (2003)). If there is evidence in the record that a reasonable trier of fact could accept and rely upon in making the factual finding challenged on appeal, there is substantial and competent evidence. Greenfield v. Wurmlinger, 158 Idaho 591, 598, 349 P.3d 1182, 1189 (2015).

         "[T]his Court exercises free review over matters of law and is not 'bound by the legal conclusions of the trial court, but may draw its own conclusions from the facts presented.' " Morgan, 160 Idaho at 51, 368 P.3d at 994 (quoting Borah, 147 Idaho at 77, 205 P.3d at 1213). However, "we will not substitute our view of the facts for the view of the district court." Marshall v. Blair, 130 Idaho 675, 679, 946 P.2d 975, 979 (1997). "In view of this role, the trial court's findings of fact will be liberally construed in favor of the judgment entered." Sun Valley Shamrock Resources, Inc. v. Travelers Leasing Corp., 118 Idaho 116, 118-19, 794 P.2d 1389, 1391-92 (1990).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The district court's findings regarding Berian and Sturgis' claim that the ditch had been ...

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