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Judd v. Bowen

Supreme Court of Utah

August 29, 2018

Robert L. Judd III, and Charles L. Allen, Petitioners and Cross Respondents,
v.
David Bowen, Respondent and Cross Petitioner.

          On Certiorari to the Court of Appeals Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Su Chon No. 110917049

          Bruce J. Nelson, Joseph C. Rust, Jeffery S. Williams, Salt Lake City, for petitioners.

          Michael D. Zimmerman, Clemens A. Landau, Salt Lake City, for respondent.

          Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, Justice Petersen and Judge Davis joined.

          Having recused himself, Justice Pearce did not participate herein. District Court Judge Lynn W. Davis sat.

          OPINION

          Durrant, Chief Justice.

         Introduction

         ¶1 After decades of amicable use of a circular driveway touching adjacent cabins, two families now dispute whether an easement by prescription exists. The Judd family maintains that it has a prescriptive easement to the entire driveway for access and parking purposes. The Bowen family argues that any use of the driveway by the Judds came through the Bowens' permission and so no prescriptive right exists. After a four-day bench trial, the trial court granted the Judds a prescriptive easement for both access and parking purposes. On appeal, the court of appeals affirmed the easement for access, but limited its scope. It also reversed the easement for parking. We exercised our certiorari authority to determine what appeared to be important questions over the correct standards for establishing prescriptive rights. But after briefing and oral argument, it is clear this is not a case suitable for certiorari review.

         ¶2 Under rule 46 of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure, certiorari is generally proper when the court of appeals has rendered a decision that (1) is in conflict with a prior court of appeals decision or a decision of this court, (2) has "so far departed from the accepted and usual course of judicial proceedings" so as to require our supervision, or (3) has "decided an important question of . . . law" which should be settled by this court. Because these considerations are not present in this case, we hold that we improvidently granted certiorari.[1]

         Background

         ¶3 This case involves a dispute over the use of a century-old circular driveway (Driveway) that sits between two adjacent cabins in Big Cottonwood Canyon. One cabin is owned by the Bowens, and the Driveway is located almost entirely on their property. The other cabin belongs to the Judds. For almost a century, both families used the Driveway in an amicable manner. But in 2008, a Judd user, for the first time, refused to move a vehicle off the Driveway at the Bowens' request. The Judds claimed they had a prescriptive right to access and park on the Driveway arising from their historical use of the Driveway. Shortly thereafter, the Bowens erected gates and other barricades to limit the Judds' access to the Driveway and informed the Judds that they could no longer use the Driveway "absent a court order."

         ¶4 Robert Judd III and Charles Allen (collectively, the Judds) filed a suit against David Bowen in 2011 to establish a prescriptive right to use the Driveway for ingress, egress, and parking purposes. A four-day bench trial was held where the trial court heard testimony from over twenty witnesses about the historic use of the Driveway.

         ¶5 The trial court ultimately concluded that the Judds had a right to a prescriptive easement for "reasonable access and parking purposes" because the Judds' use had been "open and notorious," "under a claim of right," "adverse," and continuous for a twenty-year prescriptive period. But the trial court did not make findings regarding, among other things, the exact date the prescriptive easement was established or to provide the exact parameters of that easement. The Bowens timely appealed. Neither party challenged the sufficiency of the trial court's factual findings on appeal.

         ¶6 On appeal, a majority panel of the court of appeals held that the trial court correctly granted the Judds a prescriptive easement on the Driveway for access, but not for parking.[2] Specifically, the court concluded that the trial court's findings of fact reasonably supported its conclusion that the Judds' use had been continuous, open, and adverse for twenty years.[3] Additionally, it held that the historic parking use the Judds sought could not be established through prescriptive easement, because the parking right closely resembles a possessory right that must be established through an adverse possession analysis.[4] In deciding this issue, the court of appeals relied upon this court's precedent in which we distinguished between rights established through prescription and adverse possession.[5]

         ¶7 Both parties submitted a petition for certiorari to this court, which we granted. In their petition, the Bowens claimed the court of appeals endorsed an incorrect legal standard for finding prescriptive easements. The Judds argued that the court of appeals had ventured into uncharted territory in determining that the parking easement must be established through adverse possession rather than prescription. We ultimately granted certiorari to answer what appeared to be important and unsettled legal questions in the prescriptive easement arena. We have jurisdiction to hear this case pursuant to section 78A-3-102(3)(a) of the Utah Code.

         Standard of Review

         ¶8 We granted certiorari on three issues: (1) whether the court of appeals erred in its construction and application of the elements of the legal standard for establishing a prescriptive easement for access; (2) whether the court of appeals erred in reversing the trial court's grant of a prescriptive easement for parking to the Judds; and (3) whether the court of appeals erred in its ruling concerning the scope of the easement. "The ultimate determination of whether an easement exists is a conclusion of law, which we review for correctness."[6] But such a determination is "the type of highly fact-dependent question, with numerous potential fact patterns, which accords the trial judge a broad measure of discretion when applying the correct legal standard to the given set of facts."[7] This means an appellate court should "overturn the finding of an easement only if [it] find[s] that the trial judge's decision exceeded the broad discretion granted."[8]

         Analysis

         ¶9 In their petition for certiorari, the Bowens argued that the court of appeals erred in "affirm[ing] the district court's use of incorrect legal definitions for the[] various elements [of a prescriptive easement] and erroneously concluded Judd was entitled to a prescriptive easement." Conversely, the Judds argued that the court of appeals' pronouncement that "a prescriptive parking easement is more akin to adverse possession than it is to a prescriptive access easement" is "the first ruling of [its] kind in the State of Utah" and requires "better definition and guidance." They also argued that the court of appeals erred in curtailing the scope of the access easement. We granted certiorari to answer what appeared to be important and unsettled legal questions. Upon further review, we are unable to answer these questions because the trial court did not make explicit findings as to the date the easement was established and its parameters, and the parties failed to challenge the sufficiency of the trial court's findings. We ...


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