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Peterson v. Pierce

Court of Appeals of Utah

March 28, 2019

Carol H. Peterson, Appellee,
v.
Mark A. Pierce and Julie D. Pierce, Appellants.

          Fourth District Court, Fillmore Department The Honorable Jennifer A. Brown No. 130700033

          Dale B. Kimsey, Attorney for Appellants

          Lewis P. Reece and Jonathan P. Wentz, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge Michele M. Christiansen Forster authored this Opinion, in which Judges Kate Appleby and Diana Hagen concurred.

          OPINION

          CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, JUDGE

         ¶1 Mark A. Pierce and Julie D. Pierce appeal from the judgment of the district court in favor of Carol H. Peterson, trustee of the Larry A. and Carol H. Peterson Family Trust. The district court determined that an easement existed for a joint driveway between the parties' properties and reformed the parties' deeds to rectify a mistake in the deeds. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 Appellants Mark A. and Julie D. Pierce and Appellee Carol H. Peterson, trustee of the Larry A. and Carol H. Peterson Family Trust, own adjacent properties in Millard County, Utah. Peterson acquired her property (Peterson Parcel) in July 1997. The Pierces acquired the property in which their home sits (Parcel 1) in June 1989, and property immediately to the west (Parcel 2) in May 1997 (collectively, the Pierce Parcel). See infra Appendix. The Pierce Parcel and the Peterson Parcel were all previously owned under common ownership by Harold H. Hatton and Flora Allie G. Hatton, Peterson's parents and Julie Pierce's grandparents. The Peterson house is on the Peterson Parcel. This house was built in approximately 1975 by Harold Hatton after he had retired from farming, and he lived there until his death in 1996. The Pierces' house is located on Parcel 1 of the Pierce Parcel and was built in the late 1930s.

         ¶3 The Peterson Parcel is located directly north of the Pierce Parcel, and along the northern property line of the Pierce Parcel is a two-rutted lane (Two Rutted Lane) that has been in existence since the late 1930s and has been used as a joint driveway. Harold Hatton maintained the Two-Rutted Lane and used it as a driveway to access the west side of the property during his lifetime. At the time the Hattons, as trustees of the Harold H. Hatton Revocable Family Trust (Hatton Trust), conveyed Parcel 1 of the Pierce Parcel to the Pierces in 1989-and even after the line was surveyed and marked in 1997-nobody was clear about the exact boundary between the Pierce Parcel and the Peterson Parcel. Moreover, when the Hatton Trust conveyed Parcel 1 to the Pierces, there was a need to convey an additional seven feet of property by way of an easement for frontage so that Parcel 1 could be subdivided from the main parcel. The conveyance deed from the Hatton Trust to the Pierces contains an "Easement for Joint Driveway." Specifically, the Pierces' 1989 Warranty Deed states:

SUBJECT TO AND TOGETHER WITH an Easement for a joint driveway over and across the following described property: Beginning 70 feet North of the Southeast corner of Lot 7, Block 49, Plat A, Fillmore City Survey, thence North 7 feet; thence West 194 feet; thence South 7 feet; thence East 194 feet to the point of beginning.

         ¶4 The conveyance deed from the Hattons, as trustees for Parcel 2 of the Pierce Parcel, contains a similar "Easement for Joint Driveway." Specifically, the Pierces' 1997 Quitclaim Deed states:

SUBJECT TO AND TOGETHER WITH an Easement for a joint driveway over and across the following described property: Beginning 194 feet West and 70 feet North of the Southeast corner of Lot 7, Block 49, Plat A, Fillmore City Survey, thence North 7 feet; thence West 139.5 feet; thence South 7 feet; thence East 139.5 feet to the point of beginning.[1]

         ¶5 However, the district court found the inclusion of the "joint driveway" language in the deeds was in error. Given the historic use of the Two Rutted Lane, and the need to use it to access the west portion of the Peterson Parcel, the court found that Harold and Allie Hatton intended to convey a seven-foot easement to the Pierces solely for frontage, and the Hattons intended to reserve the use of the Two Rutted Lane as the joint driveway. The court further found that the Pierces were aware that the south seven feet of the Peterson Parcel was for frontage purposes and the Two Rutted Lane was to be kept and preserved as a joint driveway.

         ¶6 Following the death of Harold and Allie Hatton in 1996, Lynn Hatton and Betty Jo Dunnell became the successor trustees to the Hatton Trust. In connection with the sale of the Peterson Parcel to Peterson, the Hatton Trust requested a survey of the property. The survey was not completed until after Peterson purchased the Peterson Parcel. And, even after the survey flags had been placed, the dispute about the actual boundaries of the property remained unresolved.

         ¶7 Peterson's deed is "SUBJECT TO all easements, reservations, restrictions and rights-of-way of record or which may be ascertained from an inspection of the property." Peterson took title to the Peterson Parcel with the full expectation that she would have access to the west of her property by using the Two Rutted Lane, and she did in fact use it as a joint driveway as often as she needed, and she cared for it as if it were her own property. Though there was a continuing dispute between the Petersons and the Pierces, Peterson was able to access the west portion of the Peterson Parcel by using the Two Rutted Lane until the Pierces constructed a fence on the north edge of their property in July 2013. Without the use of the Two Rutted Lane, Peterson had great difficulty accessing the west portion of her property. Peterson brought suit after the fence was erected. After a five-day bench trial, the district court entered judgment in favor of Peterson.

         ¶8 Finding sufficient evidence of a mutual mistake in the deeds as to the description of the joint driveway and seven-foot frontage, the district court reformed each of the relevant deeds to reflect "that the joint driveway is not the seven foot strip north of [the Pierces'] property. Rather it is the Two Rutted Lane." The Pierces appeal.

         ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         ¶9 First, the Pierces contend that Peterson's claims were untimely and the district court erred in determining that her claims were not barred by the statute of limitations or the doctrine of laches.[2] "The application of a statute of limitations is a legal determination, which we review for correctness." Griffin v. Cutler, 2014 UT App 251, ¶ 14, 339 P.3d 100. To the extent that a statute of limitations analysis involves subsidiary factual determinations, we review those determinations for clear error. Id. "Whether laches applies is a question of law, which we review for correctness." Veysey v. Nelson, 2017 UT App 77, ¶ 5, 397 P.3d 846. "The application of laches to a particular set of facts and circumstances presents a mixed question of law and fact." Id. (quotation simplified). "Within that framework, we review the [district] court's conclusions of law for correctness and will disturb its findings of fact only if they are clearly erroneous." Id. (quotation simplified).

         ¶10 Second, the Pierces contend that the district court misinterpreted "key deed language" and the court therefore erred when it found that there was a mutual mistake warranting reformation of the deeds.[3] "Reformation of a deed is a proceeding in equity." RHN Corp. v. Veibell, 2004 UT 60, ¶ 35, 96 P.3d 935 (quotation simplified). "[T]he proper standard of review for a [district] court's findings of fact for cases in equity is the same as for cases at law, namely the clearly erroneous standard. Moreover, in both equity and law, we review the [district] court's conclusions of law for correctness." Id.

         ¶11 Third, the Pierces contend that the district court erred in awarding attorney fees to Peterson. "The award of attorney fees is typically a matter of law, which we review for correctness." Paul deGroot Bldg. Servs., LLC v. Gallacher, 2005 UT 20, ¶ 18, 112 P.3d 490. However, "where the fees are predicated upon findings of fact, . . . we review the award of fees for an abuse of discretion." Id.

         ANALYSIS

         I. Timeliness of Action

         ¶12 The Pierces contend that the district court failed to apply the relevant statute of limitations and the doctrine of laches that would bar Peterson's claims. We address these arguments in turn.

         A. Statute of Limitations

         ¶13 The Pierces first assert the district court "misapplied statutes relating to mutual mistake," specifically, the applicable statute of limitations. The Pierces relatedly argue that Peterson failed to timely bring her reformation claims.

         ¶14 Utah Code section 78B-2-305 provides, in relevant part, "An action may be brought within three years: . . . for relief on the ground of fraud or mistake; except that the cause of action does not accrue until the discovery by the aggrieved party of the facts constituting the fraud or mistake." Utah Code Ann. § 78B-2-305(3) (LexisNexis 2012).

         ¶15 The district court observed that Peterson "or her predecessor could have brought a claim to reform the deed after discovering the survey line between the Peterson Parcel and Parcels 1 and 2." But the court found that Peterson's predecessor, Larry Peterson, had "clearly claimed that he had an absolute right to use the joint driveway as though it belonged to both [the] Petersons and [the] Pierces." Given that the Petersons had continued to use the Two Rutted Lane "as though they had an absolute right to use the same" and that the Pierces "did not block that right in any permanent or real way until they put up the fence in the summer of 2013," the district court concluded that the three-year statute of limitations did not begin to run until the summer of 2013.[4] For the same reason, the court determined that Peterson's claim was not barred by the doctrine of laches. Infra ¶¶ 21-24.

         ¶16 Based on section 78B-2-305(3), the Pierces assert that "[the] Hattons and Petersons had three years to bring [an] action after discovery of the facts constituting mistake." Relying on the district court's finding that Peterson "or her predecessor could have brought a claim to reform the deed after discovering the survey line, in 1997," the Pierces claim that "it is clear that the [district] court erred in allowing Peterson['s] claim of mutual mistake." In other words, the Pierces' claim that the three-year statute of limitations began to run in 1997, when the survey conducted in connection with the sale of the Peterson Parcel to Peterson was completed.[5] But as Peterson correctly observes, the Pierces' "citation to the [district] ...


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