Bardsley v. Pluger

Bardsley v. Pluger, 2015 MT 301 (Oct. 20, 2015) (McKinnon, J.) (5-0, aff’d & rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court abused its discretion by issuing an amended order of protection; (2) whether the district court abused its discretion by denying the Plaintiffs’ motion to amend their complaint; (3) whether the district court erred by granting Defendants’ motion for summary judgment; and (4) whether the district court abused its discretion by awarding Defendants attorney’s fees.

Short Answer: (1) Yes; (2) no; (3) no; and (4) no.

Affirmed (2, 3, 4) and reversed (1)

Facts: Scott Bardsley owns property in Troy where he lives with his partner, Dora. Defendants Earnest Anderson and Lizann Pluger live on the adjacent property, owned by Lizann’s uncle, Edwin Pluger. Before 2011, Scott often used a private road across the Pluger property to access his property. In 2011, the neighbors became hostile toward one another and Lizann sought an order of protection against Scott.

The district court granted a permanent order of protection against Scott in August 2012 that  prohibited Scott from abusing or threatening Lizann, required him to stay at least 1500 feet from her, and prohibited him from using Pluger Way. Scott did not respond to Lizann’s petition and the August 2012 order is not on appeal. Shortly after the order was granted, Lizann installed a locked gate across Pluger Way.

In December 2012, Scott and Dora filed a complaint against Earnest and Lizann, alleging their property enjoyed an express easement over Pluger Way and seeking money damages and a preliminary injunction preventing Defendants from obstructing the road.

At a February 2013 preliminary injunction hearing, Scott conceded he had mistakenly pled an express easement but contended his property enjoyed an easement by prescription or necessity. The district court denied the request for an injunction, and sua sponte amended its earlier order of protection to prohibit Dora as well as her family members from using Pluger Way.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis of Plaintiffs’ failure to name Lizann’s uncle as the real party in interest, and sought attorney’s fees. Plaintiffs did not respond. Almost a year later, Plaintiffs moved to amend their complaint to plead easement by prescription and necessity, and to include Lizann’s uncle as a party. Defendants objected. The district court denied the motion, granted summary judgment to Defendants, and awarded Defendants attorney’s fees. Plaintiffs appeal, and the Supreme Court vacates the amended order of protection and affirms all other issues.

Reasoning: (1) A district court may not issue an order of protection without holding a hearing. The district court expanded the order of protection to include Dora without providing her an opportunity to be heard. The amended order is vacated.

(2) The decision to deny a motion to amend a complaint is within a district court’s discretion. Litigants are allowed to change legal theories after a motion for summary judgment has been filed only in extraordinary cases. No extraordinary circumstances can be found here. The district court did not abuse its discretion.

(3) Because the denial of Plaintiffs’ motion to amend is affirmed, they cannot withstand summary judgment.

(4) The equitable exception to the American Rule, in which each party pays its own attorney’s fees, applies when the action is without merit or frivolous. The district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding fees to Defendants.