Bennett v. Hill

Bennett v. Hill, 2015 MT 30 (Feb. 3, 2015) (Wheat, J.) (5-0, rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court properly granted summary judgment to defendants on whether the wall was a spite fence; (2) whether the district court properly granted summary judgment to defendants on whether the wall was a nuisance; (3) whether the wall violated the subdivision restrictions; and (4) whether the district court properly awarded attorneys’ fees to defendants.

Short Answer: (1) No; (2) no; (3) genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment and (4) attorneys’ fees are reversed because defendants are no longer the prevailing party.

Reversed and remanded

Facts: Plaintiffs own lots in the Lake Hills Subdivision. Defendant Lake Hills Golf, LLC, also owns a lot in the subdivision, which is adjacent to plaintiffs’ properties. In 2009, Hill bought the golf course. In 2011, Hill applied for a zoning change for several other lots he owned in the subdivision. Plaintiffs opposed the change, and he ultimately withdrew his petition. In 2012, Hill built a 9-foot-high concrete wall between the golf course and plaintiffs’ lots.

The subdivision has several recorded restrictive covenants applicable to the wall, including one that says no fence or wall shall be built or maintained without written permission from the Architectural Control Committee, and one that says any structure incidental to a golf course may be maintained and erected.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Plaintiffs sued, claiming that the wall (1) violates the restrictive covenants, (2) is a nuisance, and (3) is a spite fence. Following discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment on each of these issues, and plaintiffs moved for summary judgment on whether the wall violated the subdivision restrictions. The district court granted summary judgment to defendants on all issues, and awarded defendants attorneys’ fees. Plaintiffs appeal, and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: (1) A district court must draw all inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Here, the district court decided the wall served a useful, non-spiteful purpose because it prevented trash and trespassers from entering. However, affidavits from Plaintiffs stated they had never heard complaints about trash or seen trash enter the golf course from their properties, and had never seen trespassers. One plaintiff stated Hill told him he built the wall because Plaintiffs’ properties were unattractive. Plaintiffs raise a genuine dispute about an issue of material fact, and summary judgment on this issue is reversed.

(2) The district court reasoned that because there was no genuine dispute about whether the wall served a beneficial purpose, defendants were entitled to summary judgment on the nuisance claim. However, a beneficial purpose does not immunize something that is otherwise a nuisance from being ruled a nuisance. Summary judgment on this issue is reversed.

(3) The Court holds that there are genuine issues of material fact regarding waiver of the subdivision restrictions, and whether the wall is “incidental” to the golf course. For these reasons, the Court reverses summary judgment on whether the wall violates the subdivision restrictions.

(4) Because the Court reverses summary judgment, defendants are not the prevailing party and the award of attorneys’ fees is reversed.