Meine v. Hren Ranches, Inc.

Meine v. Hren Ranches, Inc., 2015 MT 21 (Jan. 27, 2015) (McKinnon, J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: (1) Whether estates must be contiguous to create an easement by prescription, and (2) whether substantial evidence supported the district court’s finding that the landowners had established a prescriptive easement over the canyon road.

Short Answer: (1) No, and (2) yes.

Affirmed

Facts: Hrens bought land in Small Horn Canyon in 1985 from Glenn Crampton, whose family originally homesteaded the land. The land is primarily used for summer grazing of livestock. Small Horn Canyon Road is a primitive route beginning north of Hrens’ property and traveling south for about 10 miles. Meines began using the road about 90 years ago. The road can accommodate logging trucks but not a tractor-trailer hauling cattle. Meines have used an area about 200’ x 120’ next to Hrens’ corrals (at the base of long, steep grade) to park vehicles, turn vehicles around, and load or unload cattle. Their use began long before 1985 and is necessary for Meines’ use of the remainder of the road.

The road was constructed in its current course and condition in 1979. BLM and Meines entered into agreement under which BLM reconstructed the road and Meine contributed money from timber sales to the road construction. Meines do extensive maintenance of the road.

In 2007, Hrens changed the locks on a gate and refused to give a key to neighboring landowners, including Meines. Rebiches and Schuett sued Hrens in 2008, eventually settling in 2010 with reciprocal road easements. The agreement specifically prohibited Meines from using the easement as invitees of any of the other parties.

Meines continued using the road from 2008-2010 by cutting locks and chains. Hrens filed many complaints with sheriff. In June 2010, Meines filed this action seeking declaration of a prescriptive easement and an injunction prohibiting Hrens from impeding their use of the easement. Hrens asserted permissive use and counterclaimed for trespass and other claims.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court granted Meines’ request for preliminary injunctive relief in April 2011. The court held a 2-day bench trial in July 2013, and issued FOF/COLs in Feb. 2014. It found Meines established a prescriptive easement over Hrens’ land for the road, and for the area near Hrens’ corral. It issued a permanent injunction, and held Hrens failed to prove any of their counterclaims. Hrens appeal, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: (1) Hrens contend the district court erred in recognizing a prescriptive easement over a servient estate (Hrens’ land) that is not contiguous with the dominant estates (Mussard and Meine parcels). Although the Court held in Davis that an implied easement cannot be appurtenant unless the dominant and servient estates are contiguous at some point, it declines to extend this rule to prescriptive easements.

(2) Hrens maintain the only way Meines an establish adverse use for the statutory period is through “tacking” and by introducing evidence of privity between successive users of the easement, which Meines did not do. Tacking is the joining of consecutive periods of possession by different persons get one continuous period, which can only be done when there is privity between successive users. The district court found that Meines and their predecessors have been using the road for 90 years, and that the use was not permissive. These findings are supported by substantial evidence.