Scotts v. Metcalf Charitable Trust

Scotts v. Metcalf Charitable Trust, 2015 MT 265 (Sept. 8, 2015) (Wheat, J.), (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the Trust could enforce the Metcalf Restrictions against the Scotts; (2) Whether the Metcalf Restrictions were enforceable as anything other than a conservation easement; (3) whether the Metcalf Restrictions are void under the rule against perpetuities; (4) whether the district curt correctly held that the Metcalf Restrictions were not void for vagueness.

Short Answer: (1) Yes; (2) yes; (3) no; and (4) the Court declines to address this as a nonjusticiable controversy.

Affirmed

Facts: In January 1996, Donna Metcalf transferred a 40-acre parcel of land to Richard Thieltges by warranty deed. The deed included certain “covenants, restrictions, conditions and charges,” referred to as the Metcalf Restrictions. Thieltges recorded the deed.

In September 2000, Thieltges transferred the 40-acre parcel to the Scotts by warranty deed, which incorporated a title insurance report that specifically mentioned the Metcalf Restrictions.

In July 2013, Scotts filed suit to invalidate the Metcalf Restrictions and allow them to subdivide their 40-acre parcel. They named the Lee and Donna Metcalf Charitable Trust and Lewis & Clark County as defendants. The county disclaimed any interest and the Trust answered and filed a counterclaim seeking enforcement of the restrictions.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. Finding the Metcalf Restrictions run with the land, and that Scotts had actual notice of them, the district court granted summary judgment to the Trust. Scotts appeal, and the Supreme Court affirms. 

Reasoning: (1) Scotts argue the restrictions are an easement in gross that is unenforceable against them, while the Trust argues and the district court held that the restrictions are real covenants enforceable against Thieltges and his successors in interest, the Scotts. The Court holds that the Metcalf Restrictions are enforceable against the Scotts as an easement in gross. The restrictions were made for conservation purposes under § 70-17-102(7), MCA, and do not benefit a dominant estate. The original parties intended the restrictions to pass with the servient estate, and the Scotts had recorded notice. The burden passed with the servient estate, and the benefit passed when it was transferred from Metcalf to the Trust. No language in the deeds limited Metcalf’s right to freely transfer the easement; thus, it was devisable to the Trust.

The Court acknowledges that its holding allowing Metcalf to transfer the benefit of her easement in gross, absent language in the deed limiting her right to do so, is at odds with the law of many other jurisdictions.

(2) Scotts argue the Metcalf Restrictions are enforceable only as a conservation easement, and that the statutory requirements for creating a conservation easement were not complied with, thereby invalidating the restrictions. This argument contradicts the plain language of § 76-6-105(2), MCA. The restrictions are no unenforceable simply because they were not crated as a Title 76, Chapter 6, MCA conservation easement.

(3) Scotts argue the easement is a nonvested property interest and therefore violates the rules against perpetuities. § 72-2-1002, MCA. However, § 72-2-1005(1), MCA states that the rule against perpetuities does not apply to a nondonative transfer. The Metcalf Restrictions arose out of a transfer from Metcalf to Thieltges for valuable consideration, as recited in the deed.

(4) Scotts argue the restrictions preventing any use of the land that would reduce the quality of the stream running through the property, or the quality of the riparian area, are too ambiguous to be enforceable. The Court declines to address this argument as it presents a nonjusticiable controversy. No one contends Scotts have breached this part of the restrictions, and the Court to declines the provision “without the benefit of facts to which we may apply the provisions.” ¶ 31.