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Mueller v. Hoblyn

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant claimed that Plaintiff’s easement on Defendant’s land was abandoned and that he extinguished the easement by adverse possession. The district court found that, by operation of adverse possession, the water well terminated the easement with respect to a 200-feet long section of the easement. Both parties appealed: Defendant claiming the entire easement was destroyed, and Plaintiffs claiming no part of the easement was destroyed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    (1) An easement is terminated by abandonment if affirmative actions of the easement holder manifest a clear intent to permanently abandon the easement. (2) An easement is terminated by adverse possession if the servient owner uses or occupies the easement in a way that is visible, notorious, and inconsistent with the rights of the easement holder continuously for a statutory period.

    Facts.

    In 1963, the Englemans sold a portion of their tract of land to REB, Inc. REBwas given an appurtenant easement to a roadway to access a public highway. In 1969, the Englemans sold their remaining land to Mueller (Defendant). Through a series of conveyances, Coffee and Hoblyn (Plaintiffs) came to be owners of REB’s land, which REB subdivided. Plaintiffs sometimes were unable to use the roadway due to high snow drifts in the winter. In 1990, Coffee had the land surveyed and discovered that the path of the roadway did not correspond with the recorded easement except for a small overlapping portion. However, back in 1977, Defendant had drilled a water well and did some farming within the easement boundaries. He also fenced the area. Defendant thus refused to allow Plaintiffs to use the proper easement, claiming that the easement had been abandoned and that he had extinguished the easement by adverse possession. The district court found that, by operation of adverse possession, the water well terminated the easement with respect to a 200-feet long section of the easement. Both parties appealed: Defendant claiming the entire easement was destroyed, and Plaintiffs claiming no part of the easement was destroyed.

    Issue.

    (1) Whether an easement is terminated by abandonment if affirmative actions of the easement holder manifest a clear intent to permanently abandon the easement.(2) Whether an easement is terminated by adverse possession if the servient owner uses or occupies the easement in a way that is visible, notorious, and inconsistent with the rights of the easement holder continuously for a statutory period.

    Held.

    (1) Yes. The trial court’s ruling is affirmed. An easement is terminated by abandonment if affirmative actions of the easement holder manifest a clear intent to permanently abandon the easement.(2) Yes. The trial court’s ruling is reversed. An easement is terminated by adverse possession if the servient owner uses or occupies the easement in a way that is visible, notorious, and inconsistent with the rights of the easement holder continuously for a statutory period.

    Dissent.

    (Thomas, J.):In Wyoming, fencing plus cultivation of land is sufficiently open and adverse to result in acquisition of fee title by adverse possession. The majority’s holding creates a separate rule for acquisition of fee simple title by adverse possession and extinguishment of an easement by adverse possession. This distinction in unjustified.

    Discussion.

    In order to constitute abandonment, there must be more than nonuse, and the length of nonuse is irrelevant. There must be affirmative and unequivocal acts that clearly demonstrate an intent to abandon and are wholly inconsistent with the dominant owner’s use of the easement. For example, the construction of permanent buildings or structures that obstruct the use of the easement would evince such intent. Here, Defendant has only shown a lack of use. Nothing indicates that the Plaintiffs or their predecessor in interest ever intended to abandon their easement.Adverse possession of an easement is much like adverse possession of land. However, the element of adversity is more difficult to show because with an easement, the servient owner is already permitted to do anything with the easement that is not inconsistent with the dominant owner’s use of the easement. In addition, the period of adverse possession cannot begin if the easement was never used because the easement owner cannot have notice of the adverse claim. In such a case, the period of adversity begins when the easement holder demands use of the easement. Here, the easement was never used or developed. Thus the period of adversity began in 1990 when Plaintiffs demanded use of the easement and Defendant refused. Moreover, farming on the easement is not inconsistent with the plaintiff’s rights because it can be cleared away. Finally, construction of the well was also not adverse to the Plaintiffs. Therefore, the easement was not terminated by adverse possession.


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