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Hamilton v. Ballard

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 6, 2017

Dorrance H. Hamilton et al.
v.
Carol C. Ballard et al.

         Superior Court Newport County, NC 00-340 Walter R. Stone Associate Justice

          For Plaintiffs: Stephen J. MacGillivray, Esq.

          For Defendants: R. Daniel Prentiss, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Flaherty, Justice

"Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least; but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant, who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. * * * Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the Court, perennially hopeless."[1]

         This case arises from a briar patch of litigation between feuding neighbors who are unable to agree about many things, including, particular to this case, the details of an easement that resulted from a court-mandated land partition. The underlying legal battle began in August 2000. By May 2005, Carol and A. L. Ballard had filed an answer to SVF Foundation's[2] fifth amended complaint. Within that pleading, the Ballards counterclaimed, alleging that, among other things, SVF Foundation was interfering with the Ballards' easement that ran across SVF's property.[3] SVF moved for summary judgment on that count, and the Superior Court granted SVF's motion. The Ballards timely appealed to this Court, challenging the Superior Court's decision granting summary judgment to SVF.

         This matter came before the Supreme Court for oral argument on January 25, 2017. After carefully reviewing the record, and after considering the parties' written and oral arguments, we vacate the Superior Court's judgment.[4]

         I

         Facts and Travel

         A

         The Ballards and Hamilton were once cordial acquaintances who teamed up to save Newport's historic Edgehill property from development. Together, they purchased the property at auction, taking title as tenants in common. Shortly thereafter, the parties' relationship began to sour and eventually became acrimonious. Ultimately, the Edgehill property was divided pursuant to a court-ordered partition.

         At the time the Ballards and Hamilton purchased the Edgehill property, it consisted of two distinct areas. The western portion of the estate contained "a fascinating masonry complex known as the 'Swiss Village[.]'" Meanwhile, located on the eastern part of the Edgehill property were the Manor House and the Carriage House. The Manor House is a striking building designed by the famous American architects McKim, Mead & White. It sits on grounds designed by the equally prominent Frederick Law Olmsted. The Carriage House was built concurrently with the Manor House and is located nearby "in a swale between the Manor House and * * * the 'Swiss Village[.]'"

         The partition left Hamilton, SVF's predecessor, with the Swiss Village portion of the estate, and the Ballards with the Manor House and Carriage House section (the "Manor House Property"). Carol and A. L. Ballard each took an undivided 50 percent interest in the property they received from the partition. In addition to her undivided 50 percent interest in the Manor House Property, Carol Ballard owned, in her own name, an undeveloped tract of land known as "Lot 20" that abutted the western edge of the Swiss Village property. Carol Ballard purchased Lot No. 20 in 1995, before the Ballards had acquired any ownership interest in the Edgehill property. After the partition went into effect, there were three tracts of land relevant to this case. To the west lay Carol Ballard's solely owned Lot No. 20. To the east was the Manor House Property, of which Carol and A. L. Ballard each owned an undivided 50 percent interest. And lying directly between Lot No. 20 and the Manor House Property, and abutting both properties, was the Swiss Village land, owned by the Dorrance H. Hamilton Trust.

         As a result of the partition, the Ballards were left without any interior access between the Manor House Property and Lot No. 20. Accordingly, they sought an easement to connect their two properties so that they could transport mowing equipment from the Manor House Property to Lot No. 20 without having to use public roads, ostensibly for safety reasons. In his supplemental report and recommendation, the court-appointed commissioner assigned to oversee the partition recommended that the Ballards be granted their requested easement. The Superior Court, in its order mandating the partition, awarded the Ballards "an easement providing access to Lot 20 as recommended in the Commissioner's Supplemental Report * * *, subject to the restrictions and stipulations noted in the Supplemental Report."

         The "restrictions and stipulations" to which the judgment refers are:

"[T]he Commissioner recommends granting an easement for access in favor of the owners of the Carriage House and Manor House. The easement should be considered personal to such owners, be it the Ballards or their successors, for so long as the owners of the Carriage House parcel and/or the Manor House parcel also retain an ownership interest in lot #20."

         After granting the easement, [5] the Superior Court commissioned Waterman Engineering Co. to file a final class 1 survey of the partitioned land. That survey clearly indicated the easement's location traversing across the Swiss Village property. The survey also specified that the easement was to be fifteen feet wide.[6]

         B

         At the time the Superior Court granted the Ballards their easement, there was no road or path that connected the Manor House Property to Lot No. 20. Thus, the Ballards and SVF had to build a road. It should be a surprise to no one that the parties were unable to agree on the details of how to build the byway that would cross the easement or the width of the gates that were to be placed at each end of the easement. This disagreement led to a litany of tit-for-tat litigation[7] too lengthy to recount in full. Relevant to this appeal, however, are a motion for relief from judgment that the Ballards filed in February 2005 pursuant to Rule 60(b) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, in which the Ballards sought to have the location of the easement moved, and count 7 of the Ballards' counterclaim, filed in May 2005, which alleged that SVF interfered with the Ballards' easement.

         Litigation surrounding the easement encompassed multiple hearings, as well as two judicial views of the property on which the easement sat. In August 2005, a Superior Court justice ordered SVF, the owner of the servient estate, to construct "a farm-type road as described by the [c]ourt during the colloquy at [the June 27, 2005] hearing" to accomodate the Ballards' easement. At that hearing, the Superior Court justice described the requirements of the farm road to be constructed as follows:

"a road that on either side of a middle rise on which there is often flowers and weeds, on either side there are tracks that are wide enough not merely for motor vehicles but for those wide tires or double tires that one sees on farm vehicles and farm wagons and other equipment used in farming and cultivation. * * * [I]t would be graded in such fashion that it would be safe for the operation of a tractor or similar vehicle over the road, and it would be graded in the middle of that farm road so that the suspension or undercarriage of the farm vehicles would not touch it as they passed over it."

         Despite the hearing justice's fairly detailed description of the "farm road" SVF was to build, the parties were never able to agree on the exact specifications of either the road or the gates that were to be placed at either end of the easement. Nevertheless, SVF went ahead and constructed a dirt road during the spring of 2006. Notwithstanding the fact that the recorded easement was fifteen feet wide, the path, as constructed, narrowed to approximately twelve feet at times. Also, SVF installed gates that were ten feet wide at either end of the fifteen-foot-wide easement. Needless to say, the Ballards were dissatisfied with both the road and the gates. The Ballards insisted that, although the lawnmower that they owned at the time, which was approximately six feet wide, could travel safely on the farm road, they were planning on purchasing a new mower that would be fourteen feet three inches wide. As a result, in August 2006, two more days of hearings ensued.

         At a January 2007 hearing, which appears to have been held in response to SVF's motion to eliminate the easement, the hearing justice, after he took a second view of the property, attempted to put an end to the dispute over the road, saying:

"There is no way that this [c]ourt in the person of yours truly or in any other judge can constantly supervise the prolonged and protracted bickering between these parties who, apparently, have no limits to the resources they can spend on capable counsel to prolong this contest, but the [c]ourt, really, has got to bring some finality to this * * *.
"The Ballards wanted an easement, they got an easement. It may not be following the exact course that they would have liked and it also would not afford them a wheel base of 13 feet, but under law of easements it does provide them with the use that the easement was ordained; namely, to get farm vehicles, including tractors, from one section of the Ballard property to another."

         After the hearing, an order entered that said, in relevant part, that SVF had "constructed a farm road providing reasonable access to the [Ballards]" that "satisfied [the Superior] Court's previous orders." The order added that, "[b]ased on the evidence presented at the hearing, and the [c]ourt's views of the subject property, the [c]ourt finds that the 10 foot gates do not impinge on the Ballards' reasonable use of the access easement * * *."

         Despite the January 2007 order, final judgment did not enter on any of the counts contained within SVF's fifth amended complaint or the Ballards' counterclaim thereto. The case languished, more or less, until June 2014, when SVF moved for summary judgment on count 7 of the Ballards' counterclaim, which alleged that SVF was interfering with their easement.[8]Ultimately, a different Superior Court justice granted summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure in favor of SVF, and then entered final judgment under Rule 54(b) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure on count 7 only.[9] The Ballards timely appealed that judgment to this Court.

         C

         In 2012, before final judgment entered, A. L. Ballard conveyed 90 percent of his undivided 50 percent interest in the Manor House Property to Ballard Properties, LP. Thus, when final judgment entered in 2014, the ownership interests in the Manor House Property were as follows: Ballard Properties, LP had a 45 percent undivided interest; A. L. Ballard retained a 5 percent undivided interest; and Carol Ballard owned a 50 percent undivided interest. Also at the time of final judgment, Carol Ballard maintained the entire ownership interest in Lot No. 20.

         However, after the Ballards filed their notice of appeal, both the Manor House Property and Lot No. 20 changed ownership. In August 2015, Carol Ballard "conveyed her undivided 50 percent interest in [the Manor House Property] to [her] daughter * * *." Then, in March 2016, Carol Ballard transferred, by quitclaim deed, her entire interest in Lot No. 20 to Ballard Properties, LP.[10] Importantly, as a result of Carol Ballard's two property transfers, during the eight-month period between August 2015 and March 2016, the Manor House Property and Lot No. 20 did not share a common owner.[11]

         II

         Discussion

         A

         Issues on Appeal

         On appeal, the Ballards argue that the hearing justice erred when he granted summary judgment because material issues of fact remained in dispute. Subsumed within that broad attack on summary judgment, the Ballards contend that the hearing justice inappropriately applied the law-of-the-case doctrine, thereby "relying on purported 'findings' for which there was no evidentiary basis" when he granted SVF's motion for summary judgment.

         In addition to countering the Ballards' arguments on appeal, SVF argues to this Court that the matter has been rendered moot during the pendency of this appeal because Carol Ballard conveyed her interest in the Manor House Property to Leslie Ballard Hull. Thus, SVF argues, the easement has been extinguished by its own terms.

         B Standard of Review

         "We review a hearing justice's grant of summary judgment de novo." Tri-Town Construction Co. v. Commerce Park Associates 12, LLC, 139 A.3d 467, 474 (R.I. 2016) (citing Sullo v. Greenberg, 68 A.3d 404, 406 (R.I. 2013)). "Summary judgment is an extreme remedy and should be granted only when 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as [a] matter of law.'" Plunkett v. State, 869 A.2d 1185, 1187 (R.I. 2005) (quoting Wright v. Zielinski, 824 A.2d 494, 497 (R.I. 2003)). "Only when a review of the admissible evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party reveals no genuine issues of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, will this Court uphold the trial justice's grant of summary judgment." National Refrigeration, Inc. v. Standen Contracting Co., 942 A.2d 968, 971 (R.I. 2008) (quoting Carlson v. Town of Smithfield, 723 A.2d 1129, 1131 (R.I. 1999)). The party opposing "a motion for summary judgment carries the burden of proving by competent evidence the existence of a disputed material issue of fact and cannot rest on allegations or denials in the pleadings or on conclusions or legal opinions." Id. (quoting Accent Store Design, Inc. v. Marathon House, Inc., 674 A.2d 1223, 1225 (R.I. 1996)).

         C

         Law-of-the-Case

         i

         In June 2014, SVF filed a motion for summary judgment on count 7 of the Ballards' counterclaim, which alleged that SVF was interfering with the Ballards' easement. Within the memorandum that accompanied that motion, SVF argued that summary judgment should be granted because, according to SVF, the January 2007 order had already "decided the issues related to the access easement." Accordingly, SVF believed that the law-of-the-case doctrine should apply. That doctrine "states that ordinarily after a judge has decided an interlocutory matter in a pending suit, a second judge, confronted at a subsequent phase of the suit with the same question in the identical manner, should refrain from disturbing the first ...


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