Articles Posted in Montana Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court assumed original jurisdiction over the issue presented in this case and held that the plain and ordinary meaning of “land acquisition” per Mont. Code Ann. 87-1-209(1) does not encompass conservation easement acquisition and that the statute does not require the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) to finalize its conservation easement transactions with the Board of Land Commissioners (Land Board). Steve Bullock, in his official capacity as Governor of Montana, and Martha Williams, in her official capacity as Director of the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, invoked the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction to declare whether section 87-1-209(1) requires FWP to bring conservation easement transactions of more than 100 acres or $100,000 in value before the Board of Land Commissioners for final approval. The Supreme Court held (1) the issue presented is justiciable; (2) the Governor and FWP Director have standing to petition the Court; (3) the Court is within the sphere of its constitutional authority to interpret the statutory meaning of section 87-1-209(1); and (4) acquisitions of interests in land do not require Land Board approval, and therefore, FWP is not statutorily required to take its conservation easement transactions before the Land Board. View "Bullock v. Fox" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the decision of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of Anaconda-Deer Lodge County in this dispute over the status of a road, holding that the district court did not err in concluding that the County’s use of the upper branch of the road did not amount to a taking but that Letica Land Company, LLC was not constitutionally entitled to litigation expenses and that both Letica and the County were responsible for their individual trial costs. At issue was the status of Modesty Creek Road, located near the boundary between Anaconda-Deer Lodge County (the County) and Powell County. Letica filed a complaint and sought a preliminary injunction barring public use of the road until a judgment established the existence of a right-of-way over either or both the upper and lower branches. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the County and dismissed Letica’s takings claims. The Supreme Court held (1) the district court did not err in granting summary judgment in the County’s favor; (2) because a taking did not occur, Letica was not constitutionally entitled to compensation or litigation expenses; and (3) the district court erred in holding Letica accountable for the County’s trial costs. View "Letica Land Co., LLC v. Anaconda-Deer Lodge County" on Justia Law

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In this dispute over the distribution of settlement proceeds that arose out of litigation regarding the Pine Creek Fire in August 2012, the Supreme Court affirmed the order of the district court approving the special master’s recommendation for allocating the Pine Creek Fire settlement proceeds among the Funks, the Pitmans, the Wilcoxes, and four other plaintiffs, holding that the district court did not clearly err by adopting the special master’s factual findings. Seeking to recover damages for injuries the Pine Creek Fire caused, the Funks, Pitmans, Wilcoxes, and four other property owners brought negligence claims against multiple defendants. The parties agreed to a settlement, and because the settlement proceeds could not cover all the plaintiffs’ damages, the district court appointed a special master to allocate the settlement proceeds. Of the settlement proceeds, the special master awarded approximately sixty-six percent to the Wilcoxes, twenty-four percent to the Funks, and three percent to the Pitmans. The district court adopted the special master’s recommendations for allocating the settlement funds. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the special master did not commit a clear error by finding that the Wilcoxes lost sixty acres of forested land during the fire. View "Funk v. Wilcox" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the Water Court denying Little Big Warm Ranch, LLC’s (LBWR) motion to reopen proceedings and its request to substitute as an objector, holding that the Water Court did not err when it denied LBWR’s motion to reopen cases 40M-171 and 40M-238 and when it denied LBWR’s request for substitution in those cases. At issue was two water rights from Big Warm Springs Creek and Little Warm Springs Creek - one claim for stock water and the other claim for irrigation. The Water Court in this case determined that LBWR was not entitled to substitute itself as an objector to Claimants’ water rights in Cases 40M-171 and 40 M-238 and denied LBWR’s request for substitution and its motion to reopen. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the Water Court did not err. View "Little Big Warm Ranch, LLC v. Doll" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded in part the order of the district court that awarded Kevin DeTienne $1,291,635 in lost profits, prejudgment interest accruing from September 11, 2015, $150,000 in punitive damages, and $42,009 in attorney fees and costs, holding that remand was necessary on a portion of the judgment and reversal was required on another portion. DeTienne filed suit against Bryan Sandrock seeking a declaratory judgment that Sandrock’s transfer of certain property was unlawful. A default judgment was entered awarding damages. The Supreme Court remanded to the district court for an order setting forth evidence supporting its determination of damages. After the district court entered its judgment, Sandrock appealed. The Supreme Court held (1) remand was necessary to clarify the compensatory damages award; (2) the district court did not err in awarding punitive damages; (3) remand was necessary to recalculate the prejudgment interest on a portion of the damages award, and reversal was required on a portion of the prejudgment interest award; and (4) the district court properly awarded attorney fees to DeTienne, and DeTienne was entitled to an award of reasonable costs and attorney fees incurrent during the litigation on remand, as well as attorney fees on appeal. View "DeTienne v. Sandrock" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order regarding Defendant’s second claim for litigation expenses in this condemnation litigation, holding that the district court erred in awarding Defendant litigation fees it incurred after the sale of its property had been completed and it lacked any interest in the property. The City of Missoula initiated this proceeding to condemn via eminent domain the water system serving the company, previously owned by a water company and Defendant, the upstream holding company. The district court ultimately issued an order awarding fees and expenses to Defendant. Thereafter, Defendant sold all of its interest in the property. Defendant then filed a second claim for litigation expenses incurred after the sale. The district court awarded Defendant a portion of its claimed expenses. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Defendant was not entitled to recover its litigation expenses because it was not an owner or condemnee upon sale of its interest in the water system. View "Missoula v. Mountain Water Co." on Justia Law

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The Montana Supreme Court affirmed the district court's ruling on summary judgment that plaintiffs have both an express private road easement and a prescriptive easement to travel across defendant's land. The court held that the district court did not err in finding an express easement as depicted on the Correction Certificate, giving plaintiffs an easement to travel on the shared driveway. The court also held that plaintiffs acquired a prescriptive easement to cross defendant's property where plaintiffs showed open, notorious, continuous, uninterrupted, exclusive, and adverse use of an easement for five years. View "Walker v. Phillips" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the Water Court granting the United States Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) motion for summary judgment, holding that the Water Court correctly determined that the BLM was the owner of certain stock claims and correctly affirmed other claims for wildlife use. Specifically, the Court held that the Water Court (1) properly determined that Ron and Maxine Korman forfeited interests claimed for stockwater use in the Chevy and Poker Reservoirs; and (2) did not err when it determined that the wildlife claims at issue were valid and did not expand the original appropriation. View "United States Bureau of Land Management v. Korman" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s denial of Appellant’s petition for a writ of mandate requesting that the court compel the Flathead County Treasurer to issue him a tax deed or appear and show cause why it should not do so, holding that a writ of mandate was inappropriate because Appellant had an adequate remedy at law. Flathead County purchased a tax lien on certain property after the property taxes became delinquent. When the owner and occupant did not redeem the property within the redemption period the County assigned the tax lien to a limited liability company (LLC), of which Appellant was a member. The Flathead County Treasurer subsequently allowed the owner to redeem the property. When the County Treasurer declined to issue a tax deed to the LLC, Appellant filed his petition for a writ of mandate arguing that the County Treasurer had a statutory duty to issue the tax deed. The district court denied the petition. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court correctly determined that Appellant was not entitled to a writ of mandate because a quiet title action provided Appellant with an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law. View "O'Brien v. Krantz" on Justia Law

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In this property dispute, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court granting Ravalli County’s motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim, holding that Landowners did not satisfy all factors for claim preclusion and failed to follow the proper procedure for seeking review of a Board of County Commissioners’ (BOCC) denial of a petition to abandon a county road. This dispute centered around where a Ravalli County road (Road) ended and private property began. Specifically at issue was a gate placed on the Road, preventing public access beyond the gate. Landowners, who owned property accessed by the Road, filed a petition with the BOCC to abandon the Road. The BOCC denied the petition and directed Landowners to remove the gate. Landowners filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging claim preclusion regarding removal of the gate and declaratory judgment regarding the end of the Road. The district court dismissed the complaint. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) there was no final judgment or order precluding the County from asserting that the gate should be removed from the Road; and (2) Landowners’ action was properly dismissed because they failed to follow proper procedure for county road abandonment cases. View "Bugli v. Ravalli County" on Justia Law