Edwards v. Powder Mountain Water and Sewer

Decision Date09 July 2009
Docket NumberNo. 20080144-CA.,20080144-CA.
Citation2009 UT App 185,214 P.3d 120
PartiesBruce EDWARDS, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. POWDER MOUNTAIN WATER AND SEWER; Alvin Cobabe; Jamie Lythgoe; Jamie Lythgoe dba Powder Mountain Water and Sewer; June Cobabe; Chuck Panter; Joann Panter; Susan Lowther; Lavar Lowther; Ray W. Moss; Merlin J. Tomlinson; Elery Voge; Clair Van Meeterren; Wayne Stokes; Kim Remmash; Julie Batchelor; Powder Mountain, Inc.; Powder Mountain West Landowners Association; Gary L. Jacobs; Gordon James; and John Does 1-25, Defendants and Appellees.
CourtUtah Court of Appeals

Bruce Edwards, Ogden, Appellant Pro Se.

Steven W. Allred, Salt Lake City, for Appellees.

Before Judges THORNE, DAVIS, and McHUGH.

OPINION

McHUGH, Judge:

¶ 1 Bruce Edwards appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Powder Mountain Water and Sewer (the District)1 and its order of sanctions, including a $500 fine and dismissal of the remainder of Edwards's complaint against the District, Powder Mountain, Inc. (Powder Mountain), and Powder Mountain West Landowners Association (collectively, Defendants). Edwards further challenges the trial court's discovery and procedural rulings, its award of attorney fees to the District and Powder Mountain, and the trial court's refusal to disqualify Judge Ernest W. Jones for bias.

¶ 2 The District claims that Edwards lacks standing to challenge the legality of the certified fees underlying the trial court action. Consequently, it argues, this court does not have jurisdiction to hear the appeal. In the alternative, the District asserts that we should affirm the trial court's rulings because Edwards's arguments lack merit.

¶ 3 We dismiss Edwards's claims regarding the certified fees for lack of standing; dismiss as moot his challenge to the grant of summary judgment on the issue of the prior liens; and affirm the order of sanctions, the award of attorney fees, and the denial of Edwards's request for disqualification of Judge Jones.

BACKGROUND

¶ 4 In 1979, Powder Mountain, as the seller, entered into a Real Estate Purchase Contract (the REPC) with Harry Schmalz and Glenn Paysar, as the buyers, to purchase property in Weber County (the Property). In 1981, Schmalz and Paysar assigned their rights and interests in the Property to Edwards. Edwards has never improved the Property but claims he has fully complied with the terms and conditions of the REPC.

¶ 5 Weber County established the District, pursuant to Utah Code section 17-6-1, as a county improvement district for water and sewer. See Utah Code Ann. § 17-6-1 (1973) (current version as amended at Utah Code Ann. § 17B-2a-403 (Supp.2008)). In June 1985, the District provided Edwards with a "Fee Schedule and Agreement" for both water and sewer. Edwards declined to sign either agreement. When he received his first bill in July 1985, Edwards refused to pay because he believed that "the interest rate exceed[ed] the rate provided by law and that numerous other terms ... were in violation of Utah Code." From that time forward, Edwards has refused to pay any of the sewer and water fees assessed by the District. In July 1989, Edwards's connection rights to water and sewer were terminated. The District continued to bill him for water and sewer service until March 1990.

¶ 6 The District filed two liens (the Original Liens) against the Property to secure payment of the water and sewer fees. The first lien was filed in February 1995, and the second lien was placed on the Property in April 1998. The District twice attempted to foreclose on these liens. The first action was dismissed due to a procedural defect, and the second was voluntarily dismissed with prejudice by the District. The District opted instead to certify the unpaid assessments to the county treasurer's office for collection. See generally Utah Code Ann. § 17A-2-310(3) (1999) (repealed 2007) (allowing a district to certify unpaid water and sewer fees for collection like a general county tax). In May 2001 or 2002,2 the District certified $24,120 to the Weber County Treasurer, which resulted in a lien on Edwards's property (the Certified Lien). That lien remains unpaid.

¶ 7 In March 2006, Edwards filed a complaint, asserting thirty-one causes of action against twenty defendants.3 On December 6, 2006, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the District on three issues (1) whether the Original Liens are void, (2) whether Edwards's challenges to the legality of the Original Liens are barred by the statute of limitations and the compulsory counterclaim rule, and (3) whether certification of the unpaid assessments to the county treasurer and attachment of the Certified Lien were authorized.

¶ 8 In a written order entered the next day, the trial court ordered a show cause hearing to determine whether sanctions were warranted under rule 11 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure (the Rule 11 Hearing). Following the Rule 11 Hearing, the trial court determined that Edwards filed the complaint to harass Defendants and to increase their costs of litigation. Ultimately, it concluded that Edwards presented only one valid cause of action-the Certified Lien issue. Accordingly, the court dismissed the remainder of Edwards's complaint without prejudice and sanctioned Edwards $500. The trial court also awarded attorney fees to the District and Powder Mountain pursuant to Utah Code section 78B-5-825, see Utah Code Ann. § 78B-5-825 (2008) (mandating an award of attorney fees where an action is without merit and was not asserted in good faith).4

¶ 9 On appeal, Edwards challenges the order granting summary judgment in favor of the District, the sanction imposed under rule 11, the failure to disqualify Judge Jones, various discovery rulings, and the award of attorney fees. He does not challenge the dismissal of his other causes of action except to the extent that he contends that dismissal of his complaint was an inappropriate sanction.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶ 10 The District argues that Edwards lacks standing to challenge the legality of the assessments because he failed to pay the Certified Lien under protest. Whether a party has standing is primarily a question of law, which we review for correctness. See Washington County Water Conservancy Dist. v. Morgan, 2003 UT 58, ¶ 7, 82 P.3d 1125.

¶ 11 Edwards contends that the trial court erroneously granted summary judgment in favor of the District and denied his motions for summary judgment. Summary judgment is appropriate where "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Utah R. Civ. P. 56(c). The grant of summary judgment is a question of law, and we review the trial court's determination of legal issues for correctness, affording no deference to the trial court. See Forsberg v. Bovis Lend Lease, Inc., 2008 UT App 146, ¶ 7, 184 P.3d 610, cert. denied, 199 P.3d 367 (Utah 2008).

¶ 12 Edwards next argues that the trial court improperly sanctioned him. When considering the propriety of rule 11 sanctions, we must first "review the trial court's determination that rule 11 has ... been violated under a correctness standard, giving no deference to the trial court's determination but upholding [its] findings of fact unless contrary to the clear weight of the evidence." Kaiserman Assocs., Inc. v. Francis Town, 977 P.2d 462, 464 (Utah 1998) (internal quotation marks omitted). Then, we consider the appropriateness of the sanction under an abuse-of-discretion standard. See id. We will, however, review challenges to an interpretation of a rule of procedure for correctness. See Ostler v. Buhler, 1999 UT 99, ¶ 5, 989 P.2d 1073.

¶ 13 Edwards also challenges the award of attorney fees under Utah Code section 78B-5-825. "[W]hether ... a claim was brought in bad faith is a question of fact [that] we review ... under a clearly erroneous standard." Still Standing Stable, LLC v. Allen, 2005 UT 46, ¶ 8, 122 P.3d 556 (second alteration and second omission in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). The trial court's determination that an action lacks merit, however, is a question of law, which we review for correctness. See Pennington v. Allstate Ins. Co., 973 P.2d 932, 939 n. 3 (Utah 1998).

¶ 14 Edwards's final argument is that the trial court improperly determined that neither recusal nor disqualification of Judge Jones was required. "Determining whether a trial judge committed error by failing to recuse himself ... is a question of law, and we review such questions for correctness." Lunt v. Lance, 2008 UT App 192, ¶ 7, 186 P.3d 978 (omission in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). Motions to disqualify a judge are governed by rule 63 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. See Utah R. Civ. P. 63. We review the interpretation and application of a rule of procedure for correctness. See Ostler, 1999 UT 99, ¶ 5.

ANALYSIS
I. Standing to Challenge the Certified Lien

¶ 15 "[S]tanding is a jurisdictional requirement that must be satisfied before a court may entertain a controversy between two parties." Jones v. Barlow, 2007 UT 20, ¶ 12, 154 P.3d 808 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). Because standing is jurisdictional, it may be raised for the first time on appeal. See Harris v. Springville City, 712 P.2d 188, 190 (Utah 1986).

¶ 16 The District argues that Edwards lacks standing to challenge the trial court's rulings regarding the Certified Lien because Edwards failed to pay the certified fees under protest before bringing his action. To support this contention, the District relies first upon the language of the Utah Code in effect at the time the District certified Edwards's delinquent fees. Utah Code section 17A-2-310(3), which has since been repealed, provided,

Whether or not a district operates a waterworks system, any unpaid and delinquent charges for sewer and water service shall be certified by the clerk of the district to the treasurer...

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