Gillmor v. Family Link, LLC

Decision Date29 June 2012
Docket NumberNo. 20100120.,20100120.
PartiesNadine GILLMOR, Petitioner and Appellant, v. FAMILY LINK, LLC, David K. Richards, Barry Todd Miller, Joan Ellen Miller, Doug Carl Dohring, Laurie Ann Dohring, Kenneth W. Macey, and Robin A. Macey, Respondents and Appellees.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Bruce R. Baird, Dallis A. Nordstrom, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

Keith W. Meade, Bradley M. Strassberg, Salt Lake City, for appellees, Family Link, LLC, Kenneth W. Macey, and Robin A. Macey.

Edwin C. Barnes, Salt Lake City, for appellees, Doug Carl Dohring and Laurie Ann Dohring.

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals.

Justice PARRISH, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶ 1 Petitioner Nadine Gillmor appeals the dismissal of her 2007 suit and the imposition of rule 11 sanctions against her attorney. The district court dismissed Ms. Gillmor's suit, holding that her highway-by-public-use and public condemnation claims were barred by the claim preclusion branch of res judicata. The district court also imposed sanctions against Ms. Gillmor's attorney under rule 11(b)(2) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure for bringing an unsupported claim. A majority of the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed. We hold that Ms. Gillmor's claims were not barred by res judicata. Therefore, we vacate the imposition of sanctions and remand for adjudication of Ms. Gillmor's suit on the merits.

BACKGROUND

¶ 2 This dispute centers around two roads that run across land historically owned by the Richards family: the Perdue Creek Road and the Neil Creek Road. These roads connect Nadine Gillmor's land to the Weber County Highway. 1 The Richards family property has been subdivided and sold several times since the original dispute began. The Maceys, their company Family Link, and the remaining defendants (collectively, Defendants) currently own the land over which the two disputed roads run.

¶ 3 In 1984, Ms. Gillmor's now deceased husband, Frank Gillmor, brought an action against the Richards family, seeking access to the two roads connecting the Gillmor property to the Weber Canyon Highway. Specifically, Mr. Gillmor claimed a private easement in the roads or, alternatively, claimed an irrevocable license across the roads. The parties voluntarily dismissed the case with prejudice in 1985 when Mr. Gillmor and Mr. Richards entered into settlement agreement (Settlement Agreement or Agreement). The Agreement purported to give the Gillmors a limited private easement over the Perdue Creek Road and only limited access over the Neil Creek Road.

¶ 4 In 2001, Ms. Gillmor brought suit against the Maceys, who had acquired the Richards' land, seeking to interpret and enforce the terms of the 1985 Settlement Agreement. Specifically, Ms. Gillmor alleged that she and her children had private access to both roads under the Settlement Agreement. Following a bench trial, the district court entered extensive factual findings, which focused on the Gillmors' private use of the roads since Frank Gillmor's acquisition of the Gillmor property in 1969, the language of the Agreement granting the Gillmors a private easement in the roads, and the intent of Mr. Gillmor and Mr. Richards at the time they executed the Agreement. The district court held that the Agreement granted Ms. Gillmor a private easement over the Perdue Creek and Neil Creek Roads, but that this right did not extend beyond Mr. Gillmor's immediate family and invitees. The district court also held that the easement would run with the land. On appeal, the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. The court of appeals held that the Agreement granted Ms. Gillmor a limited private easement over the roads, but that the easement did not run with the land and would not pass on to her children from a prior marriage because the Agreement limited access to those within “the first degree of consanguinity” with Frank Gillmor. Gillmor v. Macey, 2005 UT App 351, ¶ 21, 121 P.3d 57 (alteration omitted).

¶ 5 In 2007, Ms. Gillmor initiated the current litigation. Ms. Gillmor brought two claims for access over the Perdue Creek and Neil Creek Roads. First, Ms. Gillmor asserted that the roads were subject to condemnation for a public access easement under section 78–34–1(3) of the Utah Code.2 Second, Ms. Gillmor asserted that the roads had been continuously used as public thoroughfares for a period of ten years, and were thus dedicated to public use as a “highway by use” under Utah Code section 72–5–104. Specifically, Ms. Gillmor's complaint alleged that the general public had used both of the disputed roads for at least ten years, that the roads are public thoroughfares, and that the prior landowners had not attempted to limit the public's use. The complaint further alleged that the roads “appear in various maps and surveys dating back to the 19th Century and were utilized by travelers on their way over the mountain including to and from bars, brothels, coal mines, farms and other businesses.” The complaint also alleged that [a]dditional evidence of the history and public use of this road exists in the form of ‘sweet heart’ carvings on the trees dating back to the 1950[s].”

¶ 6 Defendants moved to dismiss Ms. Gillmor's complaint based on the claim preclusion branch of res judicata and judicial estoppel grounds. Defendants also argued that Ms. Gillmor had no private right of condemnation.The district court granted the motion based on res judicata, holding that the doctrine of claim preclusion barred both the highway-by-public-use and public condemnation claims (collectively, public highway claims). The court denied Defendants' motion to dismiss on the basis of judicial estoppel and declined to reach Defendants' argument that Ms. Gillmor had no private right of condemnation.

¶ 7 Defendants also requested sanctions against Ms. Gillmor and her attorney pursuant to rule of 11 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure.3 The district court obliged, imposing sanctions on Ms. Gillmor's attorney under rule 11(b)(2) for filing a claim without a basis in law, but the court declined to impose sanctions against Ms. Gillmor under rule 11(b)(1) for filing a claim for an improper purpose. Ms. Gillmor appealed the dismissal of her complaint and the imposition of rule 11(b)(2) sanctions, and Defendants cross-appealed the district court's denial of sanctions under rule 11(b)(1). A majority of the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision. Gillmor v. Family Link, LLC, 2010 UT App 2, ¶¶ 21–22, 224 P.3d 741.

¶ 8 Ms. Gillmor filed a petition for certiorari, which we granted. We have jurisdiction under section 78A–3–102(3)(a) of the Utah Code.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 9 “On certiorari, we review the decision of the court of appeals for correctness, giving no deference to its conclusions of law.” Richards v. Brown, 2012 UT 14, ¶ 12, 274 P.3d 911 (internal quotation marks omitted). Whether a claim is barred by res judicata is a question of law that we review for correctness. Allen v. Moyer, 2011 UT 44, ¶ 5, 259 P.3d 1049. While we generally adopt a three-tiered approach for evaluating the imposition or denial of rule 11 sanctions, the ultimate conclusion as to whether rule 11 was violated is a legal conclusion that we review for correctness. See Morse v. Packer, 2000 UT 86, ¶¶ 16, 26, 15 P.3d 1021.

ANALYSIS
I. MS. GILLMOR'S PUBLIC HIGHWAY CLAIMS ARE NOT BARRED BY RES JUDICATA

¶ 10 This case involves the claim preclusion branch of res judicata.4 ‘Claim preclusion is premised on the principle that a controversy should be adjudicated only once.’ Allen v. Moyer, 2011 UT 44, ¶ 6 259 P.3d 1049 (quoting Mack v. Utah State Dep't of Commerce, 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29, 221 P.3d 194). In determining whether res judicata bars a claim, we impose a three-part test:

First, both cases must involve the same parties or their privies. Second, the claim that is alleged to be barred must have been presented in the first suit or be one that could and should have been raised in the first action. Third, the first suit must have resulted in a final judgment on the merits.

Mack, 2009 UT 47, ¶ 29, 221 P.3d 194 (internal quotation marks omitted). The second prong is often the most contested element of the claim preclusion analysis. See, e.g., id.;Macris & Assocs., Inc. v. Neways, Inc., 2000 UT 93, ¶ 21, 16 P.3d 1214. And the second prong is the only one at issue in this case. The parties all agree that both cases involve the same parties and their privies and that the first suit resulted in a final judgment on the merits.5 But the parties dispute whether Ms. Gillmor's public highway claims “could and should have been raised in the first action.”

¶ 11 Both the district court and the court of appeals held that Ms. Gillmor's public highway claims could and should have been brought in either the 1984 or 2001 actions. Gillmor v. Family Link, LLC, 2010 UT App 2, ¶¶ 13, 21, 224 P.3d 741. The court of appeals noted Ms. Gillmor's concession that the public highway claims could have been raised previously and accordingly held that the claims should have been brought in the earlier cases. Id. ¶ 13. Defendants urge us to adopt the court of appeals' view. But Ms. Gillmor argues that even though the public use claims could have been brought in the prior litigation, it is not clear that she should have brought the claims. Specifically, Ms. Gillmor argues that she was not required to bring the claims in her prior suits because her current highway-by-public-use and public condemnation claims are legally and factually distinct from the private easement claims at issue in those prior suits. We agree with Ms. Gillmor.

¶ 12 In Mack, we discussed the evolution of our jurisprudence regarding the claim preclusion branch of res judicata. 2009 UT 47, ¶ 30, 221 P.3d 194. We noted that we had previously utilized a “state of facts” test to determine whether res judicata precluded a claim, but that [m]ore recently ... we have moved toward the...

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