Sw. Elec. Power Co. v. Lynch, 18-0768

CourtSupreme Court of Texas
Writing for the CourtJustice Green delivered the opinion of the Court.
Citation595 S.W.3d 678
Parties SOUTHWESTERN ELECTRIC POWER COMPANY, Petitioner, v. Kenneth LYNCH, Tommy Batchelor, and Twant Wilson, Respondents
Docket NumberNo. 18-0768,18-0768
Decision Date28 February 2020

595 S.W.3d 678

Kenneth LYNCH, Tommy Batchelor, and Twant Wilson, Respondents

No. 18-0768

Supreme Court of Texas.

Argued December 5, 2019
OPINION DELIVERED: February 28, 2020

James Thomas Carroll IV, Rickey Lawrence Faulkner, Coghlan Crowson, LLP, 1127 Judson Rd., Suite 211, Longview, TX 756011-5193, Marnie A. McCormick, Stephanie M. Green, Duggins Wren Mann & Romero, LLP, P.O. Box 1149, Austin, TX 78767-1149, for Petitioner.

Charles David Glass, Smith Weber, L.L.P., 5505 Plaza Drive, Texarkana, TX 75503, Donald W. Capshaw, Capshaw Green, PLLC, 4405 Summerhill Rd., 2801 Richmond Rd., #46, Texarkana, TX 75503-2737, Tiffany Gilbert, Fidelity National Law Group, 14785 Preston Rd. Ste. 1150, Dallas, TX 75254-7876, for Respondents.

Justice Green delivered the opinion of the Court.

This dispute centers on the width of several general easements that an electric company acquired from the respondent landowners' predecessors-in-title in 1949. The petitioner electric company argues that the easements are general easements with no fixed width, while the landowners contend that the easements should have a fixed, thirty-foot width. After conducting a bench trial, the trial court concluded that the easements are fixed at a thirty-foot width, and therefore the trial court rendered judgment for the landowners. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment, concluding that because the original 1949 easements did not specify a width, the trial court was within its discretion to admit extrinsic evidence of past use to determine how much of the landowners' land "was reasonably necessary" for the petitioner to utilize pursuant to the easements. 581 S.W.3d 292, 304–06 (Tex. App.—Texarkana, pet. granted). We disagree with the court of appeals and conclude that the easements have no fixed width, but the petitioner's use of the land under the easements nevertheless must be reasonable and necessary. We reverse in part the judgment of the court of appeals and render judgment for the petitioner.

I. Background

In 1949, Southwestern Gas & Electric Company (Southwestern) acquired a number

595 S.W.3d 681

of easements over a stretch of land in northeast Texas to construct a transmission line. Pursuant to the easements, Southwestern constructed a wooden-pole transmission line in 1949 that crossed the encumbered properties. Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) subsequently acquired these easements. The easements authorize SWEPCO "to erect towers, poles and anchors along" a set course on a right-of-way that traverses several privately owned properties. In addition, these easements grant SWEPCO the right to ingress and egress over the encumbered properties "for the purpose of constructing, reconstructing, inspecting, patrolling, hanging new wires on, maintaining and removing said line and appurtenances." The easements limit the number of poles, towers, and anchors that SWEPCO may construct on the properties, but also give SWEPCO the option to increase the number of poles, towers, or anchors by compensating the landowners. Since acquiring the easements from Southwestern, SWEPCO has continued to utilize the easements to maintain the transmission line following the same general path since the line's construction.

Kenneth Lynch, Tommy Batchelor, and Twant Wilson (collectively, the Landowners) purchased land encumbered by the 1949 easements in different transactions that took place from 1986 to 2007. In 2014 and 2015, SWEPCO undertook a modernization project on the original transmission line. This modernization project included replacing the line's wooden poles with steel poles. As part of the modernization project, SWEPCO made offers to many of the landowners whose properties were encumbered by the 1949 easements to supplement the easements to "bring the rights and restrictions to SWEPCO's standard right of way requirements." Specifically, the supplemental terms to the 1949 easements included additional rights for SWEPCO and proposed setting the easements' width at 100 feet. SWEPCO offered landowners $1,000 if they accepted the supplemental terms. Some of those landowners accepted SWEPCO's proposal, but the Landowners did not. SWEPCO therefore proceeded to complete the modernization project on the Landowners' properties under the original, unamended terms of the 1949 easements.

Over the course of the modernization project, the Landowners did not object to SWEPCO's utilization of the 1949 easements to access their encumbered properties to upgrade the transmission line. After the project was completed, however, the Landowners filed suit seeking a declaratory judgment fixing SWEPCO's easements to a thirty-foot width, fifteen feet on each side of the transmission line. The Landowners argued that SWEPCO has only ever utilized thirty feet of the encumbered properties, and thirty feet should be the maximum amount of land that SWEPCO may utilize in the future. The Landowners were concerned that SWEPCO may, in the future, utilize more than triple the amount of land it has used in the past. In support of this contention, the Landowners pointed to SWEPCO's offer to supplement the easements with a 100-foot fixed width as evidence that SWEPCO intends to one day utilize the easement more than it has in the past.

In response to the Landowners' suit for declaratory judgment, SWEPCO filed two pleas to the jurisdiction, arguing that the Landowners had not suffered any injury, and therefore their claims were not justiciable. The trial court denied SWEPCO's pleas to the jurisdiction. SWEPCO also filed counterclaims against the Landowners for trespass and breach of contract. SWEPCO ultimately nonsuited these counterclaims before trial.

The trial court held a bench trial on the Landowners' declaratory judgment claim.

595 S.W.3d 682

At trial, the court admitted—over SWEPCO's repeated objections—extrinsic evidence showing SWEPCO's historical use of the easements, which the Landowners offered in support of their argument that the easements should have a thirty-foot width. SWEPCO meanwhile maintained that it possesses general easements over the Landowners' properties, and the easements are not limited to a specific width but instead give SWEPCO the right to access the properties as much as is reasonably necessary for the purposes specified in the easements. SWEPCO also asserted that it has no plans to expand its use of the easements.

At the conclusion of the bench trial, the trial court entered findings of fact and conclusions of law. The trial court found that SWEPCO "utilized, operated and maintained the transmission line within a thirty (30) foot easement subsequent to the 2014-2015 rebuild and modernization of the transmission line." The trial court also found that a "thirty (30) foot easement is reasonably necessary for the operation, use and maintenance of the transmission line across [the Landowners'] respective properties." Accordingly, the trial court concluded that SWEPCO's easements are limited to fifteen "feet on each side of the center point of the transmission line, amounting to a thirty (30) foot utility easement" on the Landowners' properties. The trial court also awarded the Landowners attorneys fees and costs.

On appeal, SWEPCO argued that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the suit because there was no justiciable controversy. Specifically, SWEPCO argued that the Landowners have not alleged that SWEPCO used the easements in an unreasonable manner or beyond what was reasonably necessary. As for the trial court's conclusion that the easements have a fixed, thirty-foot width, SWEPCO argued that the 1949 easements are express general easements containing unambiguous language, and the trial court erred in admitting the Landowners' extrinsic evidence to write new terms into the easements. The court of appeals held that the trial court was correct to conclude that it had subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute because SWEPCO might choose to use its interpretation of the 1949 easements to "oppose the [Land]owners' future usage" of their properties. 581 S.W.3d at 302 (citation omitted). The court of appeals also pointed to SWEPCO's trespass counterclaim, even though this counterclaim was nonsuited, as evidence that the dispute between SWEPCO and the Landowners presented the trial court with a justiciable controversy. Id. In addressing SWEPCO's argument on the merits, the court of appeals concluded that the 1949 easements described "a framework or skeleton of the easement[s] conveyed without describing [the easements'] width, [and] the trial court could resort to extrinsic evidence in order to determine the width of the easement[s]." Id. at 304 (citation omitted). The court of appeals reasoned that "SWEPCO's interpretation of the 1949 [easements] would result in ‘growing’ easement[s]," and "once SWEPCO built and maintained the transmission lines, its rights [under the easements] became fixed and certain." Id. at 306. Accordingly, the court of appeals concluded that the trial court acted within its discretion to admit extrinsic evidence to determine "that a thirty-foot easement is reasonable and necessary." Id. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment. Id.

II. Standard of Review

We review questions of subject matter jurisdiction de novo. Tex....

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