Whitefish Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Inc. v. Caltabiano, DA 19-0104

Docket NºDA 19-0104
Citation397 Mont. 284, 449 P.3d 812, 2019 MT 228
Case DateSeptember 24, 2019
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Montana

397 Mont. 284
449 P.3d 812
2019 MT 228

WHITEFISH CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, INC., Plaintiff, Appellee, and Cross Appellant,
v.
Giuseppe CALTABIANO and Jamie Caltabiano, Defendants and Appellants.

DA 19-0104

Supreme Court of Montana.

Submitted on Briefs: July 10, 2019
Decided: September 24, 2019


For Appellant: Sean S. Frampton, Frampton Purdy Law Firm, Whitefish, Montana

For Appellee: Kimberly S. More, Crowley Fleck PLLP, Kalispell, Montana

Justice James Jeremiah Shea delivered the Opinion of the Court.

449 P.3d 815
397 Mont. 286

¶1 Appellants Giuseppe Caltabiano and Jamie Caltabiano (collectively "Caltabianos"), appeal the judgment of the Eleventh Judicial District, Flathead County, concluding that the Whitefish Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Inc. (Congregation) has a valid, enforceable easement across the Caltabianos' property, and granting the Congregation's permanent injunction prohibiting the Caltabianos from interfering with the Congregation's use of the easement. The Congregation cross-appeals the District Court's decision not to award attorney fees. We address the following issues on appeal:

Issue One: Whether the District Court erred by finding an easement in favor of the Congregation.

Issue Two: Whether the District Court erred when it entered a
397 Mont. 287
permanent injunction prohibiting the Caltabianos from interfering with the Congregation's access, via the easement, to its property from Lion Mountain Road.

Issue Three: Whether the Congregation is entitled to attorney fees.

¶2 We affirm.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

¶3 The Congregation is a Montana nonprofit religious corporation located in Whitefish, Montana. On August 4, 1994, the Congregation purchased an undivided property along Highway 93 West by warranty deed. At the time, the property was vacant and served by two access points: one along Highway 93 to the south, and the other along Lion Mountain Road (LMR) to the north.

¶4 Also in 1994, the Congregation applied for a conditional use permit from Flathead County Regional Development Office (FRDO) to build a church. The Flathead County Board of Adjustment considered the Congregation's application and issued permit FCU-94-9, subject to ten conditions. Relevant to this case, Condition No. 2 provided that: "the proposed access from [LMR] be approved by the Flathead County Road Department by obtaining an approach permit."

¶5 In 1995, the Congregation applied to FRDO for a preliminary plat approval of a two-lot subdivision. The Congregation proposed that the property be divided into two adjacent flag lots with separate access to what would be called "Tracts A and B."1 The Congregation planned to build a church on Tract A, and access to Tract B would be from LMR.

¶6 FRDO staff recommended that the Congregation delete the flag-mast portion of Tract A fronting LMR and establish a road and utility easement in its place to provide a second point of access from Tract A to LMR. On May 15, 1995, the Whitefish City Council approved the two-lot subdivision preliminary plat, subject to the FRDO recommendations. Congregation members constructed a gravel road between Tract A and LMR and erected a gate on the Congregation's property that controlled through-access to LMR via Highway 93. At this point, the preliminary plat was not signed, and the application process terminated.

397 Mont. 288

¶7 In 1996, the Congregation built a church on Tract A. Tract B remained vacant. From 1996-1999, Congregation members utilized both the LMR and Highway 93 access points for ingress and egress to the church. In 1999, the Congregation resubmitted an application for a two-lot subdivision. The resubmission triggered another review of the 1995 application. On May 26, 1999, the FRDO Site Review Committee met and discussed the proposal and recommended that (1) the Access and Utility Easement (Easement) be at least sixty feet in width; (2) the final plat reflect the Easement; and (3) access to Tract B be off the Easement and not another access off LMR.

¶8 On July 6, 1999, the Whitefish City Council approved the Congregation's preliminary plat, subject to nine conditions of approval.

449 P.3d 816

Relevant to this case, Condition No. 3 provided:

The flag-mast portion of Tract A fronting on Lion Mountain Road shall be deleted, and a road and utility easement of 40 feet minimum width across Tract B shall be established in its place. This road and utility easement shall be used by both Tract A and B jointly and there shall be a shared access point onto Lion Mountain Road . This easement then will provide an access from Tract A to Lion Mountain Road in addition to the access point on Highway 93.

(Emphasis added.)

¶9 By letter dated August 3, 1999, the FRDO director reviewed the Congregation's proposed final subdivision plat and determined that it met all nine conditions imposed by the Whitefish City Council. The FRDO director noted that the proposed final subdivision plat—to become Subdivision Plat No. 149—clearly depicted the sixty-foot Easement on its face. The FRDO director also noted that sixty feet is the standard width for a city street in Whitefish and that an easement intended only for utility use would typically be ten to twenty feet wide. Finally, the FRDO director noted that the diagram on the plat identified the location of the Easement and that it was for access. On August 16, 1999, the Whitefish City Council granted final approval for the subdivision. Two days later, Plat No. 149 was recorded and is depicted as follows:

397 Mont. 289

¶10 Plat No. 149 depicts the sixty-foot Easement that crosses Tract B (identified on Plat No. 149 as "Lot 2"). The Easement provided a metes-and-bounds description of the Easement boundaries and contained the following easement description:

Access and Utility Easement Certificate

The undersigned hereby grants each and every person, firm, operation, whether public or private, providing or offering to provide utilities or sewer service to the public, the right to the joint use of an easement for the construction, maintenance, repair and liens of facilities, in over, under and across each area designated on
449 P.3d 817
their plat as ‘Access & Utility Easement’ to have and to hold forever.

The Access and Utility Easement Certificate did not identify the Congregation, did not use the words "ingress" or "egress," and did not describe that the Easement was for commercial use.

¶11 On August 20, 1999, the Congregation sold the second lot, Tract B of Plat No. 149, by warranty deed to Dale and Angela Novak (collectively "Novaks"). The conveyance was free from all encumbrances, except easements "apparent or of record." The Novaks

397 Mont. 290

built a house on the property, after which the property changed hands several times.2 The occupant from 2002-2006, a tenant of the Tract B owners, testified that he never saw anyone use the Easement to enter or exit church property and never knew the Congregation and church members had any right to use the same road between the Tract B home he occupied and the LMR access point.

¶12 In 2006, the Caltabianos purchased Tract B by warranty deed. As part of the sale, the Caltabianos received a title insurance policy that referenced the "Access & Utility Easement" and excluded it from coverage.

¶13 During the summer of 2015, a construction project on Highway 93 resulted in vehicle traffic passing through the church gate going to and from LMR. According to the Caltabianos, this was the first time they observed vehicles using LMR to access Tract A. The Congregation informed the Caltabianos that the gate would remain open to allow traffic to move between the church and LMR over the Easement while the road construction project was underway. The Caltabianos objected and placed their trailer on what they termed to be "[their] driveway" to block vehicle movement to and from the church.

¶14 The Caltabianos sought out information regarding the Easement and how to terminate it. On August 3, 2015, the Caltabianos received an e-mail from the Whitefish Planning Office notifying them that forty feet of the sixty-foot wide easement could not be eliminated without Congregation approval. The Caltabianos objected, stating they did not believe the Congregation had any right to use the Easement. When the Congregation insisted on using it, the Caltabianos erected a fence and other impediments across the Easement.

¶15 On November 1, 2017, the Congregation sued the Caltabianos and (1) requested a declaratory judgment to establish the easement; (2) sought damages resulting from trespass; and (3) requested injunctive relief.3

397 Mont. 291

¶16 On January 7, 2019, the District Court presided over a bench trial. The FRDO director testified that the term "access" had the...

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5 practice notes
  • In re C.M., DA 18-0587
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • September 24, 2019
    ...complications in registering for classes, and that he had no record Mother completed a mental health evaluation. Mother testified she had 449 P.3d 812 given the Department her address, that the individuals administering the classes never returned her calls, and that she had a mental health ......
  • Mandich v. French, DA 21-0436
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • May 10, 2022
    ...other than the contents of the writing should be considered.5 Whitefish Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Inc. v. Caltabiano , 2019 MT 228, ¶ 28, 397 Mont. 284, 449 P.3d 812. Whether an ambiguity exists in a contract is a matter of law. Richards v. JTL Group, Inc. , 2009 MT 173, ¶ 26, 35......
  • The Estate of Mandich v. French, DA 21-0436
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • May 10, 2022
    ...other than the contents of 10 the writing should be considered.[5] Whitefish Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Inc. v. Caltabiano, 2019 MT 228, ¶ 28, 397 Mont. 284, 449 P.3d 812. Whether an ambiguity exists in a contract is a matter of law. Richards v. JTL Group, Inc., 2009 MT 173, ¶ 26,......
  • Wilkinson, LLC v. Scott & Cindy Erler, LLP, DA 20-0582
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • July 13, 2021
    ...on which the easement is clearly depicted or adequately described." Whitefish Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Inc. v. Caltabiano , 2019 MT 228, ¶ 26, 397 Mont. 284, 449 P.3d 812. ¶10 This Court has held:[T]he determination of whether an expressly created easement is appurtenant or in g......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
5 cases
  • In re C.M., DA 18-0587
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • September 24, 2019
    ...complications in registering for classes, and that he had no record Mother completed a mental health evaluation. Mother testified she had 449 P.3d 812 given the Department her address, that the individuals administering the classes never returned her calls, and that she had a mental health ......
  • Mandich v. French, DA 21-0436
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • May 10, 2022
    ...other than the contents of the writing should be considered.5 Whitefish Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Inc. v. Caltabiano , 2019 MT 228, ¶ 28, 397 Mont. 284, 449 P.3d 812. Whether an ambiguity exists in a contract is a matter of law. Richards v. JTL Group, Inc. , 2009 MT 173, ¶ 26, 35......
  • The Estate of Mandich v. French, DA 21-0436
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • May 10, 2022
    ...other than the contents of 10 the writing should be considered.[5] Whitefish Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Inc. v. Caltabiano, 2019 MT 228, ¶ 28, 397 Mont. 284, 449 P.3d 812. Whether an ambiguity exists in a contract is a matter of law. Richards v. JTL Group, Inc., 2009 MT 173, ¶ 26,......
  • Wilkinson, LLC v. Scott & Cindy Erler, LLP, DA 20-0582
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • July 13, 2021
    ...on which the easement is clearly depicted or adequately described." Whitefish Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Inc. v. Caltabiano , 2019 MT 228, ¶ 26, 397 Mont. 284, 449 P.3d 812. ¶10 This Court has held:[T]he determination of whether an expressly created easement is appurtenant or in g......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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