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Goodwin v. Blake

Court of Appeals of Oklahoma, Division IV

October 30, 2017

CECILIA W. GOODWIN, et al., Plaintiffs/Appellees,
v.
PATRICK H. BLAKE and JOAN E. BLAKE, Defendants/Appellants.

          Mandate Issued: 03/21/2018

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF OKLAHOMA COUNTY, OKLAHOMA HONORABLE BARBARA SWINTON, TRIAL JUDGE

          John W. Gile, Matthew R. Gile, HALL, ESTILL, HARDWICK, PC, GABLE, GOLDEN & NELSON, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Plaintiffs/Appellees

          W. Dan Nelson, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and MaryGaye LeBoeuf, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Defendants/Appellants

          P. THOMAS THORNBRUGH, VICE-CHIEF JUDGE.

         ¶1 Patrick H. Blake and Joan E. Blake (the Blakes) appeal a decision of the district court holding that they acted unreasonably in destroying some 940 feet of fence belonging to Cecilia Goodwin and others, and awarding damages. On review, we affirm the decision of the district court.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 This case begins in November 2005, when Cecelia Goodwin filed a petition to quiet title and an application for injunction, alleging that she owned certain property in the N/2 of the SE/4 of Section 34, Township 14, Oklahoma County, and that her adjoining neighbors, the Blakes, had entered a strip at one edge of the property and destroyed her fence. The fence was allegedly located on a section line. The same month, the Blakes filed suit alleging that the Goodwin family (the Goodwins) had refused them rightful access to the same strip of property. The record shows that the Blakes were attempting to establish an access road to their property along the section line without a prior judicial declaration of their right to do so. The two cases were consolidated.

         ¶3 On September 19, 2011, the district court held a bench trial and issued a journal entry holding that the Blakes had no authority to open the section line, and, as a result, had no right to remove the Goodwins' fence. We vacated this decision in June 2014 in Case No. 111, 172, because neither the common law of easements nor 69 O.S.2011 § 1201 (A) require that a landowner seeking to use a section line for access to their own property "open" the section line to do so. We remanded the matter to the district court to inquire into the reasonableness of the Blakes' actions in attempting to create access along the section line, and to decide whether the Blakes had a right to destroy the Goodwins' fence based upon a grant of "reasonable access and use" of the section line. The district court held trial on this question in 2015, and allowed the Blakes' road to stay, but awarded damages for the destruction of the Goodwins' fence. The Blakes now appeal for a second time.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶4 "The denial or award of an easement is an exercise of the trial court's equitable cognizance, and its order will be affirmed on appeal unless it is found to be against the clear weight of the evidence or contrary to law or established principles of equity." Mainka v. Mitchusson, 2006 OK CIV APP 51, ¶ 11, 135 P.3d 842; see also Barrett v. Humphrey, 2012 OK CIV APP 28, 275 P.3d 959. This case also requires the interpretation of 69 O.S.2011 § 1201 (A). Legal questions involving statutory interpretation are subject to de novo review. Heffron v. Dist. Court of Okla. Cnty., 2003 OK 75, ¶ 15, 77 P.3d 1069. De novo review is non-deferential, plenary and independent. Neil Acquisition, L.L.C. v. Wingrod Inv. Corp., 1996 OK 125, n.1, 932 P.2d 1100.

         ANALYSIS

         ¶5 Preliminarily, we must correct certain statements made in the Blakes' petition/briefing regarding the earlier appeal: the Blakes state that "On appeal, COCA vacated the judgment holding that Goodwins had no right to erect a fence...." The Blakes' reply brief goes further, stating that we "held in the first appeal that Blake had had an inviolable constitutional right " to use the section line for access. This Court made no such statements in its prior opinion. Nor do we believe that our decision could be reasonably (mis)interpreted as making such statements. Our prior Opinion clearly stated:

Given that the right to use the section line for access is clearly conditioned on equitable principles, we find that the district court was required to inquire into the reasonableness of the Blakes' actions in attempting to create access along the section line, and decide whether the Blakes had any right to remove the Goodwins' fence ...

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