This opinion will be unpublished and may
not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Paul R. Dawson, et al.,
Dan Lange, et al.,
Winona County District Court
File No. C799838
Richard F. Blahnik, Bruce A. Nelson, Robertson, Blahnik & Nelson, 177 Main Street, Suite 206, Winona, MN 55987 (for appellants)
Ronald W. Benson, Benson & Merchlewitz, 174 Main Street, Winona, MN 55987 (for respondents)
Considered and decided by Klaphake, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge, and Mulally, Judge.*
Paul Dawson and Rebecca Emery own property that adjoins Dan and Judy Lange’s property in Winona County. The Langes’ property borders Dawson and Emery’s property on the west, and the Mississippi River borders it on the east.
The Langes and Dawson purchased their property from Roland and Alice Howes. When the Howeses sold the property to Dawson, the Howeses and Dawson executed an access-easement agreement, which granted Dawson “a non-exclusive access easement over the existing crushed-rock roadway located on the [Langes’ property] for ingress and egress to and from [Dawson’s property].” The easement agreement describes the “existing crushed rock roadway” as “a crushed rock driveway providing access to [Dawson’s property] as well as access to [the Langes’ property] and also other property * * * located northerly of [Dawson’s property and the Langes’ property].”
Approximately a year after the Howes sold the property and executed the easement, the Howes sold their remaining property to the Langes, subject to Dawson’s easement. Sometime later, the Langes put up a fence on the crushed-rock roadway, preventing Dawson and Emery from accessing a portion of the crushed-rock roadway.
Dawson and Emery sued the Langes, claiming that the Langes prevented them from using the part of the easement that covered the east roadway and led to a boat landing. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment and, after a hearing, the district court granted summary judgment for the Langes. The district court determined that the easement agreement was capable of exact interpretation and described an easement over the north roadway but not the east roadway. In the memorandum accompanying the summary judgment, the district noted that the interpretation was consistent with a survey drawing prepared when the easement was executed that depicted the gravel roadway. In an amended order and memorandum, the district court concluded that whether or not the east roadway existed at the time the easement was created, the language of the easement agreement did not include the east roadway.
Dawson and Emery appeal from the summary judgment, contending that the district court’s interpretation of the easement agreement was erroneous and, in the alternative, that material issues of fact prevent summary judgment.
On appeal from summary judgment, the appellate court must determine whether the case raises genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court erred in its application of the law. State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990). No genuine issue of material fact exists when the record taken as a whole does not provide a basis for a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party. DLH Inc. v. Russ, 566 N.W.2d 60, 69 (Minn. 1997). The extent of an easement by grant depends entirely on the construction of the grant’s terms. Highway 7 Embers v. Northwestern Nat’l Bank, 256 N.W.2d 271, 275 (Minn. 1977). When the language of an easement is unambiguous, the terms of the easement alone are controlling. Farnes v. Lane, 281 Minn. 222, 225, 161 N.W.2d 297, 300 (1968). The meaning of any ambiguous term is ascertained by reference to general principles of construction. Chabot v. Paradise, 272 N.W.2d 251, 253 (Minn. 1978).
The Langes do not dispute the validity of Dawson and Emery’s easement, but dispute the location of the “existing crushed rock roadway” over which the easement extends. Currently, the crushed-rock roadway located on the Langes’ property splits into two separate roadways at the southwest corner of Dawson and Emery’s property. One roadway, the north roadway, travels north either along or somewhat parallel to the western border of Dawson and Emery’s property. The other roadway, the east roadway, travels east, parallel to and along the north side of a creek, to a boat landing on the Mississippi River located at the southeastern corner of Dawson and Emery’s property. Dawson and Emery contend that the easement agreement granted an easement over both the north and the east roadways. The Langes contend that the easement agreement granted an easement over only the north roadway.
The access-easement agreement grants Dawson and Emery “a non-exclusive access easement over the existing crushed rock roadway located on the [Langes’ property] for ingress and egress to and from [Dawson’s property].” The easement agreement specifically defines this roadway as “a crushed rock driveway providing access to [Dawson’s property] as well as access to [the Langes’ property] and also other property * * * located northerly of [Dawson’s property and the Langes’ property].”
According to its terms, the easement agreement grants Dawson and Emery an access easement over the existing crushed-rock roadway that provides access to (1) Dawson and Emery’s property, (2) the Langes’ property, and (3) other property located to the north of both Dawson and Emery’s and the Langes’ property. The uncontradicted evidence demonstrates that only one crushed-rock roadway provides access to all three pieces of property: the north roadway. The east roadway does not provide access to the property north of both Dawson and Emery’s property and the Langes’ property.
This plain meaning is further confirmed by the easement agreement’s use of the singular rather than the plural in specifically providing that the easement is located on “a crushed rock driveway providing access to the property” and “the existing crushed rock roadway located on the property.” For the easement agreement to grant an easement over both the north and the east roadways, the easement agreement would have to have been written in the plural.
Dawson and Emery contend that the district court erred in considering a survey prepared for the Howeses by Blumentritt Land Surveying because the survey was never incorporated or referenced in the easement agreement and, thus, is extrinsic evidence. In the original summary judgment order, the district court referred to the Blumentritt survey that showed only the north roadway. But in the amended order for summary judgment, the district court concluded that the description contained in the easement was capable of exact interpretation whether or not the east roadway existed at the time the easement was created. We agree. Our analysis is based solely on the language of the easement without consideration of the survey. The access-easement agreement itself describes the crushed-rock roadway, and only the north roadway fits within that description. The unambiguous language describes the extent of the easement.
Dawson and Emery alternatively argue that summary judgment was inappropriate in light of genuine issues on (1) whether the east roadway existed at the time that the easement was created and (2) whether the parties intended for the easement to include the east roadway. Because the plain language of the easement rules out the inclusion of the east road, these issues are not material and thus do not preclude summary judgment.
The access-easement agreement is unambiguous and capable of exact interpretation. The district court correctly determined that the easement agreement granted Dawson and Emery an access easement over the north, but not the east, crushed-rock roadway. Accordingly, the district court properly granted summary judgment in favor of the Langes.
KLAPHAKE, Judge (dissenting)
I respectfully dissent. The district court concluded that the easement agreement was unambiguous, but then relied on a piece of extrinsic evidence, the Blumentritt survey, to clarify what the agreement was intended to cover. The fact that the court found it necessary to turn to a clarifying document, coupled with the uncertainty about what the survey was intended to depict, the surveyor’s affidavit that the secondary road existed at the time of the easement agreement, and the language of the easement grant being susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation, indicates that there are issues of fact as to what the easement covered.
“On an appeal from summary judgment, we must examine two questions, whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the lower courts erred in their application of the law.” Cummings v. Koehnen, 568 N.W.2d 418, 420 (Minn. 1997) (citation omitted). “A reviewing court must view evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was granted.” Vetter v. Security Continental Ins. Co., 567 N.W.2d 516, 520 (Minn. 1997) (citation omitted).
Viewed in a light most favorable to appellants, there is a question about the extent of the grant of easement that the district court could only resolve by finding facts in favor of the respondents. The court may not resolve factual disputes, but may only order summary judgment when a party is entitled to it as a matter of law. Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03.
Therefore, I would reverse the district court’s summary judgment and remand this matter for trial.
* Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.