Landowner could not limit access of easement holder to one specific route

by Victoria Heldt

Enbridge Energy, LP v. Donovan Dyrdal, et al.
(Minnesota Court of Appeals, October 24, 2011)

The Dyrdals own agricultural property that is subject to easements held by Enbridge Energy.  The easements were granted in 2009 by the power of eminent domain and allowed Enbridge “rights of ingress and egress as are reasonably necessary or convenient in the exercise of such easement rights.”  Enbridge, a public-service corporation, installed and maintained pipelines in the easement.  Soon after completing the pipeline installation, Enbridge discovered problems at two locations, so the crew began working to correct them in January of 2010.  They used a field road on the Dyrdal property to access the two spots.  In response, the Dyrdals placed large hay bales across the field road and in the ditch between the problem sites, preventing Enbridge from accessing their work site.  Enbridge claimed this delay cost them an additional $28,697.80 in project costs.

Enbridge sought a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief in district court alleging a breach of easements and a violation of the eminent-domain order, among other things.  They also moved for a temporary injunctive relief to prevent the incident from reoccurring during litigation, which the court granted.  The Dyrdals countered with a claim of immunity under Minnesota’s statute preventing strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP).  The statute’s goal is to prevent parties from using the threat of costly litigation to silence those who want to debate public issues.  The district court eventually granted Enbridge’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of declaratory relief, finding Enbridge did indeed have the right to access the property to maintain the pipelines.

The Dyrdals appealed, their first claim being that the district court erred when it denied their request for partial summary judgment on the grounds of Minnesota’s anti-SLAPP statutes.  The anti-SLAPP statute can be used to dismiss claims that relate to public participation.  The Court noted that public participation is defined as “speech or lawful conduct that is genuinely aimed in whole or in part at procuring favorable government action.”  The Dyrdals argued that, since Enbridge gained access to the property by means of an eminent-domain procedure, it was acting as a government agent in its actions.  Consequently, they claimed that the anti-SLAPP statue was applicable.  The Court disagreed.  They noted that the power of eminent domain does not make the entity a government agent once the power has been exercised.  In addition, they found that Enbridge was exercising its rights as an easement owner, not a government agent, in accessing the property.  Further, the Dyrdals previously claimed that they placed the hay bales on the road in order to load them and not to interfere with Enbridge’s work.  If that is true, then their conduct was not to “procure favorable actions from Enbridge,” but for their own private farming operations.  As a final note, the Court noted that it had recently found that a preexisting legal relationship could limit a party’s ability to file an anti-SLAPP claim.

The Dyrdals also alleged that the district court abused its discretion when it granted temporary injunctive relief.  In evaluating whether a temporary injunction is appropriate, the Court considers five factors:  1) the nature and background of the relationship between the parties; 2) the balance of harm to the parties; 3) the likelihood that the party seeking the injunction will prevail on the merits of the action; 4) wither there are public-policy considerations; and 5) whether there are any administrative burdens involved in judicial supervision and enforcement of the temporary injunction.  After analysis, the Court found that the first three factors favored Enbridge, while the last two were neutral.

The Dyrdals focused mainly on the third factor.  The Court had reasoned that the language in the eminent-domain ruling showed Enbridge had a clear right to access the property and that constituted a showing that they would most likely win on the merits of the case.  The Dyrdals claimed that the real-estate doctrine of practical location limited Enbridge’s right of entry to one specific route.  The boundary by practical location can be established by acquiescence if one party chooses a specific route and the other agrees accepts it over a period of time.  The Dyrdals contend that an alternative route (and not the field road) that was previously used had been established by acquiescence.  The Court noted the plurality in the phrase “rights of ingress or egress” that appeared in the eminent-domain ruling.  It found that the ruling did not prescribe one specific route of access, so the Dyrdal’s claim was insufficient to disprove the likelihood of Enbridge’s success in a claim.  Additionally, the practical location by acquiescence doctrine requires acquiescence over a period of time.  In this case, the easement was relatively new and substantial time had not passed in which to establish a route by acquiescence.  The Court affirmed the district court’s decision regarding the temporary injunction.

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