by Victoria Heldt
Donald Hector, et al. v. Gary Hoffer, et al., City of Adrian
(Minnesota Court of Appeals, December 12, 2011)
This case involves an undeveloped street easement in the City of Adrian, Minnesota. The easement was granted in 1891 in order to develop Second Street, but the street was not developed towards the western end. The Hoffers and the Lonnemans own property on the southern edge of the easement while the Hectors own property to the immediate north and west of the easement. The Hectors bought their property in 1995 and the Lonnemans and the Hoffers both acquired their properties between 2005 and 2006. Neither of the deeds conveying the property contained rights to the land under the easement. When the Hoffers and the Lonnemans purchased their properties, a wire fence and a row of volunteer trees ran through the middle of the easement. Both the Hoffers and Lonnemans found them to be an eyesore and wanted them removed, but the Hectors disagreed. Thinking that the fence and trees were on city property, Mark Hoffer asked the city zoning administrator if he could remove them. The zoning administrator said yes because he believed they were on a city right of way, but the Hectors objected. After receiving permission from the city administrator, the Hoffers and Lonnemans removed the fence and trees.
The Hectors filed suit in district court initially only making claims against the Hoffers and the Lonnemans. The Hectors sought a declaration that they owned the property either by title or by adverse possession and requested damages from the Hoffers and Lonnemans for trespass and for the removal of the fence and trees. The Hectors also claimed that a drain tile (installed by the Hoffers and the Lonnemans) caused drainage onto one of their driveways. Later, the complaint was amended to include counts of trespass and conversion against the City. The City, the Hoffers, and the Lonnemans all sought summary judgment. The court granted summary judgment to the City, noting that its advice had been “based on a negligent misrepresentation of law, which is not actionable.” The court additionally found that the Hectors owned the Property underlying the easement up to and including the fence line but not the property south of the line. It concluded that the Hoffers and Lonnemans had trespassed and awarded the Hectors $200 in damages for the loss of the fence. The Hectors appealed.
In its analysis, the Court first noted that, pertaining to the underlying interest of a public easement for a street, any abutting landowner has an interest in the property up to the middle of the street. Subsequently, under the general rule, the Hoffers, the Lonnemans, and the Hectors would own their respective property underlying the easement up to the center line of the easement. The Hectors first argued that they own all of the land under the easement since they own two intersecting sides of the land underlying the easement. The Court focused on the fact that the original platters of the land owned the land both to the north and to the south of the easement. Due to this fact, when the land was platted into blocks and the title of the Hectors block passed to them, they only took title up to the center of the street line.
Alternatively, the Hectors argued that they owned the entirety of the property under the easement due to adverse possession. In order to claim property by adverse possession, a party must prove that it has used the property exclusively and continuously for 15 years. The Hectors argued that Leander Ruffing, the previous owner of their property, had used the land exclusively for over 15 years. The Court acknowledged that it is not necessary for the current owner to prove continuous ownership for 15 years and that the previous owner’s use could be accounted for in determining adverse ownership. However, the Court still found that the Hectors failed to prove adverse ownership of the property to the south of the fence since that was not claimed to be used by Ruffing. The Hectors’ warranty deed was dated October 1995 and they could not prove 15 years of use before the Court’s order in April 2010. In addition, Victoria Hector herself admitted that the Hoffers and the Lonnemans used a portion of the easement to the south of the fence for a utility trailer. This fact shows the Hectors did not maintain exclusive use of the property, and therefore the claim for title by adverse possession failed.
The Hectors also challenged the $200 in damages and the court’s failure to assign damages for the loss of trees. Historically, the amount of damages due for a loss of trees has been measured by the difference in the value of the land before and after the removal of the trees. The Hectors failed to prove that the value of the land had changed due to the loss of the trees. Additionally, there was no evidence to show that the trees served an aesthetic purpose. The Court affirmed the district court’s measure of damages.
The Hectors further argued for punitive damages. In order for punitive damages to be appropriate, a showing must be made that the defendant “showed deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others.” Since the Hoffers and Lonnemans did not think the Hectors owned the trees or the fence (based on comments from the city zoning administrator) they did not show a “deliberate disregard” for the Hectors’ rights. Consequently, the Court found punitive damages to be inappropriate.
In regards to the claim against the City, the Court found that, even if the district court’s summary judgment were reversed, it would have a minimal affect on the lawsuit since the Hectors were already awarded $200 in damages. The Court affirmed the district court’s decision.