Plain language of right-of-way deeds grant easements

by Andrea Vaage

Sargent County Water Resource District v. Mathews
North Dakota Supreme Court, December 1, 2015

Paul Mathews sought to control land rented to him by Nancy Mathews and Phyllis Delahoyde. In response, The Sargent County Water Resource District filed for declaratory relief in November 2012 as the successor in interest to the Sargent County Board of Drain Commissioners. The Board obtained interest in the property through right-of-way deeds signed in 1917 and 1918.

At issue is whether the deed conveyed an easement or an estate in fee. The district court found the deeds granted fee title in property to the District. The Mathews appealed. The Mathews argued the right-of-way deeds from 1917 and 1918 unambiguously show an intent to convey easements for a right of way when read in plain language. In addition, if the deeds were ambiguous, the Mathews argued the district court interpretation of parol evidence is erroneous. When a deed is unambiguous, meaning of the deed is determined from the document itself. When it is found to be ambiguous, extrinsic evidence may be considered.

The deed reads, in part, that owners:

“grant, sell and convey, and forever release to the people of the County of Sargent, in the State of North Dakota, right of way for the laying out, construction and maintenance of a public drain, as the same may be located by the Board of Drain Commissioners, through said above described lands, being a strip of land . . . [described]. And we hereby release all claims to damages by reason of the laying out, construction and maintenance thereof through our said lands.”

The Court analyzed the deed to understand the grantor’s intent. The deed grants a “right of way” specifically for “construction and maintenance of a public drain” and does not convey an estate in fee. When the granting clause includes the phrase “right of way,” courts have found the deed usually conveys an easement. The Court found the deed was unambiguous and conveyed an easement when read in plain language.

The decision of the district court was reversed.

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