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Sargent Cnty. Water Res. Dist. v. Mathews

Supreme Court of North Dakota

December 1, 2015

Sargent County Water Resource District, Plaintiff and Appellee
v.
Nancy I. Mathews, Phyllis Delahoyde, and Paul Mathews, Defendants Nancy I. Mathews and Paul Mathews, Appellants

Appeal from the District Court of Sargent County, Southeast Judicial District, the Honorable Bradley Allen Cruff, Judge.

Christopher M. McShane, West Fargo, N.D., for plaintiff and appellee.

Derrick L. Braaten (argued) and JJ William England (appeared), Bismarck, N.D. for appellants.

Gerald W. VandeWalle, C.J., Carol Ronning Kapsner, Lisa Fair McEvers, Daniel J. Crothers, Dale V. Sandstrom.

OPINION

Gerald W. VandeWalle, Chief Justice.

[¶1] Nancy Mathews and Paul Mathews appealed from a judgment determining the ownership and control of certain property in Sargent County. We reverse, concluding the plain language of the 1917 and 1918 right-of-way deeds at issue conveyed easements.

I

[¶2] In November 2012, the Sargent County Water Resource District (" District" ) commenced an action seeking declaratory relief regarding the ownership and control of property in Sargent County, including all property located south of the north boundary of Drain 11. The District claimed ownership as the successor in interest to the Sargent County Board of Drain Commissioners, which had obtained its interest in the property by right-of-way deeds signed in 1917 and 1918 and recorded in the Sargent County register of deeds office.

[¶3] The District sought declaratory relief because Paul Mathews sought to exert control over the property, claiming a property interest through his rental agreement with Phyllis Delahoyde and Nancy Mathews, the purported owners of the property. Nancy Mathews and Paul Mathews answered the complaint and raised a number of defenses and a counterclaim against the District. Delahoyde did not claim an interest in the disputed property, nor did she join the codefendants in the appeal.

[¶4] In January 2014, the district court held a bench trial. After trial, the court found the 1917 deed and 1918 deed were ambiguous on their face and considered extrinsic evidence to determine the intent of the parties to the deeds. The court subsequently entered judgment declaring that the 1917 and 1918 deeds granted fee title in the property to the District's predecessor.

II

[¶5] Nancy Mathews and Paul Mathews argue the plain language of the right-of-way deeds from 1917 and 1918 unambiguously show an intent to convey easements for a right of way and not fee simple. They further contend that if this Court decides the deeds are ambiguous, the district court's interpretation of the parol evidence is clearly erroneous.

A

[¶6] We interpret deeds in the same manner as contracts. N.D.C.C. § 47-09-11. In construing a deed, the primary purpose is to ascertain and effectuate the grantor's intent. EOG Res., Inc. v. Soo Line R.R. Co.,2015 ND 187, ¶ 15, 867 N.W.2d 308; Wagner v. Crossland Constr. Co., Inc.,2013 ND 219, ¶ 8, 840 N.W.2d 81. The intent must be ascertained from the writing alone, if possible. Wagner, at ¶ 8. When a deed is unambiguous, this Court decides the parties' intent from the instrument itself. Id. " A deed is ambiguous if rational arguments can be made in support of contrary positions as to the meaning of the term, phrase, ...


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