August 30, 2014

Colorado Court of Appeals: Meaningful Remedy May Be Available to Landowners so Summary Judgment Inappropriate

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Sinclair Transportation Co. v. Sandberg on Thursday, June 5, 2014.

Easement — Partial Summary Judgment.

Sinclair Pipeline Company (Sinclair) operates a pipeline system that transports petroleum products from Wyoming to Denver and uses an easement that passes through defendants’ (landowners) properties. The easement was created by agreement in 1963 and provided its owner and “its successors and assigns” the right to “construct, maintain, inspect, operate, protect, repair, replace, change the size of, and remove” a six-inch pipeline across landowners’ property (original pipeline).

In 2006, Sinclair approached landowners to propose amending the easement to allow it to build a ten-inch pipeline on the property (new pipeline). Landowners declined, and Sinclair sought the right through a condemnation proceeding. The district court determined Sinclair had condemnation authority. In 2007, while the case was on appeal, Sinclair installed the new pipeline but did not put it to use. Ultimately, the Supreme Court determined Sinclair did not have statutory condemnation authority.

Sinclair then abandoned the condemnation proceeding and instituted this declaratory judgment action under CRCP 57 and CRS § 13-51-106 to determine its rights under the easement and prevent landowners from removing the new pipeline. The district court dismissed the condemnation action and addressed all other claims in this case.

Sinclair moved for partial summary judgment and the district court ruled, as a matter of law, that Sinclair had the right to treat the new pipeline as a replacement of the original one, as long as it removed the original one. The partial summary judgment was certified as a final judgment under CRCP 54(b) for purposes of appeal.

Sinclair removed the original pipeline and began using the new one. Four months after the summary judgment order was issued and Sinclair had begun using the new pipeline, landowners moved to stay the order, which the district court denied because Sinclair had “already fully executed” it and there “was nothing left . . . to stay.”

On appeal, landowners argued Sinclair lacked standing because factual disputes existed as to whether Sinclair was a successor in interest to the original owner of the easement, and an easement of the type involved in this case could not be assigned. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the evidence presented by Sinclair was sufficient to prove its successorship interest in the easement.

The Court rejected landowners’ argument that Sinclair lacked standing, because ownership interests in this type of easement cannot be assigned. The language of the easement itself was a conveyance to Old Sinclair and its “successors and assigns.”

Landowners argued that partial summary judgment was inappropriate because any right to replace the pipeline was subject to numerous conditions as to which factual disputes exist and was defeated by Sinclair’s non-compliance with other parts of the agreement. The Court disagreed, finding that the reasonable expectation of the parties to such an agreement would be that the new pipeline could be put in before the old one being removed so as not to disrupt service.

Landowners further contended that Sinclair abandoned the contract right to the easement because it acted as though that right had expired when it sought to use condemnation authority to install the new pipeline. The Court disagreed. Sinclair’s condemnation action was an attempt to install the new pipeline and not remove the old pipeline after landowners had denied them the permission to do so. The order was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here.

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