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Bowland v. Haushalter

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

November 4, 2019

Charles Bowland and Betty Bowland, Plaintiffs Below, Petitioners
Gladys Haushalter, n/k/a Gladys E. Polverini, Defendant Below, Respondent

          (Brooke County 14-C-105)


         Petitioners Charles Bowland and Betty Bowland, by counsel Lawrence L. Manypenny, appeal the July 20, 2018, order of the Circuit Court of Brooke County that determined that Respondent Gladys Haushalter, n/k/a Gladys E. Polverini, proved her counterclaim for promissory estoppel/detrimental reliance and easement by estoppel in connection with her installation of water and electrical lines through petitioners' property. Respondent, by counsel M. Eric Frankovitch and Kevin M. Pearl, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the order of the circuit court is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         Petitioners and Respondent are adjoining landowners, the boundaries of which are undisputed. Respondent owns two parcels, which are separated by petitioners' parcels.

         Prior to 2014, the water supply on respondent's residential parcel was inadequate and required that she purchase water, which was delivered to her property two times per month at a cost of $150 per delivery. Respondent would run a surface hose from the water truck over petitioners' property for the purpose of filling up a cistern that was located on respondent's property.

         On April 1, 2014, respondent began installing permanent water and electrical lines running from a well that she had previously installed on her non-residential parcel to her residential property. This project required that respondent dig a trench through petitioners' property in order to install a portion of the lines. Respondent completed the project on April 8, 2014.

         On July 25, 2014, petitioners filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Brooke County requesting a writ of mandamus directing that respondent remove the water and electrical lines from their property and restore it to its pre-April 2014 condition.[1] Petitioners also filed claims of willful trespass and fraud, the latter of which was based upon the allegation that respondent misrepresented that petitioners "had given [respondent] permission (as required by the West Virginia Statute of Frauds) to come on [petitioners'] real estate and place the electric and water line[s], when [respondent] kn[e]w her statement was without truth."

         Respondent filed an answer and generally denied the allegations in the complaint. She also filed counterclaims alleging fraud/misrepresentation, promissory estoppel, action to quiet title/easement by estoppel, and abuse of process. Respondent's counterclaims stem from her contention that petitioners had given her permission to install the lines on their property. With regard to her abuse of process counterclaim, respondent alleged that petitioners initiated this action for the improper purpose of intimidating and coercing her to sell her property to them.[2]

         Discovery ensued and a bench trial was conducted on March 29, 2017. In an order entered on July 20, 2018, the circuit court concluded that it was petitioners who had suggested to respondent that she should install a permanent underground waterline from her well to her cistern, "which water line would have had to traverse [petitioners'] property." Though the court acknowledged that respondent did not obtain petitioners' permission in writing, it found that respondent purchased a large amount of materials for installation of the water and electrical lines and rented a mini-excavator in order to dig the trench; that, approximately one week before beginning the project, respondent called petitioners "to so advise and left a message on [their] answering machine"[;] that, on April 1, 2014, respondent spoke with Petitioner Betty Bowland and advised her "that she was ready to start digging and inquired of any special instructions desired by [petitioners]"; and that "the digging of the trench and the installation of the electrical and water lines went on over the course of several days with no affirmative steps taken [by petitioners] to either stop the process or contact law enforcement."

         The circuit court concluded that petitioners failed to prove their claims of willful trespass and fraud. While the court also concluded that respondent failed to prove her counterclaims of fraud/misrepresentation and abuse of process, it determined that respondent satisfied her burden of proving a claim for promissory estoppel/detrimental reliance. The court also found in favor of respondent in her action to quiet title and for an easement by estoppel and granted her the same. Finally, the court concluded that, although it can be reasonably inferred from the evidence that petitioners permitted respondent to install both the water and electrical lines, [3] "the parties['] discussion centered on the water line[, ]" and, accordingly, under principles of equity, the court awarded petitioners $5, 000 for the placement of the electrical lines. It is from this order that petitioners now appeal.

         This Court reviews the circuit court's order under the following standard:

In reviewing challenges to the findings and conclusions of the circuit court made after a bench trial, a two-pronged deferential standard of review is applied. The final order and the ultimate disposition are reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard, and the circuit court's underlying factual findings are reviewed under a clearly erroneous standard. Questions of law are subject to a de novo review.

Syl. Pt. 1, Public Citizen, Inc. v. First Nat. Bank in Fairmont, 198 W.Va. 329, 480 S.E.2d 538 (1996). Further, we have explained that

[a]ppellate oversight is therefore deferential, and we review the trial court's findings of fact following a bench trial, including mixed fact/law findings, under the clearly erroneous standard. If the trial court makes no findings or applies the wrong legal standard, however, no deference attaches to such an application. Of course, if the trial court's findings of fact are not clearly erroneous ...

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