Thursday, December 29, 2011

Berman v. Yarbrough

The Utah Supreme Court recently issued its opinion in Berman v. Yarbrough. Mr. Berman owns water rights in both Utah and Wyoming that he uses on property in Uinta County, Wyoming. In the early 2000s, Wyoming water officials determined that part of Mr. Berman’s Utah water rights were not properly documented according to Wyoming procedure, and therefore began delivering only a portion of Mr. Berman’s Utah water rights.

Mr. Berman filed suit in Utah district court, seeking (1) to have his Utah water rights quantified and (2) to have the court require the Wyoming water officials to deliver the water he is entitled to under his Utah water rights. The court issued an order that quantified Mr. Berman’s Utah water rights, but did not order the Wyoming water officials to take any action with respect to the Utah water rights.

A few years later, Wyoming water officials again refused to deliver all of Mr. Berman’s Utah water rights. Mr. Berman filed a Motion to Enforce with the Utah district court, in which Mr. Berman asked the court to force the Wyoming water officials to deliver the water he was entitled to under the court’s prior order. The court denied the Motion to Enforce, holding that it did not have jurisdiction to tell Wyoming water officials how to interpret the order. Mr. Berman appealed the court’s decision to the Utah Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court began its analysis by noting that Motions to Enforce are appropriate only when a party fails to comply with his or her legal obligations under a court order or a binding settlement agreement. The Supreme Court also noted that the court order must contain an unequivocal mandate in order for a Motion to Enforce to be appropriate. In this case, the Utah court’s order quantifying Mr. Berman’s Utah water rights did not contain any mandate for Wyoming water officials, let alone an unequivocal mandate. Accordingly, the Utah Supreme Court determined that the Motion to Enforce was procedurally improper, and therefore properly denied.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Liston v. Liston

The Utah Court of Appeals recently issued its decision in Liston v. Liston. Although primarily a divorce case, a portion of the opinion addresses an issue of water law.

In the case, the husband and wife went through divorce proceedings. One of their assets was a home. The couple also had four shares of stock in Holliday Water Company. As part of a mediation agreement, the wife agreed to quitclaim her interest in the home to the husband for $10,000. The husband later asserted that the four shares were appurtenant to the home, and therefore belonged to him pursuant to the mediation agreement and the quitclaim deed from the wife. The trial court disagreed, and held that only one share was necessary to supply water for the home, and that this share therefore went to the husband along with the home. The trial court further held that the other three shares were not appurtenant to the home, and therefore the husband and wife were each entitled to half of the value of the shares, which was determined to be $5,000 per share.

In the appeal, the husband asserted that the trial court was incorrect in its conclusions regarding the three shares. The Court of Appeals, however, affirmed the trial court's holding. The Court of Appeals noted that Utah Code section 73-1-11(4) provides that shares of stock in a mutual water company are not deemed appurtenant to land. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals concluded that the three shares could not have passed with the home when the wife quitclaimed her interest in the home to the husband. Thus, the wife was entitled to $7,500, representing half of the value of the three shares.

As an interesting note, the Court of Appeals included a footnote in its opinion that points out that the parties in the case had confused water shares and water rights. The Court of Appeals made it a point to clarify the difference between a water share and a water right.