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.

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