Colorado Supreme Court Hears May Oral Arguments

Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center
The Colorado Supreme Court released its opinion in People v. Hall. / Law Week file.

The Colorado Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in seven cases this week, including disputes over water rights, a parcel of land and several criminal matters.

Glover et al v. Resource Land Holdings et al

On Tuesday, the court will hear a case involving a water rights dispute in Larimer County that led to sanctions against the plaintiffs for “frivolous, vexatious and litigious” claims. The plaintiffs say the water court lacked jurisdiction regarding those claims and abused its discretion to assess attorney fees.

The Kiefer and Glover estates own an irrigation ditch that traverses land owned by real estate developers. In 2014, the developers approached the Glovers and the Kiefers about burying the ditch in an underground pipe, but the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement on modifications or an easement for the ditch.

Kitchel Lake Partners, one of the companies that owned the land, began development in 2018. The Glover and Kiefer plaintiffs allege KLP and its subcontractors “unilaterally altered” the ditch by, among other things, rupturing its pipe and causing it to collapse during excavation.

Glover and Kiefer sued the developers. The plaintiffs sought declaratory relief regarding their water, ditch and lateral rights and sought damages and injunctive relief for torts including trespass, nuisance and civil conspiracy.

One of the defendants, Serratoga Falls, LLC filed counterclaims and a third-party complaint seeking declaratory judgment about the scope of the plaintiffs’ claimed easements and seeking permission to modify the irrigation ditch.

A water court found most of Glover and Kiefer’s tort claims lacked substantial justification and were “frivolous, vexatious and litigious.” As a sanction, the court decided to award attorney fees to the defendants.

The plaintiffs make several arguments on appeal. First, they argue the water court’s fee award arose from claims tangential to water matters, so the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. They also argue the water court abused its discretion to assess fees and erred when it found their claims lacked substantial justification. They ask the court to vacate the fees award.

The defendants say the water court had jurisdiction because there were water matters before it, including the amount of water to be carried by the irrigation ditch, whether to enjoin the developers’ use of water rights and the approval of ditch modifications. Additionally, they argue, the non-water matters were within the ancillary jurisdiction of the water court because they were “inextricably intertwined” with water matters.

The Supreme Court will consider whether the water court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. If the water court had subject matter jurisdiction, the high court will consider whether the water court committed multiple legal errors in rulings on the merits, including its ruling that plaintiffs’ claim for trespass required proof of damages and whether the trespass claims lacked substantial justification.

Lo Viento Blanco v. Woodbridge Condominium Association

On Wednesday, the court will hear arguments in a dispute over a parcel of land that is owned by Lo Viento Blanco, LLC but has been possessed and used by Woodbridge Condominium Association since 1975.

In the mid-1970s, Lyle Foy’s construction company built condominiums on land it owned in Snowmass Village. In late 1975, Foy Construction conveyed most of the land, but not the disputed parcel, to Woodbridge. In the following three decades, Woodbridge maintained the sod and a gravel road on the disputed parcel and its residents and staff used the land for parking and access to the condominiums and nearby recreation areas.

In the 1980s, Foy conveyed the disputed parcel to another company he controlled. In 2010, Lo Viento Blanco purchased the disputed land in a bankruptcy sale and made plans to build on it. Woodbridge claimed it owned the parcel by adverse possession and filed a lawsuit against Lo Viento Blanco in 2012.

The trial court ruled the land belonged to Woodbridge through adverse possession. Under Colorado law, an occupier may gain title through adverse possession if it has openly possessed the property for 18 years.

However, a division of the Court of Appeals found that a 1992 letter from Woodbridge to Foy offering to buy the disputed parcel interrupted the 18-year statutory period and was an admission that it didn’t have the right to or ownership of the parcel.

On remand, the trial court found Woodbridge had proved its right to a prescriptive easement over areas of the parcel it had been using since 1975, and Lo Viento Blanco appealed that finding. A second division of the Court of Appeals concluded that there was no interruption of the 18-year prescriptive period and affirmed the easement, preventing Lo Viento Blanco from developing the land.

The high court will consider whether an adverse occupier’s acknowledgement or recognition of the owner’s title interrupts the occupier’s prescriptive use and defeats the presumption that any use was adverse.

Lo Viento Blanco argues that a prescriptive period cannot start and a prescriptive easement cannot be created unless the occupier puts the owner on notice, which Woodbridge did not do. Even if there was past notice, the company argues, Woodbridge’s acknowledgement of the owner’s title interrupted prescriptive use.

Citing Colorado case law, Woodbridge argues that mere acknowledgement or recognition of title cannot defeat the presumption of adversity for a prescriptive easement. To rebut the presumption of adversity, Woodbridge argues, Lo Viento Blanco must show the condominium association used the parcel with Foy’s permission.

Criminal Cases

The court will also hear arguments in a number of criminal cases.

Two cases raise questions about blind expert testimony. In People v. Kerry Lee Cooper, the court will consider the admissibility of blind expert testimony on domestic violence. That case and another, People v. Dylan Thomas Coons, raise questions about whether testimony must be limited to subjects and occurrences specifically tied to the particular facts of a case.

At issue in Mark Strepka v. People is whether trial courts lose jurisdiction to dispose of property unlawfully seized by the government from Colorado citizens at the instant when criminal charges are dismissed.

In People v. Paul Lavadie, the court will hear arguments about whether a district court must advise a defendant that his failure to participate in an advisement pursuant to People v. Arguello will cause him to lose the right to represent himself.

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