SRB Investment v. Spencer (SRB II)

November 28, 2023

Utah Court of Appeals, 2023 UT App 120 (October 5, 2023) (click for full text of opinion)

The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court did not exceed remand instructions by the Utah Supreme Court in ruling that a servient estate landowner had only the right to make “reasonable, minor changes” to the location of a prescriptive easement across its property. 

This case is a continuation of a matter that was previously the subject of a Utah Supreme Court opinion, SRB Inv. Co. v. Spencer (SRB I), 2020 UT 23, where the Utah Supreme Court had agreed that the trial court erred in its initial order limiting the scope of the prescriptive easement to only the same land uses on the dominant estate holder’s property that had historically been pursued, and ordered on remand that the trial court take a flexible approach allowing reasonable changes in use as long as the changes do not materially burden the servient estate.

The prescriptive easement in question was a dirt road across the Spencers property that, at times, had been moved by the Spencers. The trial court’s initial order had given the Spencers the “ability to move” the road as had been done historically. This portion of the trial court’s order giving the Spencers the ability to move the easement was not a subject of the initial appeal, which instead focused on the scope of the easement and the use of the dominant estate.  

After remand from the supreme court, the trial court received supplemental briefing and entered new findings of fact and ruled that use of the easement was limited to the traveled surface of the roadway, and that the Spencers may make “reasonable, minor changes” to the location of the easement in the future, but may not diminish the current width or ease of use. 

The Spencers appealed this new order, claiming the order on remand violated the law of the case and was more restrictive than the supreme court’s mandate by placing limitations on their ability to move the location of the road, and that the trial court otherwise abused its discretion when it limited them to “minor” adjustments to the road’s location.  

The Court of Appeals disagreed that the law of the case had been violated by the trial court on remand. Rather, it found that the supreme court had remanded for the district court to again “determine the scope of the prescriptive easement,” and that the decisions about where the road was located, and whether the Spencers could move the road, where part of the analysis of scope as that determination would turn on an assessment of the “nature and extent” of the road’s “historical use” and the “nature of the burden” imposed by the easement on the Spencers. Likewise, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court had not abused its discretion by including the words “reasonable” or “minor” in the remand order, as the supreme court had ordered the trial court to find a “flexible approach allowing reasonable changes,” and adding the word “minor” does not materially add to the burden being imposed on the Spencers, and at any rate, is consistent with the supreme court’s directive, as the possibility that a “major” adjustment to the road could likely create additional burdens on SRB’s ability to access its property. The Court of Appeals therefore concluded that the trial court, on remand, had ruled consistent with the supreme court’s directive.