New Case Summary – S&W v. Fautin

April 25, 2024

Utah Court of Appeals 

2024 UT App 60 (click for full text of opinion) 

The Utah Court of Appeals upheld a quiet title decision in favor of a landowner who sought to restrict access to their land against claims that a public road or prescriptive easement had been established.

In 2016, S and W Hunting Ranch (S&W) purchased a property in the Tushar Mountains within the Fish Lake National Forest. Soon after purchase, S&W restricted access to the land and filed an action to quiet title, desiring to exclude interested parties from using the property. A group of individuals known by their surname, Fautin, claimed to have used a dirt road on the property for decades. The Fautins filed counterclaims, arguing they had a legal right to continue using the dirt road. Their legal theories were 1) that the road in question should be classified as a public road under Utah’s dedication statute; or, alternatively 2) that the Fautins had obtained a prescriptive easement through their continuous use.

Utah Code specifies that a public highway is created when it is continually used by the public for ten years. At the district court, the Fautins argued that the public used the road in question dating back to the late 1800’s, and that although the road was often gated and locked (access primarily limited to the Fautins and their close friends), they argued that their use, as “members of the public,” qualified as “public use” of the road under Utah’s statute. The district court found that the evidence of public use presented by the Fautins failed to meet the benchmark of “clear and convincing” required to establish a public road, and disagreed with Fautin’s characterization of their own use as “members of the public” equated to “the public” for purposes of the dedication statute. 

The Fautins’ second claim was that through their use, they had developed a prescriptive easement. To establish a prescriptive easement, a party must show by clear and convincing evidence that its use has been 1) open, 2) notorious, 3) adverse, and 4) continuous for at least 20 years. During district court proceedings, the evidence showed that the Fautins interacted with the prior landowner(s) or their agents to coordinate the use of gates and locks to restrict access to the road. The district court found this was enough to disqualify the Fautins from making a prescriptive easement claim because the use was not adverse (without or against the owner’s permission).

On appeal, the Court of Appeals agreed with the district court’s distinction between “members of the public” and “the public,” concluding that the Fautins’ efforts to restrict access to the property other than their own through gates and locks meant that the property could not have been used by “the public” at large. Therefore, the Court of Appeals upheld the denial of the Fautins’ claim that the road was public.

The Court of Appeals also upheld the denial of the prescriptive easement claim. The Court of Appeals found that the evidence showed that the Fautins’ actions lacked the necessary “adverse mental state” because they had, from time to time, worked with the property owners or their agents in coordinating access to the gate and lock.

The Court of Appeals held that the district court was correct in quieting title in favor of S&W.