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Cores v. Laborde

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

June 21, 2018

JOHN CORES, Appellant,

          On appeal from the 2nd 25th District Court of Gonzales County, Texas.

          Before Chief Justice Valdez and Justices Benavides and Longoria



         By six issues, which we construe as three, appellant John Cores challenges the trial court's declaratory judgment in favor of appellees Carroll LaBorde, [1] Barbara LaBorde, and LaBorde Properties, LP. (collectively LaBorde) regarding an easement by estoppel. Cores alleges that: (1) the evidence was legally insufficient to support a finding of an easement by estoppel; (2) that the trial court improperly transferred venue from Hays County to Gonzales County; and (3) that the trial court erred in entering a declaratory judgment that was duplicitous of claims already made. We affirm.

         I. Background

         This dispute arises between two property owners regarding an easement road. Cores owns an 89.96-acre tract of land in Gonzales County. LaBorde owns a 386.60-acre piece of land adjacent to Cores's. To the southeast of Cores's property are tracts of land that are landlocked. An easement road was constructed to allow access to the landlocked properties. The easement road runs along the northern boundary of Cores's property, turns, and then continues south towards the landlocked properties. The western part of the LaBorde tract also butts up against the easement road and a gate was constructed on the LaBorde fence line. Cores filed suit to stop the LaBordes from using the easement road to access their land. Cores claims that the LaBorde property is not landlocked, that they have access to their property from other roads, and the LaBorde land was not included as part of the easement properties. The LaBordes argue the former landowners have continually had access to the easement road and an easement by estoppel was created due to the access.

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         A. History

         Initially, the undivided tract of land that now comprises the LaBorde and Cores properties was jointly owned by the Francis and Brown families. The families ran a cattle operation on their land, with the cattle pens being housed on what is now the LaBorde property. In 1979, the families divided the land. Cores's property was owned by the Brown family, and the LaBordes property was owned by the Francis family. However, even after the land was divided, the cattle operation continued to run, with both families having access to the cattle pens via the easement road. In 1986, the Brown family divided their land into multiple tracts, with each separate tract going to members of the Brown family. In 2004, Rafe Jackson purchased the Francis tract (LaBorde property) as it stands now.

         In 2008, Cores purchased his tract of land from members of the Brown family. In 2010, the LaBordes bought Jackson's land from him.

         B. Dispute Develops

         Based on testimony presented at the bench trial, all prior owners of both the LaBorde and Cores's land had used the easement road to access their properties. Issues developed once the two parties to this suit became neighbors. Both sides put on deposition testimony from Jackson, Gail Brown Schauer[2], and Rebecca Connell[3]. Based on the testimony of these three witnesses, the trial court held that an historical use of the easement road existed. The trial court denied Cores's petition for a temporary and permanent injunction and attorney's fees and granted LaBorde's request for a declaratory judgment and held that an easement by estoppel existed on behalf of the LaBordes. This appeal by Cores followed.

         II. Proper Venue

         By what we construe as his second issue, Cores alleges it was error to transfer venue from Hays County to Gonzales County. Cores originally filed suit in Hays County, where the LaBordes have a residence. The LaBordes filed a motion to transfer venue to Gonzales County because that is where the property at issue is located.

         A. Applicable Law and Discussion

         An easement confers upon one person the valuable right to use the land of another for a specific purpose. Hubert v. Davis, 170 S.W.3d 706, 710 (Tex. App.-Tyler 2005, no pet.). Since an easement is an interest in land, the grant of an easement should be drawn and executed with the same formalities as a deed to real estate. Id. The doctrine of equitable estoppel, or easement by estoppel, provides an exception to prevent injustice and protect innocent parties from fraud. Allen v. Allen, 280 S.W.3d 366, 381 (Tex. App.- Amarillo 2008, pet. denied).

Under section 15.011 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, it states:
Actions for the recovery of real property or an estate or interest in real property, for partition of real property, to remove encumbrances from the title to real property, for recovery of damages to real property, or to quiet title to real property shall be brought in the county in which all or a part of the property is located.

Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 15.011 (West, Westlaw through 2017 1st C.S.)(emphasis added). Although Cores contends that venue was proper in Hays County because the LaBorde homestead was located there, because an easement is an interest in real property, venue was proper in Gonzales County, where the property in question was located. The trial court properly transferred venue from Hays to Gonzales County. We overrule Cores's second issue.

         III. Legal Sufficiency

         By multiple sub-issues which we construe as one issue, Cores challenges the legal sufficiency of the trial court's finding of an easement by estoppel. By his sub-issues, Cores argues that (1) alleged prior permissive use of an express easement did not give rise to an easement by estoppel for future property owners, (2) a later-created express easement precluded a finding of an easement by estoppel, and (3) an owner's silence regarding use of an easement is not enough to establish an easement by estoppel.

          A. Standard of Review

         In an appeal from a bench trial, the trial court's findings have the same force and dignity as a jury's verdict upon questions. Anderson v. City of Seven Points, 806 S.W.2d 791, 794 (Tex. 1991). A trial court's findings may be reviewed for legal and factual sufficiency under the same standards that are applied in reviewing evidence to support a jury's answers. Ortiz v. Jones, 917 S.W.2d 770, 772 (Tex. 1996); Catalina v. Blasdel, 881 S.W.2d 295, 297 (Tex. 1994). When the appellate record contains a reporter's record, as it does here, findings of fact are not conclusive and are binding only if supported by the evidence. Horner v. Heather, 397 S.W.3d 321, 324 (Tex. App.-Tyler 2013, pet. denied). We review the trial court's conclusions of law de novo. Id. The standard of review for conclusions of law is whether they are correct. Id. We will uphold conclusions of law on appeal if the judgment can be sustained on any legal theory the evidence supports. Id.

         A party who challenges the legal sufficiency of the evidence to support an issue on which it did not have the burden of proof at trial must demonstrate on appeal that there is no evidence to support the adverse finding. Croucher v. Croucher, 660 S.W.2d 55, 58 (Tex. 1983). When considering a legal sufficiency challenge after a bench trial, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court's findings, "credit[ing] favorable evidence if reasonable [fact finders] could, and disregard[ing] contrary evidence unless reasonable [fact finders] could not." Horner, 392 S.W.3d at 324 (quoting City of Keller v. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d 802, 827 (Tex. 2005)). We must indulge every reasonable inference that would support the trial court's findings. City of Keller, 168 S.W.3d at 822. "The final test for legal sufficiency must always be whether the evidence at trial would enable reasonable and fair-minded people to reach the decision under review." Id. at 827.

         B. Applicable Law

         1. Easement by Estoppel

         "The doctrine of easement by estoppel holds that the owner of the alleged servient estate may be estopped to deny the existence of an easement by making representations that have been acted upon by the owner of alleged dominant estate." Ingham v. O'Block, 351 S.W.3d 96, 100 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2011, review denied) (quoting Holden v. Weidenfeller, 929 S.W.2d 124, 131 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 1996, writ denied)). Three elements are necessary for the creation of an easement by estoppel: (1) a representation communicated, either by word or action, to the promisee; (2) the communication was believed; and (3) the promisee relied on the communication. Id. These elements apply at the time the communication creating the alleged easement is made. Holden, 929 S.W.2d at 131. An easement by estoppel, once created, is binding upon a successor in title if reliance upon the existence of the easement continues. Id.

         The gravity of a judicial means of acquiring an interest in land of another solely by parol evidence requires that equitable estoppel be strictly applied. Horner, 397 S.W.3d at 325. The estoppel should be certain, precise, and clear. Id. Texas case law supports the notion that for easements, the doctrine of equitable estoppel, or estoppel in pais as it is sometimes called, operates as an exception to the statute of frauds, which requires a writing for all transactions involving land, to prevent injustice and to protect innocent parties from fraud. See Scott v. Cannon, 959 S.W.2d 712, 720 (Tex. App.-Austin 1998, pet. denied) (citing Storms v. Tuck, 579 S.W.2d 447, 451 (Tex. 1979); Drye v. Eagle Rock Ranch, Inc., 364 S.W.2d 196, 209 (Tex. 1962)).

         The doctrine of easement by estoppel is not applied as strictly as the doctrine of implied easement. Id. Being an equitable doctrine, it has not been clearly defined and its application must depend on the unique facts of each case. Id.

         C. Discussion

         In order for the LaBordes to establish their entitlement to an easement by estoppel, they had to meet three elements.

         1. Representation Communicated by Word or Action

         Cores alleges in his brief that there was no evidence of any act of reliance prior to 2004 by the LaBorde property. We disagree.

         To establish the first element of easement by estoppel, the LaBordes must show a representation was communicated, either by word or action, to the promisee. Ingham, 351 S.W.3d at 100. "It is well-settled that estoppel may arise from conduct or from a failure to act." Wallace ...

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