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Jarussi v. Sandra L. Farber Trust

Supreme Court of Montana

August 6, 2019

KAREN C. JARUSSI, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
SANDRA L. FARBER TRUST; SANDRA L. FARBER or all persons claiming through SANDRA L. FARBER any interest, right, title, estate, or interest in or lien or encumbrance upon the real property described in the Complaint, and all other persons, unknown, claiming or who might claim any right, title, estate, or interest in or lien or encumbrance upon the real property described in the complaint adverse to plaintiff's ownership or any cloud upon plaintiff's title, whether the claim or possible claim is present or contingent, Defendants and Appellees.

          Submitted on Briefs: May 22, 2019

          District Court of the Twenty-Second Judicial District, In and For the County of Carbon, Cause No. DV-16-101 Honorable Blair Jones, Presiding Judge.

          For Appellant: John G. Crist, Eric Edward Nord, Crist, Krogh & Nord, PLLC, Billings, Montana

          For Appellees: Donald V. Snavely, Snavely Law Firm, Missoula, Montana

          OPINION

          Jim Rice, Justice.

         ¶1 Karen Jarussi (Jarussi), appeals the order entered by the Twenty-Second Judicial District Court, Carbon County, granting the motion of Defendant Sandra L. Farber Trust (Farber) to enforce the parties' punitive settlement agreement, and denying Jarussi's cross-motion for enforcement. The parties disagreed on how the agreement should be interpreted and filed opposing motions for enforcement. The District Court determined the parties must comply with the agreement as interpreted by Farber. On appeal, Jarussi argues the District Court erred by failing to adopt her interpretation of the agreement, and Farber defends the interpretation adopted by the District Court. We reach a different conclusion and reverse and remand for further proceedings, addressing the following issue:

         Did the District Court err by concluding the parties formed a legally binding settlement agreement?

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶2 Jarussi and Farber own adjoining properties in Carbon County, Montana. The two properties share a border: the southern border of Jarussi's property is the northern border of Farber's. Historically, Burlington Northern Railroad Company held a right of way (ROW) that runs north and south along the western border of Jarussi and Farber's properties. The company abandoned the property in 1982. In 2014, the United States Supreme Court ruled that, once abandoned, a railroad right of way reverts back to the underlying fee owner. Brandt Tr. v. United States, 572 U.S. 93, 110, 134 S.Ct. 1257, 1268 (2014). Believing they each possess an ownership claim to the neighboring right of way under Brandt, Jarussi and Farber both filed suit in 2016 to quiet title in the abandoned land, and these cases were consolidated.[1]

         ¶3 The District Court determined from the record that the abandoned ROW is comprised of two parcels designated as "NW¼" and "NE¼," the parameters of which were relevant to the parties' settlement negotiations. The larger of the two, NW¼, is a rectangular-shaped parcel, a portion of which lies immediately west of the NE¼ parcel, and another portion of which lies west of, and is adjacent to, Farber's land. It does not adjoin Jarussi's land. The NE¼ parcel, referred to in this litigation as the "Triangle," is a narrow triangular parcel located in the northeastern corner of the abandoned ROW. Most of the Triangle sits between Jarussi's land, on the east, and the NW¼ parcel, on the west. Its eastern border runs the entire length of the western border of Jarussi's property, while the southern tip of the Triangle extends to the west of, and adjoins, Farber's land-running along the northern portion of Farber's western border. As a result, Farber's land adjoins portions of both parcels of the abandoned ROW, whereas Jarussi's land adjoins only the Triangle parcel of the ROW and does not share a border with the NW¼ parcel. The following diagram of the subject properties is taken from the record, but is not meant to be to scale:

         (Image Omitted)

         ¶4 On May 3, 2018, after more than sixteen months of litigation, Jarussi's attorney emailed Farber's attorney to discuss the current status of the case and make "one last settlement offer." Jarussi's counsel proposed:

We stipulate that Karen obtain title to the ROW adjoining her property. Your client obtain title to the ROW which adjoins their property. The line separating Karen's share of the ROW from Farber's share will run in the same 'direction' as the property line between the respective properties. This offer remains open until 5:00 p.m. on May 8, 2018.

         The following day, May 4, 2018, Farber's attorney responded by email that her client "declines your settlement offer." She continued:

However, he is willing to offer you a counteroffer: Karen has an option to purchase the portion of the abandoned ROW adjoining her land (perpendicular line) at appraised value or $20, 000, whichever is greater, provided they stipulate to the Trust's ownership of the ROW consistent with our surveyor's report. This offer is open until the end of business on May 7, 2018.

         With its counteroffer, Farber included a surveyor's report, not previously disclosed, purporting to establish Farber's ownership of NW¼. On Sunday, May 6, 2018, Jarussi's attorney responded with an email that said, in total, "The counteroffer is accepted." Two minutes later, Jarussi's attorney sent another email to Farber's attorney, stating as follows:

Please redraft [the parties' Motion for Dismissal without Prejudice and Request to Consolidate] in light of the fact that the counteroffer has been accepted. Also, it should be in the form of a stipulation. Also, please reflect that ...

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