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Kaplan v. Scheer

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

June 12, 2018

PATRICIA R. KAPLAN
v.
DAVID SCHEER ET AL.

          Argued December 5, 2017

         Procedural History

         Action for, inter alia, the reformation of a deed, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Haven, where the defendants filed a counterclaim; thereafter, the court, Nazzaro, J., granted the defendants' motion to cite in Ian Scott as a counterclaim defendant; subsequently, the matter was tried to the court, Hon. Richard E. Burke, judge trial referee; judgment for the defendants, from which the plaintiff appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Matthew G. Berger, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Richard T. Meehan, for the appellees (defendants).

          DiPentima, C. J., and Prescott and Eveleigh, Js.

          OPINION

          DiPENTIMA, C. J.

         This case concerns a settlement agreement pursuant to which (1) the defendants, David Scheer and his wife, Tracy Scheer, granted the plaintiff, Patricia R. Kaplan, an easement for pedestrian and vehicular access to a portion of the plaintiff's driveway that lay on the defendants' property (driveway easement), and (2) the parties exchanged quitclaim deeds. The plaintiff now contends that these deeds were recorded in the wrong order and, as a result, her deed inadvertently conveyed to the defendants a different easement, one that previously had allowed her to cross the defendants' property to access Long Island Sound (water easement).[1] The plaintiff contends that this conveyance was not something the parties bargained for when they reached their agreement. She brought the underlying action seeking to restore the water easement through various equitable remedies; she now appeals[2]from the judgment of the trial court, following a trial to that court, in favor of the defendants.[3] On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the trial court (1) misinterpreted the settlement agreement by finding that the alphanumeric prefixes in it were included only for convenience and did not bear upon the parties' intent and (2) improperly rejected her claim of mutual mistake.[4] We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The record contains the following relevant facts and procedural history. The plaintiff has lived at 6 Spring Rock Road in Branford since 1969 and has owned that property since 1970. In 1999, the defendants purchased 2 Spring Rock Road, the waterfront parcel immediately to the south of the plaintiff's property. From the start, the relationship between the parties was characterized by mutual antipathy and soon devolved into a series of disputes.

         One of these disputes concerned the location of a boundary line. After a survey, the defendants discovered that a portion of the plaintiff's driveway crossed over their property. Thereafter, the defendants erected a stockade fence on or near the boundary line. Following further antagonism from both parties about that fence as well as various plantings along the same boundary, the plaintiff brought an action against the defendants claiming, inter alia, adverse possession of the portion of the defendants' property that comprised part of her driveway.

         In 2003, the parties resolved that case by entering into a written settlement agreement. Pursuant to the settlement agreement, the plaintiff withdrew the action, the parties exchanged quitclaim deeds and the defendants granted the plaintiff the driveway easement.[5] The settlement agreement, however, contained no specific language dictating the order in which the defendants' attorney was to record these instruments in the Bran- ford land records.

         On April 23, 2003, the defendants' attorney submitted the instruments in the following sequence. First, the driveway easement was recorded at 9:40 a.m. in volume 813 at page 734.[6] Next, the quitclaim deed from the defendants to the plaintiff (defendants' deed) was recorded at 9:42 a.m. in volume 813 at page 736.[7] Finally, the quitclaim deed from the plaintiff to the defendants (plaintiff's deed) was recorded at 9:44 a.m. in volume 813 at page 738.[8]

         The plaintiff's deed conveyed all of her extant rights in the defendants' property ‘‘excepting only those rights conveyed'' in the driveway easement. See footnotes 6, 7 and 8 of this opinion. Among the rights thus conveyed was the privilege to cross the defendants' property to access the water, which the plaintiff argued she possessed by virtue of both the defendants' deed, which made reference to it in the description of the defendants' property, and an 1882 warranty deed.[9] The defendants eventually informed the plaintiff that, because all her rights in their property had been conveyed to them and because the plaintiff and her husband had continued to engage in activities the defendants found injurious to the quiet enjoyment of their property, [10] the defendants would no longer permit the plaintiff and her guests to cross the defendants' property to access the water.

         In 2012, the plaintiff brought the underlying action, seeking, inter alia, to reform the plaintiff's deed ‘‘by reserving the [water easement].''[11] In support of her claim for reformation, the plaintiff alleged mutual and unilateral mistake, the latter of which by actual and constructive fraud or inequitable conduct. After a five day trial to the court in August and December, 2015, the court rendered judgment in favor of the defendants. See footnote 3 of this opinion. The plaintiff appealed. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

         I

         The plaintiff first claims that the trial court erred by concluding that the alphanumeric prefixes in the settlement agreement; see footnote 5 of this opinion; were included only for convenience. She contends that the prefixes indicated the order in which the property instruments were to be recorded. We disagree.

         We begin with the applicable legal principles. The plaintiff argues that ‘‘[w]here there is definitive contract language, the determination of what the parties intended by their contractual commitments is a question of law'' over which our review is plenary. (Internal quotation marks omitted.) See Reid v. Landsberger, 123 Conn.App. 260, 271, 1 A.3d 1149, cert. denied, 298 Conn. 933, 10 A.3d 517 (2010). The defendants counter that, because the court made a finding of fact, the clearly erroneous standard applies. These arguments are incomplete because, as explained herein, the scope and depth of our review depend on whether the contractual language is ambiguous on its face.

         ‘‘The law governing the construction of contracts is well settled. When a party asserts a claim that challenges the trial court's construction of a contract, we must first ascertain whether the relevant language in the agreement is ambiguous. . . . If a contract is unambiguous within its four corners, intent of the parties is a question of law requiring plenary review. . . . [If] the language of a contract is ambiguous, the determination of the parties' intent is a question of fact, and the trial court's interpretation is subject to reversal on appeal only if it is clearly erroneous. . . . A contract is ambiguous if the intent of the parties is not clear and certain from the language of the contract itself. . . . Accordingly, any ambiguity in a contract must emanate from the language used in the contract rather than from one party's subjective perception of the terms. . . .

         ‘‘[W]e accord the language employed in the contract a rational construction based on its common, natural and ordinary meaning and usage as applied to the subject matter of the contract. . . . [If] the language is unambiguous, we must give the contract effect according to its terms. . . . [If] the language is ambiguous, however, we must construe those ambiguities against the drafter. . . . Moreover, in construing contracts, we give effect to all the language included therein, as the law of contract interpretation . . . militates against interpreting a contract in a way that renders a provision superfluous.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) EH Investment Co., LLC v. Chappo, LLC, 174 Conn.App. 344, 357-58, 166 A.3d 800 (2017); see also Reid v. Landsberger, supra, 123 Conn.App. 271-72.

         We conclude that the section of the settlement agreement at issue; see footnote 5 of this opinion; is unambiguous on its face. The settlement agreement is straightforward in its mandate that the parties draft and exchange the referenced legal instruments. The parties' conflicting understandings of the application of the prefixes notwithstanding, there is nothing intrinsically ambiguous about the alphanumeric labeling.[12] See EH Investment Co., LLC v. Chappo, LLC, supra, 174 Conn.App. 358 (‘‘any ambiguity in a contract must emanate from the language used in the ...


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