Deed Language Conveyed an Easement and Not a Fee Simple.

The plaintiff brought a declaratory judgment action concerning the ownership and control of a tract of land that they claimed their predecessor-in-interest obtained a fee simple interest in via right-of-way deeds signed in 1917 and 1918.  The deeds in issue were captioned "right of way" and stated, that the property owners “grant, sell and convey, and forever release to the people of the County of Sargent, in the State of North Dakota, right of way for the laying out, construction and maintenance of a public drain, as the same may be located by the Board of Drain Commissioners, through said above described lands, being a strip of land . . . [described]. And we hereby release all claims to damages by reason of the laying out, construction and maintenance thereof through our said lands.”  The trial court determined that the deed language was ambiguous and considered extrinsic evidence to determine the intent of the parties to the deeds.  Ultimately, the trial court held that the deeds granted fee simple title to the plaintiff’s predecessor.  On appeal, the court reversed.  The appellate court held that the plain language of the deeds conveyed an easement by explicitly stating that they granted a “right of way” through the specified land, and limited the purposed of the right of way for the laying out, construction and maintenance of a public drain.  Sargent County Water Resource District v. Mathews, et al., No. 20140451, 2015 N.D. LEXIS 294 (N.D. Sup. Ct. Dec. 1, 2015).