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A Better Partnership
January 31, 2014

COA rules that riparian rights do not extend to man-made pond

In Holton v. Ward, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that riparian rights only extend to land abutting a natural watercourse.  Because Plaintiffs-Appellants had litigated this very issue and lost in an earlier contested case, their claim was barred by collateral estoppel, and they should have known their claim was frivolous.  Sanctions were therefore appropriate.
 
James and Nancy Holton own property immediately adjacent to Carole Ward.  The two properties were once commonly owned, and later subdivided by the common owner.  The common owner had dredged part of a wetland on the property and built an earthen dam, allowing surface water to collect in the wetland.  The result was a large 20-acre pond, which covered a portion of both the Holton and Ward properties.  Ward had a fence that prevented the Holtons from accessing the portion of the pond on Ward’s property.  The Holtons sued Ward claiming that she was interfering with their riparian rights by denying them access to that portion of the pond.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Ward.  Ward also moved for sanctions in the trial court, which the trial court denied.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary-judgment decision but reversed its decision not to sanction the Holtons and remanded for a determination of appropriate sanctions.
 
The Court first explained that it is black-letter Michigan law that riparian rights only extend to land abutting a natural watercourse, and that no riparian rights arise from land abutting an artificial body of water.  The court explained that the wetland-pond was clearly an artificial body of water; therefore, the Holton’s had no riparian rights.  Next the court explained that in 2004, the Holtons, along with Ward’s predecessor in interest, litigated this same issue regarding this same pond in a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality contested case.  Because the issue had been fully litigated and decided against the Holtons during the contested case, they were collaterally estopped from bringing the claim again.  Finally, the court held that in light of the well-established Michigan precedent on riparian rights, and the prior DEQ ruling, the Holtons knew or should have known their claim was frivolous and vexatious.  Accordingly, sanctions were appropriate.  The court remanded the case to the trial court for a determination of appropriate sanctions.        

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