A Procedural Peculiarity

June 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

We’ve talked here many times about the R54(b) principle that, if the judgment disposes of fewer than all of the issues, it is not a final, appealable judgment unless the judge certifies so in the manner prescribed by the rule. We’ve sounded that theme so often that I’m not going to add links in this post. You can search them for yourself, if you care to.

It’s that principle that has me scratching my head over the COA case Wood, et al. v. Miller, decided June 2, 2015.

Donna Smith and Audrey Kemp filed a complaint in chancery court in 2004 to quiet and confirm title, to determine heirship, and to partition some 261 acres of land that had descended via heirship and devise to the parties named in the suit. They filed an amended complaint in 2007.

Following a hearing in 2009, the chancellor entered a judgment quieting and confirming title and ordering partition. The commissioners some time in 2010 filed a report detailing how the property could be divided into three shares.

In October, 2010, the defendants filed a separate pleading in the same civil action seeking to obtain title of all the property by adverse possession. The pleading was not styled as a counterclaim.

In May, 2012, the chancellor entered a judgment confirming the commissioners’ report, and ordered that the petitioners would have one share, the respondents another share, and another group of heirs the third share.

Afterward the plaintiffs filed a pleading asking for a judgment for waste based on the defendants’ refusal to allow the land to be rented during the litigation. At the hearing on that pleading, the question arose about the pending adverse-possession claim that had never been addressed. The attorney for the defendants announced that he would schedule a hearing on the matter at a later date. He never did. The chancellor entered judgment against the defendants for waste for more than $90,000.

The defendants appealed, raising only two issues: (1) that the chancellor erred when she ruled that two of the petitioners had inherited Thornton Miller’s interest in the property through the will of Thornton’s widow, Magnolia; and (2) that they had adversely possessed the property. They did not otherwise contest the heirship determination, the partition, or the judgment for waste. It does not appear from the opinion that they raised any issue as to the original judgment quieting and confirming title.

In its opinion, the COA, by Judge Roberts, pointed out, quite accurately, that any issue of invalidity of Magnolia’s will had not been raised before the chancellor; nor could it, because MCA 91-7-23 requires such claims be brought within two years of probate of the contested will, and not later. Magnolia’s will had been probated in 1986, so the claim as to the will’s invalidity was untimely and barred by the statute. On those grounds, then, the COA refused to review the issue on appeal.

This was unquestionably the right conclusion as to issue (1).

As for the adverse possession claim, issue (2), the court concluded that, since it had never been presented to the chancellor for review, the issue was not properly before it, and refused to entertain this issue also.

With this issue, I have this question: since the judgment of the trial court disposed of fewer than all of the issues, should the COA have accepted jurisdiction over the appeal in the first place? R54(b) provides:

When more than one claim for relief is presented in an action, whether as a claim, counterclaim, cross-claim, or third-party claim, or when multiple parties are involved, the court may direct the entry of a final judgment as to one or more but fewer than all of the claims or parties only upon an expressed determination that there is no just reason for delay and upon an expressed direction for entry of the judgment. In the absence of such determination and direction, any order or other form of decision, however designated which adjudicates fewer than all of the claims or the rights and liabilities of fewer than all of the parties shall not terminate the action as to any of the claims or parties and the order or other form of decision is subject to revision at any time before entry of the judgment adjudicating all the claims and the rights and liabilities of all the parties.

Since the adverse possession issue is still pending as a claim in this case, was there a final, appealable judgment, or should the COA have rejected jurisdiction? Well, no matter, I think that the COA reached the proper conclusion because:

  • You can not adversely possess against co-owners. The determination of heirship resolved the issue of Magnolia’s bequest and ownership, making all of the parties co-owners. Even if the matter had been properly presented at hearing to the chancellor, it did not state a claim upon which relief could be granted.
  • Any adverse possession claim should have been presented as a compulsory counterclaim to the claim to quiet and confirm, per R13. The reason for the rule is to prevent the very thing that was attempted in this case.
  • The chancery court’s order quieting and confirming disposed of any adverse possession claims.
  • This matter was pending in the trial court for nine years. If you haven’t demanded a hearing on your claims you should not have the right to ask or demand that the court deal with it later. You’re already late enough.

In other words, the outcome would not have changed. Just to be clear … I agree with the court’s ruling in this case. I just thought it presented a peculiar set of issues and procedures that would be of some interest.


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