By Their Deeds Ye Shall Know Them

August 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

In a series of transactions between 1993 and 1998, Mary Frances Wright gained ownership of some 18 acres of land from her mother, Annie Dora Conley, subject to Conley’s life estate in a portion of the property. The transactions effectively excluded Wright’s siblings from ownership.

Conley died in 2000, and Wright probated the estate as Administrator. Notice to creditors was published in 2002, and the estate was finally closed in 2004.

It was not until 2011 that Wright’s brother, Ulysses Conley, claimed that he first discovered the deeds conveying ownership to Wright. In 2013, he filed suit alleging that the transactions were illegal, asking that they be set aside.

Wright denied his claims and filed a motion to dismiss on the ground that Conley’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations (SOL).Following a hearing, the chancellor ruled that Conley’s claims were barred by the general three-year SOL. Conley appealed, claiming that the 10-year SOL regarding recovery of property governed, and not the three-year general statute.In Conley v. Wright, decided May 31, 2016, the COA affirmed. Judge Ishee wrote for the court:

¶8. Conley’s first argument on appeal centers around the chancery court’s application of the statute of limitations. In its order, the chancery court cited McWilliams v. McWilliams, 970 So. 2d 200 (Miss. 2007), for its proposition that the three-year general statute of limitations bars Conley’s claim. Conley is correct in his assertion that the Mississippi Supreme Court overruled McWilliams with respect to the applicable statute of limitations regarding recovery of land in Lott v. Saulters, 133 So. 3d 794, 799-801 (¶¶7-13) (Miss. 2014). In Lott, the supreme court clarified that since our Legislature has not created a statute shortening the limitations period for claims regarding land recovery in equity, the governing statute remains Mississippi Code Annotated section 15-1-9 (Rev. 2012). Id. at 799 (¶9). Section 15-1-9 provides for a ten-year statute of limitations for land recovery in equity through explicit reference to Mississippi Code Annotated section 15-1-7 (Rev. 2012), which states: “A person may not make an entry or commence an action to recover land except within ten years next after the time at which the right to make the entry or to bring the action shall have first accrued . . . .” Hence, the chancery court did err in its inference that a three year statute of limitations was applicable.

¶9. However, this error was harmless. As noted by the chancery court, the most recently dated deed associated with the transfer of ownership of the property was filed and became a public record in November 1998. All three of the deeds that conveyed ownership of the property to Wright occurred between August and November of 1998 – almost fifteen years from the filing of Conley’s complaint. Nonetheless, the supreme court has noted that when a life estate is tied to property, the statute of limitations does not begin to run on a successive possessor’s claim to the property until the person holding the life estate has passed. In re Estate of Reid, 825 So 2d 1, 7 (¶¶18-19) (Miss. 2002) (citation omitted). Hence, Conley’s right to bring an action to recover the property accrued at the time Annie died in 2000.

¶10. Even assuming there was concealed fraud in the property’s conveyance through the 1998 deeds, the probate of Annie’s estate provided a review of the deeds specifically. Hence, Conley would have been charged with the duty of discovering the alleged fraud during this time through reasonable diligence. If nothing else, the 2002 publishing of a notice to creditors regarding the estate’s ownership was a glaring opportunity for Wright’s alleged fraudulent interest in the property to have come to Conley’s attention.

¶11. The exercise of reasonable diligence would have revealed any purported inconsistencies in the property’s ownership by 2002 at the very latest. We find no applicable exception to the statute of limitations at play here. This issue is without merit.

¶12. Finally, we address Conley’s assertion that he is due relief in the form of a constructive trust. After reviewing the record in this case, we find no mention of the issue of a constructive trust having been presented to the chancery court. It appears that Conley’s argument of a constructive trust has been presented for the first time on appeal to this Court. It is well settled “that issues not raised at trial cannot be raised on appeal.” Southern v. Miss. State Hosp., 853 So. 2d 1212, 1215 (¶5) (Miss. 2003) (citation omitted). “A trial judge cannot be put in error on a matter not presented to him.” Id. at 1214 (¶5) (citation omitted). Accordingly, we are without authority to address Conley’s argument regarding a constructive trust.

CONCLUSION

¶13. We acknowledge that the chancery court erred in its reference to the three-year statute of limitations. Indeed, the ten-year statute of limitations was the proper statute of limitations to be applied here. However, such an error was harmless considering the length of time from the accrual of Conley’s right to file the action and the date the action was filed. The deeds conveying the property to Wright became public record, at the latest, in November 1998. After Annie’s death in 2000, her estate was probated and a notice to creditors was published in 2002, thereby providing Conley with ample opportunity to take notice of Wright’s alleged fraudulent interest in the property had he exercised reasonable diligence. While Conley presents numerous explanations for the fifteen-year delay in filing suit, these explanations do not negate that he and his siblings had a duty to exercise reasonable diligence to discover any alleged error regarding the property’s ownership. We cannot find that the chancery court was erroneous in dismissing the action as barred by a statute of limitations. As we are without authority to review Conley’s argument regarding a constructive trust, we rest on our prior conclusions and uphold the judgment of the chancery court dismissing Conley’s action as time-barred.

Points to ponder:

  • In many districts, chancellors do not have staff attorneys to do research for them. They have to rely on the attorneys to furnish authority. Time to review and double-check that authority is at a premium, what with other trials, dockets in other counties in the district, administrative matters, and personal life (to which even chancellors are entitled). If you expect the chancellor to make an unassailable ruling, provide him or her with accurate and on-point, valid authority.
  • This case highlights just how effectively an estate can operate as a seal against later litigation. An inventory showing that the estate had no ownership interest in the 18 acres would have been pretty conclusive against Ulysses when he joined in the petition to close the estate. That’s one reason why I urge lawyers to do an inventory even when it has been waived in the will: it provides an additional layer of documentation of the estate assets that is hard, if not impossible, to assail once the estate is closed.

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