Prescription for an Easement

March 13, 2017 § 1 Comment

Mississippi is dotted with old churches that have fallen into disuse and even been abandoned as the congregation ages, moves away, and finds other associations. I posted about a typical example here only last month.

Some of the left-behind buildings are lovingly maintained by former members and family, but what keeps people involved with them in most cases is the church cemetery where ancestors and loved ones are interred.

Such was the case with Old Liberty Baptist Church, which had been established before 1854. In that year, Aaron Lott and his wife, Martha, deeded the 2 acres upon which the church had been built, and which included the adjacent cemetery, to the church’s “Committee of Arrangements.” The church later moved away, and the building was torn down, but the cemetery, which fronted on a public road, continued to be visited by people with an interest. Even so, there were only one or two burials there in the preceding 60-70 years. The cemetery was enclosed by a fence, with a gate that was accessible from the public road.

The Lott property, which surrounded the Old Liberty cemetery, descended to Johnnie Lott and his three daughters: Rita Deloach, Linda Douglas, and Cathy Grantham. After the daughters quitclaimed their interest to Johnnie, he later conveyed his interest to Cathy, reserving a life estate. “less and except 2 acres, more or less, comprising the cemetery.”

Johnnie Lott died in 2011, and in 2013, Cathy filed an instrument claiming that she controlled access to the cemetery. The Liberty Baptist Church formed an association to take responsibility for permanent maintenance, and the church deacons deeded its interest in the cemetery to trustees of the association for the purpose. The deed claimed a tract of 1.55 acres, as shown on an attached plat. Rita, sister of Cathy, participated in the process.

In the meantime, Cathy began locking the gate to the cemetery. After the lock had been cut off the gate seven times, Cathy’s husband removed the culvert and pushed dirt up blocking the gate.

Cathy filed suit, claiming that the cemetery property consisted of 1.25 acres, not the 1.55 acres claimed by the church. She claimed absolute authority and discretion in determining who, when, and how anyone should access the property. The association counterclaimed.

Following a trial, the chancellor granted the association title to the cemetery property by adverse possession, along with a prescriptive easement from the public road to the cemetery entrance. He also confirmed title in Cathy to certain other property in dispute. Cathy filed a R59 motion raising for the first time that she should be granted a prescriptive easement across the cemetery property, and a claim for slander of title. The chancellor overruled the motion, and Cathy appealed.

In Grantham v. Old Liberty Cemetery Association, decided February 21, 2017, the COA affirmed. On the issue of Cathy’s belated claim for a prescriptive easement, Judge Fair wrote for a unanimous court:

¶11. Grantham first argues she was entitled to a prescriptive easement across the Association’s property. “The evidentiary burden to establish a prescriptive easement is high.” King v. Gale, 166 So. 3d 589, 593 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015). Grantham had to show by clear and convincing evidence she used the Cemetery tract to get to her property. Id. See Thornhill v. Caroline Hunt Tr. Estate, 594 So. 2d 1150, 1152 (Miss. 1992). Further, she had to prove her use was “(1) under claim of ownership; (2) actual or hostile; (3) open, notorious, and visible; (4) continuous and uninterrupted for a period of ten years; (5) exclusive; and (6) peaceful.” Id. (citations omitted). We note that she did not assert any claim for an “easement of necessity” because she has significant access to a public roadway, and makes claim for a “non-exclusive” prescriptive easement, even though exclusivity is a required element of a prescriptive easement.

¶12. The chancellor notes pointedly that Grantham denied any claim to the Cemetery land itself, only asserting the location of boundaries and easements to it and arguing that the Cemetery occupied 1.25 of the 1.55 acres the Association claimed. And there was no evidence presented that Johnnie, from whom she derived her title, ever claimed any ownership of the Cemetery. In her appellate brief, she restates that she “has decided not to appeal the determination . . . that the fence lying south [of] the access road is the cemetery’s south boundary, but does appeal the denial of her ‘non-exclusive easement’ over the road to access her property.” Grantham had stated her father always fenced his property, and that the northern boundary of the property she inherited is also the southern boundary of the Cemetery. She also testified that he had a concrete pad poured to feed his cows and admitted that the concrete pad stopped just south of the fence in the very southeast corner of the fenced-in area of the disputed property. Occasionally, Johnnie let the cows out through the Cemetery gate. Prior to her father’s death, Grantham returned to the property once or twice a month and had little knowledge of what was going on while she was away.

¶13. A “prescriptive easement,” as noted above, is an easement obtained by adverse possession over another’s land. Like any other adverse possession claim, an owner’s permission to use the easement defeats a party’s claim. See Kendall v. May, 199 So. 3d 697, 700 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016). The general public (or at the very least the descendants of those buried in the Cemetery) had entered the Cemetery without interference and with implied permission of the church for more than a century – until Grantham locked it and removed the culvert. Anyone who had ancestors buried in the Cemetery had the right to enter onto “family cemetery” property and visit an ancestor’s grave as well as to be buried in the Cemetery. Grantham, a direct descendant of Aaron Lott, specifically has such a right, with the same permission as any other descendant of an ancestor buried in the Cemetery, to drive across roads crossing Cemetery property. She has presented no evidence of any open, notorious, or exclusive occupancy of any portion of the Cemetery property for more than ten years, as determined by the chancellor. Consequently, she is entitled to no greater or lesser interest in an easement over parts of the Cemetery than any descendent of anyone buried there.

I brought this to your attention for several points:

  • In order to establish a prescriptive easement, it must be shown that the elements of adverse possession have been met as to the easement property. That in and of itself is a high bar. To make it even higher, the burden of proof is by clear and convincing evidence. This opinion is a good reminder of what must be shown.
  • To me, the chancellor was exceedingly generous to entertain Cathy’s claim for a prescriptive easement, raised as it was for the first time on a R59 motion. You simply do not get to reopen the case to raise new legal issues and claims on a R59 motion that could and should have been litigated at trial, unless there is newly discovered evidence that was unavailable at trial. The COA does not elaborate on the basis for the R59 motion, so we are in the dark as to what motivated it, but if it was simply to assert a new issue, it was out of bounds.
  • Likewise, at trial Cathy took the position that she asserted no interest in the cemetery property. She reversed that position in the R59 motion and asserted a claim for a prescriptive easement. That maneuver was barred by judicial estoppel, which holds that one may not take one position at one stage of the proceedings, and then take a contrary position at a later stage.
  • Finally, Cathy asked for a “non-exclusive easement” to the cemetery. That was really unnecessary, as Judge Fair pointed out, because she was entitled to access the property along with everyone else with ancestors buried there.

The COA also affirmed the chancellor’s dismissal of both parties’ slander of title claims.

Adverse Possession Nuggets

November 14, 2016 § Leave a comment

If you’ve been a long-time reader, you will recognize that I tend to really like cases that elucidate what must be shown to make an adverse possession case. That’s because, for all the colorful language of the case law about “planting flags” and “unfurling banners,” it can be confoundedly difficult to translate that into what people do in real life.

The recent COA decision in Powell v. Meyer, handed down October 25, 2016, is one of those helpful cases. The facts are pretty typical of an adverse possession case. You can read them for yourself. I’ve extracted some nuggets for you that you might find useful next time you have a case like this.

  • ¶18. Mississippi Code Annotated section 15-1-13(1) (Rev. 2012) defines adverse
    possession as follows:

    Ten (10) years’ actual adverse possession by any person claiming to be the owner for that time of any land, uninterruptedly continued for ten (10) years by occupancy, descent, conveyance, or otherwise, in whatever way such occupancy may have commenced or continued, shall vest in every actual occupant or possessor of such land a full complete title . . . .

    We apply a six-part test for determining whether adverse possession has occurred: “for possession to be adverse it must be (1) under claim of ownership; (2) actual or hostile; (3) open, notorious, and visible; (4) continuous and uninterrupted for a period of ten years; (5) exclusive; and (6) peaceful.” Walker [v. Murphree], 722 So. 2d [1277] at 1281 (¶16). The burden was on Meyer to prove each element by clear and convincing evidence. Ellison v. Meek, 820 So. 2d 730, 734 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002).

  • ¶19. … In regard to the actual or hostile element, “[t]he actual or hostile occupation of land necessary to constitute adverse possession requires a corporeal occupation, accompanied by a manifest intention to hold and continue to hold the property against the claim of all other persons, and adverse to the rights of the true owner.” Hill v. Johnson, 27 So. 3d 426, 431 (¶23) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). Possession is hostile when the adverse possessor intends to claim title notwithstanding that the claim is made under a mistaken belief that the land is within the calls of the possessor’s deed. Alexander v. Hyland, 214 Miss. 348, 357, 58 So. 2d 826, 829 (1952). … “[T]he mere existence of a fence,” without more, “does not establish that the fence is the
    accepted boundary between the properties.” Ellison, 820 So. 2d at 735 (¶16). …
  • ¶20. In regard to the open, notorious, and visible element, “[t]he mere possession of land is not sufficient to satisfy the requirement that the adverse possessor’s use be open, notorious, and visible.” Webb v. Drewrey, 4 So. 3d 1078, 1083 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (citation omitted). An adverse-possession claim will not begin “unless the landowner has actual or constructive knowledge that there is an adverse claim against his property.” Id. …

 

 

  • ¶21. … To reiterate, even if a party is mistaken as to the calls of his deed, “if he has occupied the land for the statutory period under the claim that it was his own and was embraced within the calls of his deed, he is entitled to recover on the ground of adverse possession[.]” Alexander [v. Hyland], 214 Miss. [348] at 357, 58 So. 2d [826] at 829 [(19520]. …

You might want to file those away for future use.

Here the chancellor was affirmed because there was clear and convincing evidence to support each and every one of the six required elements. That’s good lawyering. Not only do you have to have the facts to work with; you also have to make sure that you make a good enough record with sufficient facts to support the judge’s findings.

 

Tacking Adverse Possession

June 4, 2015 § 3 Comments

The case of Rester and Davis v. Greenleaf Resources, Inc., handed down by the COA April 7, 2015, is instructive for an aspect of adverse possession that can be overlooked.

In that case, the chancellor had ruled that Sylvia Rester and L.B. Davis had failed to meet their burden to prove the elements of adverse possession of some 19.5 acres of land by clear and convincing evidence. The COA held that the chancellor did correctly apply the law to the facts of the case, but erred by considering only the period of time when the property was owned by Greenleaf. The COA opinion, by Judge Irving, states:

 ¶16. After reviewing the record, we find that the trial court correctly considered the elements of adverse possession; however, it erred because it only focused on the period of time Greenleaf held title to the land. Specifically, the trial court erred when it held that “Greenleaf would have no way of knowing the Plaintiffs claimed ownership.” We point out that Greenleaf did not hold title to the land until 2004, when it purchased the land from the Crosbys. Further inquiry is crucial in determining whether the Davis family adversely possessed the disputed property at any point prior to Greenleaf’s purchase of the land.

¶17. There are several ten-year spans of time, an element of adverse possession, that need to be considered, which the trial court’s findings are silent on. Such a span begins with L.B.’s birth on the disputed property. There is testimony that the family maintained control by renting out the log cabin in their absence for a period of time. In addition, there was testimony that L.B. had worked on the fence in 1939. There is uncontradicted testimony from Herbert, who managed the property for over twenty years, that the property was on a squatters list, and that there were painted lines that were not crossed. In addition, he recalled that there was a fence, and that crops had been planted on the disputed property. Herbert’s testimony is corroborated by L.B.’s testimony. James also testified to seeing the painted lines, which Herbert described and stated he did not cross in light of the fact that the land was on the squatters list. Several other witnesses testified about crops being grown by the Davises on the disputed property and the Davises’ recreational use of the land.

¶18. We find that there was sufficient evidence produced to warrant further inquiry for the period of time prior to Greenleaf’s purchase of the disputed land. If at any point, the Davises had adversely possessed the property prior to Greenleaf’s purchase, it follows that the title that Greenleaf received could not include the disputed property, notwithstanding the fact that it may lie within the calls of its deed. To be clear, nothing in this opinion should be interpreted as holding or finding that the evidence is sufficient or insufficient to show that the Davises adversely possessed the property prior to the point in time when Greenleaf purchased it. We simply hold that the trial court erred in limiting its focus to the period of time after the date of Greenleaf’s purchase.

This holding is dictated by MCA 15-1-13(1), which sets out the period of adverse possession, and reads, in part:

Ten (10) years’ actual adverse possession by any person claiming to be the owner for that time of any land, uninterruptedly continued for ten (10) years by occupancy, descent, conveyance, or otherwise, in whatever way such occupancy may have commenced or continued, shall vest in every actual occupant or possessor of such land a full and complete title …

In other words: (A) any person or persons in the preceding chain of title who achieved adverse possession passes good title to the subsequent title holders; and (B) where there is privity between a party and his predecessor in title, the party is entitled to “tack” his possession to his predecessor’s so as to have ten years’ possession, despite the fact that the party has not himself been in possession ten years. Ricketts v. Simmons, 44 So.2d 537, 538 (Miss. 1950). Either situation requires the court to look at the facts of the predecessors in title, which means that it is incumbent on counsel to develop that proof at trial as was done in the trial of the Rester case. If you don’t put it in the record, the court can not consider it, and you can not prevail on appeal.

A Threshhold Issue in Adverse Possession

April 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

You’ve read here before about the elements of adverse possession, every one of which must be proven by clear and convincing evidence before the person claiming title by adverse possession may prevail.

One of those elements is that the possession must be hostile. That is, it must not be with the assent of the title owner. There cannot be a valid claim of adverse possession when the actual owner has given the possessor permission to use the land. Massey v. Lambert, 84 So.3d 846, 849 (¶ 11) (Miss. App. 2012). 

That is the principle that tripped up Tim Hoover in the claim of adverse possession he asserted against George and Nelta Callen. Tim’s brother, Mayo, had gotten permission to install some septic tank field lines on a portion of the Callens’ property 12-15 years before the litigation. He also had their permission to use the same property to pasture horses and store some vehicles. Mayo had asked to purchase the land for those purposes, but the Callens would not sell, instead agreeing to let Mayo use it. George Callen testified that Mayo told him that, if the filed lines ever caused George any trouble he would remove them.

Mayo died, and Tim moved onto the property. Problems arose with the field lines, and George approached Tim to inquire what he would do about it. Tim reacted angrily and ordered George off of his property. When the field lines remained unrepaired, George dug them up and laid them on Tim’s property. He also constructed a fence on the property line. Tim complained that the new fence “cut through” his yard.

Tim filed suit to remove cloud and confirm title. The chancellor ruled that Tim had failed to prove all of the elements of adverse possession, and Tim appealed.

In Hoover v. Callen, decided by the COA on March 25, 2014, the court affirmed. Justice Irving, for the court:

¶15. “To acquire property by adverse possession, a claimant must show that [his] possession of the property was: (1) open, notorious, and visible; (2) hostile; (3) under claim of ownership; (4) exclusive; (5) peaceful; and (6) continuous and uninterrupted for a period of ten years.” Id. at (¶14) (citing Biddix v. McConnell, 911 So. 2d 468, 475 (¶18) (Miss. 2005)). “The chancellor must find that the plaintiff[] proved each element of [his] claim by clear and convincing evidence.” Roberts v. Young’s Creek Inv. Inc., 118 So. 3d 665, 669 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (citing Blackburn v. Wong, 904 So. 2d 134, 136 (¶16) (Miss. 2004)). “The adverse possessor must also possess the property without permission, because permission defeats any claim of adverse possession.” Id. at 670 (¶10) (citing Apperson v. White, 950 So. 2d 1113, 1118 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007)).

The court went on to find that the evidence supported the chancellor’s conclusion that Mayo and Tim had used the land with permission, and that, as a result, Tim’s claim of adverse possession was defeated.

A plaintiff brought an adverse possession case in my court in which he had gained occupancy of the property via a lease in the early 1980’s. He paid only a few months of rent before stopping his payments entirely, due to inadequacy of the dwelling, he claimed. After a couple of years he moved a mobile home onto the property. The title owner never initiated an action to evict him, although he did send an emissary on one occasion to inquire about whether the plaintiff intended to pay rent. I ruled that the occupancy was permissive, and, therefore, there was no adverse possession. I dismissed the case, and the plaintiff appealed. His appeal was dismissed for failure to prosecute, so we will not be getting any guidance from the appellate courts on the facts in this particular case.

The questions posed by the case that I had are two-fold: (1) If the landlord does not take any action to oust the defaulting tenant for more than ten years, has the landlord waived his right to claim permissive use by the tenant; and (2) What notice or other action on the part of a tenant may overcome the permissive use defense and convert the use to a hostile one? I did not find any Mississippi authority on point.

Who has Standing to Appeal?

February 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

Whether a party has standing to appeal is a question that does not often surface in our courts, but it did in a recent COA case.

The case of Posey v. Pope and Posey, handed down January 28, 2014, offers an interesting scenario invoving a standing issue on appeal.

Madison Posey died in 2004, leaving approximately 138 acres of land to his surviving wife, Gladys. Madison and Gladys had four children: Dorothy, Willard, Robert and Paul. 

Dorothy had been deeded 2 1/2 acres by her father in 1984, and she used another 25 acres of the 138 on which she built and maintained fences, cut timber, and constructed buildings.

Some time around 1994, Willard began using some 60 acres of the 138 from which he cut timber, sharing the proceeds with his mother. He never obtained a deed for any of the 60 acres.

In 2007, by two, separate deeds, Gladys conveyed 132 acres of land to Paul and Robert, retaining a life estate.

Dorothy and Willard filed suit to set aside the 2007 deeds on the grounds of undue influence and adverse possession. The chancery court concluded not only that the deeds should be set aside because they were procured by undue influence, but also that Dorothy and Willard had title by adverse possession.

Robert and Paul appealed only from the decision that Dorothy and Willard had title via adverse possession. They did not attack the chancellor’s ruling of undue influence.

Dorothy and Willard moved to dismiss the appeal on the basis that the court’s finding of undue influence deprived Robert and Paul of standing to appeal solely from the adverse possession ruling. The COA agreed, and dismissed the appeal. Here’s what Judge Barnes, writing for a unanimous court said:

¶7. “[P]arties have standing to ‘sue or intervene when they assert a colorable interest in the subject matter of the litigation or experience an adverse effect from the conduct of the defendant, or as otherwise authorized by law.’” DeSoto Times Today v. Memphis Publ’g Co., 991 So. 2d 609, 612 (¶8) (Miss. 2008) (quoting Fordice v. Bryan, 651 So. 2d 998, 1003 (Miss. 1995)). Clearly, as recipients of the deeds from Gladys, the Appellants had standing to participate in the underlying chancery court action.

¶8. However, as a result of the chancellor’s ruling of undue influence, which voided the deeds, the Appellants no longer maintained any property interest when the appeal was filed. “A party’s claim ‘must be grounded in some legal right recognized by law, whether by statute or by common law[,]’ and that party must be able to show that it has ‘a present, existent actionable title or interest.’” In re City of Biloxi, 113 So. 3d 565, 570 (¶13) (Miss. 2013) (quoting City of Picayune v. S. Reg’l Corp., 916 So. 2d 510, 526 (¶40) (Miss. 2005)). Since the Appellants do not appeal the chancellor’s decision to void the warranty deeds, they no longer possess a “present, existent actionable interest” in the property at issue. The Appellants have also acknowledged that, at the time of appeal, Gladys was the only person who would benefit from a reversal of the chancellor’s finding that the Appellees gained title through adverse possession. Consequently, we find the Appellants lack standing to appeal the chancellor’s decision.

The appellants argued that they had standing as “anticipatory heirs,” which the COA rejected for the reason that Mississippi does not recognize heirship status until a person has died. They also contended that Paul had obtained a POA from Gladys that empowered him to pursue litigation on her behalf, which the court also rejected because she had never joined in the action, either at trial or on appeal.

One significant reason you should be interested in this case is that it highlights how joinder and non-joinder of persons in litigation may have repercussions that you should consider well before you file the initial complaint and any counterclaim. This result would likely have been avoided had Gladys been brought in as a party.

Another reason is that you need to analyze the effect on your client’s interests of limiting issues on appeal. Reading between the lines in this case, it appears that Robert and Paul were doing their best to keep Gladys out of the cross-fire among the siblings (indeed, she died during pendency of the appeal), but the result was the end of their litigation. I’m not being critical of or even questioning any legal advice in this particular case, but as a matter of general principle, always exercise independent, objective judgment and give advice on how to proceed based on that judgment; never let the clients call the shots about who should or should not be included as a party, or what issues should or should not be pursued.  

Adverse Possession Refresher

July 24, 2013 § 6 Comments

The COA decision in Roberts v. Young’s Creek Investments, Inc., decided July 16, 2013, is yet another decision in the field of adverse possession that you should file away for future use the next time that you find yourself litigating that issue in chancery court.

All adverse possession cases are fact-driven, and this particular case is no exception. But it’s not the facts we’re interested in here. It’s the law. Here are some excerpts from the opinion that flesh out the legal requirements:

  • ¶7  “[F]or possession to be adverse it must be (1) under claim of ownership; (2) actual or hostile; (3) open, notorious, and visible; (4) continuous and uninterrupted for a period of ten years; (5) exclusive; and (6) peaceful.” Blackburn v. Wong, 904 So. 2d 134, 136 (¶15) (Miss. 2004) (citing Thornhill v. Caroline Hunt Trust Estate, 594 So. 2d 1150, 1152-53 (Miss. 1992)). “We will not disturb the findings of a chancellor unless the chancellor was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous, or applied an erroneous legal standard.” Taylor v. Bell, 87 So. 3d 1134, 1137 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (citing Buford v. Logue, 832 So. 2d 594, 600 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002)). The chancellor must find that the plaintiffs proved each element of their claim by clear and convincing evidence. See Blackburn, 904 So. 2d at 136 (¶16).
  • Claim of Ownership. ¶8.  Under the claim-of-ownership element of adverse possession, the chancellor must determine whether the purported adverse possessor’s actions were sufficient to “fly a flag over the property” and put the actual owners on notice that the property was “being held under an adverse claim of ownership.” Apperson v. White, 950 So. 2d 1113, 1117 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007) (citing Walker v. Murphree, 722 So. 2d 1277, 1281 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 1998)). The Mississippi Supreme Court has stated:

    When determining whether the [possessors] undertook possessory acts sufficient to support a claim of adverse possession, the chancellor must look to the quality and not the quantity of the acts indicative of possession. Possessory acts necessary to establish a claim of adverse possession may vary with the characteristics of the land, and adverse possession of wild or unimproved lands may be established by evidence of acts that would be wholly insufficient in the case of improved or developed lands.

    Id. at (¶8) (internal quotations and citations omitted). In the present case, the chancellor determined that the land in dispute was wild land. Therefore, the claim of adverse possession of the 7.79 acres may be proved by a showing of possessory acts that would be insufficient to establish the claim if the 7.79 acres were improved and developed land.

  • Hostile. ¶10. “Possession is defined as effective control over a definite area of land, evidenced by things visible to the eye or perceptible to the senses.” Blankinship v. Payton, 605 So. 2d 817, 819-20 (Miss. 1992). “Possession is hostile and adverse when the adverse possessor intends to claim title notwithstanding that the claim is made under a mistaken belief that the land is within the calls of the possessor’s deed.” Wicker v. Harvey, 937 So. 2d 983-94 (¶34) (Miss. Ct. App. 994 (¶34) (citing Alexander v. Hyland, 214 Miss. 348, 357, 58 So. 2d 826, 829 (1952)). The adverse possessor must also possess the property without permission, because permission defeats any claim of adverse possession. Apperson, 950 So. 2d at 1118 (¶12).
  • Open, Notorious, and Visible. ¶13. In addition to the requirements that possession be under a claim of ownership and hostile, possession must also be open, notorious, and visible. To satisfy this element, the possessor “must unfurl his flag on the land, and keep it flying, so that the actual owner may see, and if he will, that an enemy has invaded his domains, and planted the standard of conquest.”Wicker, 937 So. 2d at 994 (¶35) (quoting Blankinship, 605 So. 2d at 820).
  • Continuous and Uninterrupted for a Period of Ten Years. ¶14. The plaintiff in an adverse-possession action must be in possession of the property for at least ten years.See Miss. Code Ann. § 15-1-13(1) (Rev. 2012). This period of possession must be continuous and uninterrupted. Id.
  • Exclusive.  ¶15. Exclusive possession means that the possessor “evinces an intention to possess and hold land to the exclusion of, and in opposition to, the claims of all others, and the claimant’s conduct must afford an unequivocal indication that he is exercising [the] dominion of a sole owner.”Wicker, 937 So. 2d at 995 (¶40) (quoting Rawls v. Parker, 602 So. 2d 1164, 1169 (Miss. 1992)) (internal quotations omitted). It does not mean that no one else can use the property.Apperson, 950 So. 2d at 1119 (¶15). “Exclusivity, within the meaning of the statute, means that the adverse possessor’s use of the property was consistent with an exclusive claim to the right to use the property.”Id. (citing Moran v. Sims, 873 So. 2d 1067, 1069 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004)).
  • Peaceful. ¶16. … Our supreme court has held that expected disputes associated with the use or ownership of the property are not indicative of the possession not being peaceful. See Dieck v. Landry, 796 So. 2d 1004, 1009 (¶15) (Miss. 2001).
  • Permissive Use. ¶17. There cannot be a valid claim of adverse possession when the actual owner has given the possessor permission to use the land. Massey v. Lambert, 84 So. 3d 846, 849 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012).
  • Color of Title. ¶18. … “Color of title is an instrument of conveyance or a record which appears to convey title[,] but which in fact does not have that legal effect.” Houston v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 652 F.2d 467, 473 (5th Cir. Unit A Aug. 1981). “Thus, for example, an adverse possessor may claim [the property] under the color of title of a defect or imperfect instrument, even though his grantor or a predecessor was entirely without title or interest.”Id. at 474. … The chancellor considered color of title as if it were the first element of adverse possession. However, color of title is not an element of adverse possession. Furthermore, in order to possess land under color of title, there must be a defect or imperfection in the deed that, in effect, denies title or interest to the property.

A checklist for the elements adverse possession is here.

A COA decision by Judge Carlton analyzing adverse possession elements is here.

A COA decision by Judge Roberts discussing some of the adverse possession factors is here.

I was glad to see Judge Irving, for the COA, point out that color of title is not one of the elements of adverse possession. I hear it mentioned in nearly every adverse possession case I hear, and sometimes the contortions people go through to squeeze the facts into that element can be interesting to watch. Color of title may enter into the conversation when there is a defect in the deed conveying title that gives rise to the dispute, but it’s not one of the elements that the court must consider in every adverse possession case.

I don’t know about you, but when I practiced, I could not amass enough cases to help me understand those arcane phrases about unfurling flags and keeping them flying, and that an “enemy has invaded his domains,” and the planting of a standard of conquest, to make me feel comfortable. Every time I encountered an adverse possession case I had images of cavalry charges, bloody banners falling in the clash of arms, and castles stormed by medieval knights.

DEVIOUS SEARCH AND INQUIRY

July 26, 2012 § 3 Comments

It avails one naught to get a judgment when all the proper parties have not been given notice and an opportunity to defend.

In 2007, Lottie Woods brought an action for adverse possession of family property. She claimed in her complaint that she was the sole and only heir of her uncle Cornelius, and she published process for him, his unknown heirs, and any other person claiming an interest in the property.

It should have been a clue of problems to come when Corenelius, Jr. showed up at the appointed time and produced a birth certificate showing he was Cornelius’s son. But it all seemed to work out because Lottie and Jr. settled the dispute between them, dividing the property. 

The only problem with all of the foregoing is that Lottie neglected to make it known that she had four other siblings who could claim an interest in the property. In other words, as Jr.’s appearance foretold, she could hardly be said to be the “sole and only” heir. Her brother Samson and the other siblings filed an objection and separate litigation to correct the matter.

The COA case of Byrd v. Woods, et al., decided June 19, 2012, is where this particular drama was played out. The case goes off on several other points of law, but the one that I want to focus on here is what happens when a party does not comply with MRCP 4’s requirement that there be diligent search and inquiry before process by publication. Here is what Judge Fair had to say about it, commencing at ¶14:

Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 4(c)(4) states that if a defendant cannot be found after diligent search and inquiry, shown by sworn complaint or filed affidavit, he may be made a party by publication. In the 2007 adverse possession action, Lottie filed an affidavit of diligent search and inquiry to obtain a publication summons. However, she must have known that her brother (and her other siblings) would have an interest in the “family land” she sought to adversely possess. They were both potential heirs of Cornelius and believed the property belonged to their family. Further, Lottie and Samson were not estranged, so it is unlikely she could not find him after diligent search and inquiry. But Lottie did not serve Samson personally, nor did she mention or serve her other three siblings.

“The rules on service of process are to be strictly construed. If they have not been complied with, the court is without jurisdiction unless the defendant appears of his own volition.” Kolikas v. Kolikas, 821 So. 2d 874, 878 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002). In Caldwell v. Caldwell, 533 So. 2d 413 (Miss. 1988), the supreme court stated “if at any stage of the proceedings it appears that . . . the affidavit was not made in good faith after diligent inquiry, under the facts of the particular case, the process should be quashed by the court . . . .” Id. at 416.

Therefore, Lottie did not obtain service of process on Samson by publication because her affidavit was not made in good faith after diligent inquiry. Neither he nor Lottie’s other siblings are bound by the 2007 judgment.

The lesson here is that when your client avers that he or she has made “diligent inquiry,” or, using the traditional phrase still used by many lawyers, “diligent search and inquiry,” you had better make darned sure that there was indeed a search and inquiry, and that it was in fact diligent. It’s a subject we’ve talked about here before.

Expect the chancellor to inquire behind the affidavit before granting any relief. I always do, and I do not accept a shrug of the shoulders or a couple of half-hearted attempts. In one case before me the woman claimed that the last she knew of her husband he was hanging out at a bar in Wayne County. I asked whether she had gone there to inquire about him. When she said “no,” I ordered her to go to the bar and ask the bartender and some of the habitués whether they knew his whereabouts. Wonder of wonders, she found him and he was personally served.

In the case of Lottie Woods, based solely on what I read in the COA opinion, I would have found that her claim in a pleading intended to influence a judge that she was the sole and only heir when she had living siblings in the area and Cornelius’s son was still alive to have been a fraud on the court. As it was, her “oversight” has cost all of these parties more than five years of wasted time in litigation, and they are returning to the starting line, probably poorer for the trial and appeal attorney fees, and surely not thrilled with the legal process. If only Lottie had sworn truthfully …

CLEARLY CONVINCING

May 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Several chancery matters require proof by clear and convincing evidence.

There are others, I am sure, but you get the point. Muster the necessary quality of proof or fail.

So, what exactly does constititute clear and convincing evidence, anyway? The COA in Hill v. Harper, 18 So.3d 310, 318 (Miss. App. 2005), defined clear and convincing evidence as:

“That weight of proof which produces in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or conviction as to the truth of the allegations sought to be established, evidnce so clear, direct and weighty and convincing as to enable the fact finder to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the truth of the precise facts of the case. Moran v. Fairley, 919 So.2d 969, 975 ¶24 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (quoting Travelhost, Inc. v. Blandford, 68 F.3d 958, 960 (5th Cir. 1995)). ‘Clear and convincing evidence is such a high standard that even the overwhelming weight of the evidence does not rise to the same level.’ Id. (Citing In re C.B., 574 So.2d 1369, 1375 (Miss. 1990).”

 30 Am.Jur.2d, Evidence, §1167, provides this:

“The requirement of “clear and convincing” … evidence does not call for “unanswerable” or “conclusive” evidence. The quality of proof, to be clear and convincing has … been said to be somewhere between the rule in ordinary civil cases and the requirement of criminal procedure — that is, it must be more than a mere preponderance but not beyond a reasonable doubt. It has also been said that the term “clear and convincing” evidence means that the witnesses to a fact must be found to be credible, and that the facts to which they have testified are distinctly remembered and the details thereof narrated exactly and in due order, so as to enable the trier of facts to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the truth of the weighing, comparing , testing, and judging its worth when considered in connection with all the facts and circumstances in evidence.

JUDGE CARLTON’S PRIMER ON ADVERSE POSSESSION

March 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

To establish adverse possession requires proof by clear and convincing evidence of some rather elusive concepts established by the courts to interpret and apply MCA § 15-1-13. That’s why, whenever I find an exposition on the applicable law, I’m quick to share it so that you can use it.

The most recent useful primer on the subject is Judge Carlton’s opinion in the COA case of Greenwood v. Young, decided February 7, 2012. I’ve stripped out the law to provide you with a skinny you may want to add to your trial notebooks:

¶19. Mississippi Code Annotated section 15-1-13(1) governs claims of adverse possession, providing in part:

“Ten (10) years’ actual adverse possession by any person claiming to be the owner for that time of any land, uninterruptedly continued for ten (10) years by occupancy, descent, conveyance, or otherwise, in whatever way such occupancy may have commenced or continued, shall vest in every actual occupant or possessor of such land a full and complete title, saving to persons under the disability of minority or unsoundness of mind the right to sue within ten (10) years after the removal of such disability, as provided in Section 15-1-7. However, the saving in favor of persons under disability of unsoundness of mind shall never extend longer than thirty-one (31) years.

In order to establish a claim of adverse possession, the party claiming to have adversely possessed the property must show, by clear-and-convincing evidence, that his possession was (1) under a claim of right or ownership; (2) actual or hostile; (3) open, notorious, and visible; (4) continuous and uninterrupted for a period of ten years; (5) exclusive; and (6) peaceful. Pulliam v. Bowen, 54 So. 3d, 331,  334 (¶13) (citations omitted).

The factors:

Claim of Ownership. ¶21. “In the end, the ultimate question is whether the possessory acts relied upon by the would be adverse possessor are sufficient to fly his flag over the lands and to put the record title holder on notice that the lands are held under an adverse claim of ownership.” Hill v. Johnson, 27 So. 3d 426, 431 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (citations omitted).

Actual or Hostile. ¶23. “The actual or hostile occupation of land necessary to constitute adverse possession requires a corporeal occupation, accompanied by a manifest intention to hold and continue to hold the property against the claim of all other persons, and adverse to the rights of the true owner.” Hill, 27 So. 3d at 431-32 (¶23).

Open, Notorious, and Visible. ¶26. “The mere possession of land is not sufficient to satisfy the requirement that the adverse possessor’s use be open, notorious, and visible.” Webb v. Drewrey, 4 So. 3d 1078, 1083 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (citation omitted). An adverse-possession claim will not begin “unless the landowner has actual or constructive knowledge that there is an adverse claim against his property.” Id. “An adverse possessor ‘must unfurl his flag on the land, and keep it flying, so that the (actual) owner may see, and if he will, [know] that an enemy has invaded his domains, and planted the standard of conquest.’” Id.

Continuous and Uninterrupted for Ten Years.

Exclusive. ¶29. “Exclusivity, within the meaning of the statute, means that the adverse possessor’s use of the property was consistent with an exclusive claim to the right to use the property.” Hill, 27 So. 3d at 432 (¶27). “Exclusive use is at the most basic level the intent of actual and hostile possession.” Id. “To satisfy the element of exclusivity, ‘the claimant’s conduct must afford an unequivocal indication that he is exercising dominion of a sole owner.’” Stone v. Lea Brent Family Invs., L.P., 998 So. 2d 448, 455 (¶25) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (citations omitted). “Exclusive use” does not mean that no one else uses the property. Id. “Rather, exclusive use indicates a right to use the land above other members of the general public.” Id.

Peaceful. ¶30. The adverse possession must be peaceful. Jordan v. Fountain, 986 So. 2d 1018, 1023 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008). “The mere existence of a dispute over the use of land does not present an obstacle to satisfy the element of peaceful use.” Hill, 27 So. 3d at 432 (¶29). “Simple disputes often arise between neighboring landowners, but do not rise to the level of destroying the peaceful existence between them.” Id.

Clear and Convinving Evidence. The mere fact that there is contradictory evidence does not mean that the credible evidence is not clear and convincing. See, Stancil v. Farris, 60 So. 3d 817, 824 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) “If clear[-]and[-]convincing evidence could never be shown in the presence of contradictory testimonies, virtually no case requiring a showing by clear and convincing evidence could be proven. Such is clearly not the case.”

You should read the opinion carefully to see how the chancellor applied the law to the facs, and how the COA viewed the chancellor’s ruling. Your case may be distinguishable.

Another adverse possession post highlighting a COA ruling by Judge Roberts is here.

You can find an annotated checklist of adverse possession factors by following the link.

The latest COA case on adverse possession is Massey v. Lambert, decided March 27, 2012, in which the court upheld the chancellor’s ruling that the use of the property had been permissive, which defeats a claim of adverse possession.

REVISITING TRIAL CHECKLISTS

November 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

Every few months I try to remind lawyers about the importance of putting on proof of the factors spelled out by the appellate courts that are required to make your case. This may also come in handy for any newcomers who haven’t stumbled on prior posts on the subject. 

 I’ve referred to it as trial by checklist.  If you’re not putting on proof of the factors when they apply in your case, you are wasting your and the court’s time, as well as your client’s money, and you are committing malpractice to boot. 

Many lawyers have told me that they print out these checklists and use them at trial.  I encourage you to copy these checklists and use them in your trial notebooks.  And while you’re at it, you’re free to copy any post for your own personal use, but not for commercial use.  Lawyers have told me that they are building notebooks tabbed with various subjects and inserting copies of my posts (along with other useful material, I imagine).  Good.  If it improves practice and makes your (and my) job easier and more effective, I’m all for it. 

Here is a list of links to the checklists I’ve posted:

Attorney’s fees.

Attorney’s fees in an estate.

Adverse possession.

Child custody.

Closing an estate.

Doing an accounting in a probate matter.

Grandparent visitation.

Equitable distribution.

Income tax dependency exemption.

Modification of child support.

Periodic and rehabilitative alimony.

Lump sum alimony.

Separate maintenance.

To make it easier to find checklists, I’ve added a category that you can search by using the category search tool on the right side of the page.

Next time the court denies your claim for attorney’s fees or for your client to claim the tax exemption for the children, ask yourself whether you put on the necessary proof. Not only is it crucial to your case at trial to prove all of the applicable factors, but you can’t expect to have a prayer on appeal without the requisite proof in the record.

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