Jones v. Leagan

Decision Date27 May 2009
Docket NumberNo. 4551.,4551.
Citation681 S.E.2d 6
PartiesW. Harold JONES, Appellant, v. Mandy LEAGAN, Jeff Leagan, James D. Owens and Helen M. Owens, Respondents.
CourtSouth Carolina Court of Appeals

C. Joseph Roof, of Columbia, for Appellant.

William P. Walker, of Lexington, for Respondents.


In this civil case, we must determine whether the Special Referee erred in holding (1) James and Helen Owens (collectively the Owens) acquired title to a piece of property owned by W. Harold Jones (Jones) by adverse possession, and (2) Jones' claim of ownership was barred under the doctrine of laches. We affirm.


On October 10, 1966, C.W. Metts (Metts) conveyed the real property known as Lot 31 on the Metts Lake Subdivision Plat (Lot 31 or the Lot), along with other property, to Jones for the sum of five dollars. This conveyance was recorded on October 17, 1966, in the Office of the Lexington County Register of Deeds. From the time Jones purchased Lot 31 until 1987, the Lot remained unimproved, uncultivated, and unmarked.

On October 21, 1987, the Owens purchased Lot 31 for $2,000 from Alice P. Shoaf (Shoaf). In the deed, Shoaf stated when Metts conveyed Lot 32 to her by an earlier deed, he did so inadvertently and Metts actually intended to convey Lot 31 to Shoaf.

The Owens claim after purchasing Lot 31 from Shoaf in 1987, they performed several "acts of ownership" on the Lot. These purported acts included (1) having the Lot surveyed in 1987; (2) seasonal bush-hogging and brush burning on the Lot beginning in 1987; (3) putting down a driveway from the road leading onto the Lot in 1987; (4) installing four white-tipped corner posts, each four feet above the ground at the four corners of the Lot in 1987; (5) placing a mesh wire fence with a gate along the back side of the Lot in 1987; (6) installing "No Trespassing" signs on the Lot between 1988 and 1989; (7) using the Lot to store business supplies, such as cement blocks, a tractor trailer, and fallen timber cut from the Lot starting in 1987; (8) installing a mobile home, septic tank, and a well in 1998 and privacy fence in 2000; and (9) paying property taxes on the Lot from 1987 to present. As further evidence of ownership, the Owens assert outside companies twice asked their permission to access Lot 31. The first time was in the 1990s when they were contacted by Corley Brothers Lumber Company (Corley) requesting permission to cut trees on Lot 31. The second instance was in 2000 when South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE & G) contacted the Owens requesting permission for an easement to install a power pole on Lot 31.

In 1998, the Owens' daughter, Mandy Leagan, and son-in-law, Jeff Leagan, (collectively the Leagans) moved onto Lot 31 as their residence. In 1998, the Owens conveyed Lot 31 to the Leagans, and eventually in 2004, the Leagans reconveyed Lot 31 back to the Owens for the purpose of securing a loan.

In 2004, after seeing for the first time that "something [was] going on with [Lot 31]," Jones met with an attorney. On May 6, 2005, Jones filed an action in ejectment and trespass to try title and sought to quiet title to Lot 31. In response, the Owens sought title to Lot 31 by adverse possession under color of title and also raised the equitable defense of laches.

A hearing was held before the Special Referee on August 23, 2007. The Owens testified as to all of the acts described above. The Owens also presented copies of the deed from Shoaf as well as tax receipts for Lot 31 However, several of the Owens' purported acts of ownership were not corroborated by any witnesses or documentary evidence. For instance, the Owens claim to have had Lot 31 surveyed, but they presented no plat. Also, the Owens presented neither pictures of nor receipts for the corner posts, the fences, or the "No Trespassing" signs. Furthermore, the Owens presented no witnesses from either SCE & G or Corley to testify as to what research, if any, they conducted before concluding the Owens were the legal owners of Lot 31.

Jones testified several times he had never once been to Lot 31 within the period from 1987 to 2004. Contrary to this, Jones also testified he had been to the Lot twice during that time, once in 1992 to level a road adjacent to Lot 31, and again in 1997 with Lexington County officials. Jones testified he did not see any change in Lot 31 on either of these occasions.

In an order dated November 30, 2007 (the Order), the Special Referee found the Owens to be the owners of Lot 31 by adverse possession and denied Jones' request for ejectment and his action for trespass to try title and barred his claim of ownership under the equitable doctrine of laches. This appeal followed.


In this case, Jones filed an action in ejectment, trespass to try title and sought to quiet title to Lot 31. Normally, an action to quiet title to property is an action in equity. Clark v. Hargrave, 323 S.C. 84, 86, 473 S.E.2d 474, 476 (Ct.App.1996). However, the character, as legal or equitable, of an action is determined by the complaint in its main purpose, the nature of the issues as raised by the pleadings or the pleadings and proof, and the character of the relief sought under them. Id. In their answer to Jones' complaint, the Owens sought title to Lot 31 by adverse possession. The determination of title to real property is legal in nature. Id. at 87, 473 S.E.2d at 476. Moreover, an adverse possession claim is an action at law. Id. Thus, an action to quiet title to real property, primarily involving the determination of title to real property based on adverse possession, should be characterized as an action at law. Id. Because an adverse possession claim is an action at law, the character of the possession is a question for the jury or fact finder. Miller v. Leaird, 307 S.C. 56, 61, 413 S.E.2d 841, 843 (1992). Therefore, appellate review is limited to a determination of whether any evidence reasonably tends to support the trier of fact's findings. Id.

I. Clear and Convincing Evidence of Adverse Possession

Jones argues the Special Referee erred in concluding the Owens proved by clear and convincing evidence that they had acquired title to Lot 31 by adverse possession. We disagree.

When it is asserted by the defendant, adverse possession is an affirmative defense. Miller v. Leaird, 307 S.C. 56, 62, 413 S.E.2d 841, 844 (1992). The party asserting adverse possession must show continuous, hostile, open, actual, notorious, and exclusive possession for a certain period of time. Mullis v. Winchester, 237 S.C. 487, 491, 118 S.E.2d 61, 63 (1961). In South Carolina, adverse possession may be established if the elements of the claim are shown to exist for at least ten years. S.C.Code Ann. § 15-67-210 (Supp.2008). To meet this burden of proof, the party asserting the claim must show by "clear and convincing" evidence he has met the requirements for adverse possession. Davis v. Monteith, 289 S.C. 176, 180, 345 S.E.2d 724, 726 (1986).

Jones first argues the Special Referee applied the wrong test when he found the Owens had established actual possession of Lot 31 by "ample evidence." Jones asserts the use of this phrase shows the Special Referee failed to apply a clear and convincing standard and instead applied a lower burden of proof. We disagree for two reasons.

First, the Special Referee recited the correct "clear and convincing" standard in the opening of the "Conclusions of Law" section in the part of the Order discussing the principles of adverse possession. The use of the word "ample" was merely part of a statement concluding the portion of the Order pertaining to the actual possession requirement. Second, when the Special Referee found "ample evidence," we believe the word "ample" was merely an adjective to describe the evidence provided by the Owens that sufficiently met the clear and convincing evidentiary standard. See, e.g., State v. Cutro, 332 S.C. 100, 110, 504 S.E.2d 324, 329 (1998) ("A review of the record reveals there is ample evidence to uphold the trial court's ruling that the prior bad acts were proven by clear and convincing evidence."); Berry v. Ianuario, 286 S.C. 522, 525, 335 S.E.2d 250, 251 (Ct.App.1985) ("We find sufficient evidence in the record ... to meet the `clear and convincing' evidence standard."). We believe the Order, when read in its entirety, makes clear the Special Referee applied the correct clear and convincing standard to the adverse possession claim.

Jones next argues even if the Special Referee did apply the correct burden of proof, he nevertheless erred in concluding the evidence presented by the Owens was clear and convincing as to the elements of adverse possession. However, given that ours is an "any evidence" standard of review, we disagree.

Acquiring title by adverse possession requires proof of actual, open, notorious, hostile, continuous, and exclusive possession by the claimant, or by one or more persons through whom he claimed, for the full statutory period. Miller, 307 S.C. at 61, 413 S.E.2d at 844. As discussed below, we believe the Owens presented evidence establishing each of these requirements.

A. Actual Possession

Acts of ownership of open land need only be exercised in a way consistent with the possible uses of the land and as the situation of the property permits, without actual residency or occupancy. Butler v. Lindsey, 293 S.C. 466, 471, 361 S.E.2d 621, 623 (Ct.App.1987). For the purpose of constituting adverse possession by a person claiming title founded upon a written instrument, land shall be deemed to have been possessed and occupied when it has been "usually cultivated or improved," and when it has been "protected by substantial enclosure." S.C.Code Ann. § 15-67-230 (Supp. 2008).

The Owens purchased Lot 31 from Shoaf in 1987 for $2,000, and the deed was recorded at the Lexington County Register of Deeds on the date of the closing. At trial, the Owens...

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