Lee v. Houser

Decision Date27 September 2013
Docket Number1110505,1110105
PartiesDeidre W. Lee and Samuel G. McKerall v. Charles Houser and Robert C. Holk Town of Magnolia Springs and Magnolia Springs Planning Commission v. Deidre W. Lee and Samuel G. McKerall
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

Notice: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the advance sheets of Southern Reporter. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Alabama Appellate Courts, 300 Dexter Avenue, Montgomery, Alabama 36104-3741 ((334) 229-0649), of any typographical or other errors, in order that corrections may be made before the opinion is printed in Southern Reporter.

Appeals from Baldwin Circuit Court

(CV-07-900627)

MOORE, Chief Justice.

Deidre W. Lee and Samuel G. McKerall, plaintiffs in the underlying action, appeal a summary judgment entered in favor of Charles Houser and Robert C. Holk, defendants in the underlying action in the Baldwin Circuit Court (case no. 1110105). The Town of Magnolia Springs and the Magnolia Springs Planning Commission, the remaining defendants in the underlying action, appeal a judgment entered on a jury award of $735,000 to Lee and $300,000 to McKerall (case no. 1110505). For the reasons stated herein, we reverse the judgment entered on the jury award in favor of McKerall and affirm the remaining portion of that judgment, as well as the summary judgment entered in favor of Houser and Holk.

I. Facts

In 2005, Lee purchased 47 acres of property in Baldwin County with a down payment of $309,000 and secured owner financing for the balance of $328,000. On December 19, 2006, she submitted to the Baldwin County Planning Commission an application for preliminary subdivision-plat approval detailing a 124-lot residential subdivision. Lee spent over $50,000 preparing the subdivision for plat approval, including a $10,100 application fee to Baldwin County. McKerall, Lee'slaw partner at the time, was listed on the application as an agent for the developer. Lee and McKerall had developed other projects together. McKerall had development experience in Baldwin County.

The Town of Magnolia Springs incorporated in June 2006, six months before Lee submitted her plat application to the Baldwin County Planning Commission. The first mayor and council for the Town of Magnolia Springs were sworn in 13 days before Lee submitted her application to the Baldwin County Planning Commission.

The Baldwin County Planning Commission and the Town of Magnolia Springs are separate entities. When Lee submitted her application, the Town of Magnolia Springs had no jurisdiction over Lee's property, and only the Baldwin County Planning Commission had the authority to consider Lee's application because her property was outside the town limits.

On January 23, 2007, roughly one month after Lee filed her application, the new mayor of Magnolia Springs, Charles Houser, and a new councilman, Robert C. Holk, informed the Baldwin County Planning Commission that the Town of Magnolia Springs would seek extraterritorial planning jurisdiction extending a mile and a half beyond the limits of the Town ofMagnolia Springs. Magnolia Springs did not yet have regulations regarding applications for preliminary subdivision-plat approval.

Lee's plat application was on the agenda for the February 15, 2007, Baldwin County Planning Commission meeting. On that day, a Baldwin County engineer recommended that the Baldwin County Planning Commission approve Lee's plat application because it was not deficient in any respects. The Baldwin County Planning Commission had a long-standing practice of approving such applications if they were not deficient. Nevertheless, the Baldwin County Planning Commission tabled Lee's application. Roughly a week later, the Town of Magnolia Springs established its planning commission.

On February 27, 2007, Mayor Houser informed the Baldwin County Planning Commission that the jurisdiction of Magnolia Springs would extend to include Lee's property and that Magnolia Springs intended to pass a moratorium on subdivision approvals because "a couple of [the town's] council members ... have been involved in ... trying to get [Lee's plat application] delayed." He also acknowledged that Magnolia Springs had "no rules and regulations" regarding applications for preliminary subdivision-plat approvals.

On March 1, 2007, the Town of Magnolia Springs' planning commission held its first meeting, at which it adopted a moratorium on subdivisions. On March 12, 2007, the Town of Magnolia Springs and the Baldwin County Planning Commission reached an agreement whereby the Town of Magnolia Springs would have extraterritorial planning jurisdiction extending to include Lee's property. On March 28, 2007, the Baldwin County Planning Commission informed McKerall that the Town of Magnolia Springs had planning jurisdiction over Lee's property and that the Town of Magnolia Springs would make a decision regarding Lee's application. The next day, when Lee delivered her application to the Town of Magnolia Springs, she learned, for the first time, about the subdivision moratorium.

At an April 5, 2007, meeting of the planning commission for Magnolia Springs, Lee objected to the "dormant" status of her application, but the planning commission did not consider her application. On May 3, 2007, the planning commission voted to extend the subdivision moratorium for another 90 days (i.e., until August 28, 2007). On August 23, 2007, the planning commission adopted subdivision regulations; it never approved Lee's subdivision application.

Two days before the Town of Magnolia Springs finally adopted subdivision regulations, Lee filed the Mimosa Trace Condominium Declaration in the Probate Court of Baldwin County. Lee's declaration sought to subdivide the property under condominium laws, which would not need the approval of a planning commission.

II. Procedural History

On August 21, 2007, Lee filed in the Baldwin Circuit Court a petition for a writ of mandamus; the petition was divided into two sections labeled "First Cause of Action" and "Second Cause of Action." The "First Cause of Action" sought an order to direct Baldwin County to approve her application for a preliminary plat and to enjoin the Town of Magnolia Springs from exercising jurisdiction over the property or the plat application. Her "Second Cause of Action" sought damages against Baldwin County for lost profits, lost opportunity for the sale of the subdivided lots, and interest due, and sought costs and attorney fees and other damages for economic and emotional injury that might be applicable. Lee claimed that because Baldwin County and the Town of Magnolia Springs had prevented her from developing the subdivision, she could not pay her debt on the property. Moreover, she alleged that theTown of Magnolia Springs had thwarted the consummation of her agreement with Scott Raley, a developer, who would have funded all the infrastructure for the subdivision and assumed all the debt on the property if Baldwin County or the planning commission of Magnolia Springs had approved the application for a preliminary subdivision plat.

On March 28, 2008, Lee filed a first amended complaint adding the Town of Magnolia Springs' planning commission, Mayor Houser, and Councilman Holk as defendants. The amended complaint also added as defendants Baldwin County Commissioner Charles F. Gruber and Baldwin County Planning Commission members Jerry Knaebel, Jim Elliot, and Cara Stallman (hereinafter Gruber and the Baldwin County Planning Commission members are referred to as "the individual county defendants"). Lee's amended complaint alleged fraud against the Baldwin County Planning Commission and asserted claims against Houser, Holk, and the individual county defendants of tortious interference with Lee's vested rights, tortious interference with Lee's business prospects, and conspiracy to wrongly injure and deprive Lee of her legal rights.

On June 2, 2009, the Baldwin County Planning Commission moved to intervene, seeking a judgment that Lee's proposedcondominium development (not the subdivision that was the subject of the plat application) was illegal. On June 26, 2010, McKerall joined the case as an additional petitioner.

On January 24, 2011, the trial court entered a consent judgment as to Lee and McKerall and the Baldwin County Planning Commission and the individual county defendants. On February 18, 2011, the trial court allowed Lee and McKerall to amend their first amended complaint to add two causes of action against the Town of Magnolia Springs and its planning commission for negligent and wanton failure to consider or to approve Lee's subdivision-plat application. On July 12, 2011, Houser and Holk filed a motion for a summary judgment, which the trial court granted.

The trial between Lee and McKerall and the Town of Magnolia Springs and its planning commission began on September 14, 2011. At the close of Lee and McKerall's case, the court granted a judgment as a matter of law for the Town of Magnolia Springs and its planning commission on Lee and McKerall's wantonness claim but denied the motion as to the negligence claim. The case was submitted to the jury on the negligence claim.

After the close of all the evidence and after the jury instructions were given, the Town of Magnolia Springs and its planning commission objected to the jury instruction that Alabama law was not conclusive regarding a municipality's authority to institute a general moratorium on plat applications and objected to the jury instruction that the Town of Magnolia Springs had a duty to administer the Baldwin County rules and regulations regarding subdivisions. The Town of Magnolia Springs and its planning commission also objected to the trial court's refusal to instruct the jury regarding the definition for "injury to property" and the "last clear chance" doctrine.1 On September 16, 2011, the jury awarded Lee $735,000 and McKerall $300,000. The trial court denied the...

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