Pocahontas Land Corp. v. Evans

Decision Date03 July 1985
Docket NumberNo. 16314,16314
PartiesPOCAHONTAS LAND CORPORATION, a corporation v. William D. EVANS and Douglas E. Evans.
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. When a partition of land is made by mutual deeds, the partition is to be viewed as a single transaction, and all of the deeds effecting such partition must be read and construed together as a single instrument in the light of the circumstances attending their execution, in order to ascertain the intention of the parties. The intent of the parties, as expressed by all their terms, governs.

2. When there is a voluntary partition of land, it will be presumed, in the absence of a clear intention to the contrary, that the parties intended to divide all of the property into adjoining parcels and have not left small parts and isolated portions unpartitioned.

Wade T. Watson, Welch, for appellants.

Ernest P. Hays, II, Lynn C. Johnson and Thomas L. Linkous, Bluefield, for appellee.

McGRAW, Justice:

This is an appeal from a final order of the Circuit Court of McDowell County, entered June 8, 1983, in an action brought by Pocahontas Land Corporation, the appellee herein, to have set aside, as clouds on its title, deeds under which the appellants, William D. Evans and Douglas E. Evans, each claimed an undivided one-third interest in a 5.35-acre portion of the bed of the Dry Fork River located in Sandy River Magisterial District, McDowell County. The controversy arose from an interlock or overlap in the descriptions contained in separate instruments of title under which the respective parties claimed ownership. The circuit court concluded that Pocahontas had valid legal title to the interlock and ordered the appellants' deeds cancelled insofar as they purported to convey any interest in the disputed acreage. We find error in the proceedings below, and we reverse the judgment of the circuit court and remand the case for further proceedings.

The property in dispute in this case overlies the Beckley and Fire Creek seams of coal and was at one time part of a 200-acre tract, referred to herein as the W.K. Evans estate, through which the Dry Fork River passed. W.K. Evans died intestate in 1892 or 1894, survived by his wife, Victoria Evans, and three sons, F.N. Evans, J.N. Evans and F.D. Evans. The heirs held the land jointly until the 1920's, when they joined in a voluntary partition of the 200-acre tract by mutual deeds. That portion of the W.K. Evans estate situate on the western side of Dry Fork River was partitioned first, the eastern portion of the tract remaining unpartitioned until 1930.

As a result of the partition, F.N. Evans and his wife, Gretta M. Evans, parents of appellant Douglas E. Evans, acquired, by deed dated May 1, 1924, a portion of the W.K. Evans estate situate on the western side of Dry Fork River, referred to herein as the F.N. Evans thirty-acre tract. The partition deed described the tract by metes and bounds, beginning at a corner on the western side of the river,

thence leaving said corner (east) a straight line to the Dry Fork River, thence with said Dry Fork River and the meanders of same (north) to a point in the line of E.M. Evans near mouth of Rocky Branch, thence west with said line of E.M. and Elizabeth Evans .... (Emphasis added.)

On September 30, 1926, F.N. and Gretta M. Evans executed a deed of trust conveying the tract to John W. Easley, Trustee, to secure payment of a $6,000 note. The description in the deed of trust began at the same corner on the western side of Dry Fork River as that described in the May 1, 1924 partition deed, but continued

thence leaving said corner (east) a straight line to a stake on the east side of said Dry Fork River, another corner ... and leaving said corner (north) and following the eastern side of said Dry Fork River down same to a point in the line of E.M. Evans near Rock Branch, a tributary of Dry Fork; thence crossing said Dry Fork with the line of E.M. and Elizabeth Evans.... (Emphasis added.)

The remainder of the calls are identical to those in the May 1, 1924 partition deed. 1

The controversy in this case concerns the 5.35-acre strip of the riverbed which lies between the eastern boundary of the F. N. Evans thirty-acre tract described in the May 1, 1924 partition deed and the eastern boundary described in the Easley deed of trust. F.N. and Gretta M. Evans subsequently defaulted on the note secured by the deed of trust, and Easley conveyed the F.N. Evans thirty-acre tract, as described in the deed of trust, to American Finance Company by deed dated October 8, 1928. American Finance Company subsequently conveyed the property to Samantha Payne as part of a 136.9-acre tract of land situate on the western side of Dry Fork River. This deed, dated August 1, 1942, made reference to the Easley deed of trust, but described the 136.9-acre tract as being bounded to the east by the west bank of Dry Fork River and did not purport to convey any part of the riverbed. By deed dated July 1, 1972, Charles W. French, surviving member of the Board of Directors of American Finance Company 2 quitclaimed to Samantha Payne all interest and title it had acquired in the riverbed adjoining the 136.9-acre tract.

By deed dated July 25, 1972, Samantha Payne conveyed to Pocahontas Land Corporation the coal underlying her 136.9-acre tract, along with so much of the surface as Pocahontas deemed necessary to conduct mining operations. The deed described the property as including the entire riverbed up to the eastern bank of the river which was described as easternmost boundary of the Payne conveyance. This boundary was recognized in another deed dated the same day, whereby Gretta M. Evans conveyed to Pocahontas a similar interest in a contiguous tract of land encompassing a portion of the W.K. Evans estate situate entirely on the eastern side of Dry Fork River.

On February 23, 1977, Pocahontas instituted an action in the Circuit Court of McDowell County to have set aside as a cloud on its title a deed dated July 11, 1972, whereby Gretta M. Evans purported to convey to William D. Evans, son of Douglas E. Evans, an eight-acre parcel of the bed of the Dry Fork River. 3 The complaint alleged that the description contained in this deed interlocked with or overlapped 5.35 acres of the riverbed to which Pocahontas claimed title by virtue of the conveyance from Samantha Payne.

By order entered July 18, 1977, the circuit court referred the matter to a commissioner for the purpose of ascertaining whether an interlock or overlap did in fact exist and, if so, which party owned the valid and superior legal title thereto. Evidentiary hearings were conducted on December 12, 1977 and May 10, 1978.

At the hearings, there was no real dispute between the parties on the question of whether an interlock did in fact exist, the principle issue being the ownership of the riverbed acreage. The parties introduced a number of deeds relating to the partition of the W.K. Evans estate, none of which embraced the 5.35-acre portion of the riverbed. Pocahontas contended that the coparceners had intended the riverbed acreage to be partitioned along with the F.N. Evans thirty-acre tract and claimed title to the interlock as successor in title to F.N. and Gretta M. Evans under the Easley deed of trust. In addition, Pocahontas contended that the interlock acreage had been forfeited to the State by American Finance Company for non-entry on the land books and introduced evidence to show that it had redeemed the property by payment of delinquent taxes thereon from the years 1943 to 1973.

The appellants, on the other hand, contended that the coparceners never intended the interlock acreage to be included as part of the F.N. Evans thirty-acre tract, as evidenced by a deed dated October 14, 1927, whereby F.N. and Gretta M. Evans conveyed to J.A. Waggoner, Gretta's father, all their interest in the as-yet unpartitioned portion of the W.K. Evans estate situate on the eastern side of the river. The deed described the western boundary of the unpartitioned estate as "running the Western side of the [Dry Fork River] with the line of F.N. Evans, thirty acre tract." The appellants contended that after the partition of the W.K. Evans estate on the eastern side of Dry Fork River, the cotenants retained their undivided interests in the riverbed, and claimed title to the interlock as successors in title to those cotenants. 4

In addition to reviewing the numerous exhibits introduced by the parties, the commissioner, after the close of the hearings, conducted a personal examination of the property records in the office of the County Clerk of McDowell County, and discovered several instruments of title which had not been offered into evidence by either party. Among these instruments were a partition deed dated November 15, 1923, and a subsequent deed of trust, executed to T.F. Henritze, trustee, dated June 1, 1927, which purportedly related to a parcel of the W.K. Evans estate, referred to herein as the Victoria Evans thirty-acre tract. These instruments allegedly describe the Victoria Evans thirty-acre tract as being situate on the western side of Dry Fork River to the south of the F.N. Evans thirty-acre tract and as sharing a common boundary "with the line of F.N. and Gretta M. Evans" across the river to the eastern bank. It is further alleged that the deed of trust was not released of record and the property was conveyed by deed dated January 30, 1929, to American Finance Company which subsequently conveyed the tract to Samantha Payne. The August 1, 1942 deed from American Finance Company makes reference to the Henritze deed of trust.

On October 11, 1978, the commissioner submitted to the circuit court his findings and conclusions. Based on the evidence presented by the parties and upon his own review of the records in the county clerk's office, the commissioner concluded that that Pocahontas owned...

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