Water Works & Sanitary Sewer Bd. v. Parks

Decision Date11 May 2007
Docket NumberNo. 1051376.,No. 1051408.,1051376.,1051408.
Citation977 So.2d 440
PartiesWATER WORKS & SANITARY SEWER BOARD OF the CITY OF MONTGOMERY v. Thelma PARKS et al. East Montgomery Water, Sewer & Fire Protection Authority v. Thelma Parks et al.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

Robert E. Sasser, Patrick L.W. Sefton, Matthew J. Bauer, and Joel D. Connally of Sasser, Bolton & Sefton, P.C., Montgomery, for appellant Water Works & Sanitary Board of the City of Montgomery.

Karl B. Benkwith of Benkwith & Heard, P.C., Montgomery, for appellant East Montgomery Water, Sewer & Fire Protection Authority.

J. Knox Argo, Montgomery, for appellees.

SEE, Justice.

The Water Works & Sanitary Sewer Board of the City of Montgomery ("the Board") and the East Montgomery Water, Sewer & Fire Protection Authority ("East Montgomery") appeal separately from the trial court's judgment declaring Thelma Parks, Mary E. Jones, Mary A. Jones, Ruth J. Morgan, and Dorothy Jones ("the Jones heirs") to be the true owners of certain property in Montgomery County. The Board and East Montgomery argue that the trial court misapplied the law of adverse possession and that the evidence demonstrates that they, through their predecessor in interest, satisfied the elements of adverse possession or, in the alternative, if they are not the owners of the property, that they are entitled to equitable relief for the value of the improvements they made to the land. We agree that the trial court incorrectly applied the law of adverse possession. We, therefore, reverse the trial court's judgment and remand the case for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Factual and Procedural History

In 1939, John Green conveyed property by deed to Dock Barnett. Dock Barnett deeded a portion of that property to Silas Jones. In 1978, John Green also conveyed property by deed to his son, James Green. That conveyance included a portion of the property that had been conveyed previously to Barnett and through Barnett to Jones. The portion of property that John Green conveyed first to Barnett and then again to James Green is the subject matter of this dispute; it is referred to in this opinion as "the subject property."

In 1968, Silas Jones died intestate and his property, including the subject property, passed to the Jones heirs by intestate succession. In 1987, James Green conveyed his property, including the subject property, by deed to Paul Thomas, who began developing the Cedar Pines subdivision. The subject property is situated between property to the east that was undisputedly owned by James Green ("the Green property") and property to the west undisputedly owned by Silas Jones ("the Jones property").

In approximately 1988, Thomas began constructing Cedar Pines Road on the subject property, to provide the subdivision access to Old Pike Road. Before the construction of Cedar Pines Road, the only access to the subdivision from Old Pike Road was by means of a dirt road that wound through the subject property. Cedar Pines Road travels along the northern border of the Green property, through the subject property, and across a portion of the Jones property until it reaches Old Pike Road.

According to the testimony of Mary A. Jones, the Jones family knew that Thomas was constructing Cedar Pines Road, and the family objected to the construction. The family contacted a lawyer but took no further action because, according to Mary A. Jones, the family realized that Thomas had a right of access to and from his property. Because a part of Cedar Pines Road would cross through the Jones property, Thomas sought an easement over that part of the property. The Jones heirs refused to give Thomas an easement. Thomas then brought a condemnation action, seeking to condemn the part of the Jones property over which Cedar Pines Road would cross. The record does not indicate the outcome of that action, but Thomas finished the construction of Cedar Pines Road, a portion of which crosses the Jones property. Thomas also had waterlines put in on the subject property along the south side of Cedar Pines Road. He testified that both he and James Green, his predecessor in interest, had been assessed and had paid taxes on the subject property since 1978, when it was conveyed to James Green.

Cedar Pines Road divided the subject property into two parcels: Parcel A, which is a 2.5-acre, pie-shaped piece of property on the north side of Cedar Pines Road, and Parcel B, which is the portion of the subject property that lies south of Cedar Pines Road. In 1992, Thomas conveyed Parcel B to Paul Clark and Carolyn Clark. In 2001, Thomas conveyed Parcel A to East Montgomery.

Shortly after purchasing the property, East Montgomery began constructing a water tank on Parcel A. During the preparatory stages of construction, East Montgomery was informed that the Jones heirs claimed ownership of Parcel A. According to the testimony of Guthrie Jeffcoat, East Montgomery's consulting engineer on the water-tank project, East Montgomery contacted its lawyer, who certified that East Montgomery had good title to Parcel A. East Montgomery built the water tank on Parcel A, over the objections of the Jones heirs.1

In 2002, the Jones heirs sought a judgment against East Montgomery, the Clarks, and Montgomery County, declaring that the Jones heirs are the true owners of the subject property. Montgomery County, who the Jones heirs argued held an easement over a portion of the subject property, was eventually dismissed from the action. The Clarks and the Jones heirs eventually reached a mediated agreement as to the ownership of Parcel B. Thus, the dispute before the trial court was limited to the ownership of Parcel A. Before trial, the Board moved to intervene in the action, claiming that it was at that time in the process of purchasing all East Montgomery's assets, including the property on which the water tank had been built. Through that purchase, the Board would also assume all East Montgomery's responsibility for providing water and sewage services, including those services provided by the water tank on Parcel A. The, trial court granted the Board's motion to intervene.

The trial court heard ore tenus testimony and ultimately entered a judgment in favor of the Jones heirs, stating that the Board and East Montgomery had failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence that Thomas had adversely possessed Parcel A for the 10-year statutory period before he conveyed the property to East Montgomery. The trial court also denied "[a]ll other relief requested by any party not herein specifically addressed." The Board and East Montgomery moved the trial court to alter, amend, or vacate its judgment or, in the alternative, for a new trial, on the ground that the trial court relied on facts that were not supported by the record. After a hearing, the trial court denied their motion. The Board and East Montgomery separately appealed the trial court's judgment. Those appeals were consolidated for purposes of writing one opinion.

Issues

The Board and East Montgomery raise three issues on appeal. First, they argue that the trial court erred in its application of the law to the facts and relied on facts not supported by the record. Second, they argue that the trial court erred in finding that the Board and East Montgomery, through its predecessors in interest, did not adversely possess Parcel A. Third, they argue that, even if it did not err in determining that the Jones heirs owned the subject property, the trial court erred in denying the Board and East Montgomery's plea for equitable relief for improvements East Montgomery made to Parcel A.

Standard of Review

"`[W]hen a trial court hears ore tenus testimony, its findings on disputed facts are presumed correct and its judgment based on those findings will not be reversed unless the judgment is palpably erroneous or manifestly unjust.' Philpot v. State, 843 So.2d 122, 125 (Ala. 2002). `"The presumption of correctness, however, is rebuttable and may be overcome where there is insufficient evidence presented to the trial court to sustain its judgment."' Waltnian v. Rowell, 913 So.2d 1083, 1086 (Ala.2005) (quoting Dennis v. Dobbs, 474 So.2d 77, 79 (Ala.1985)). `Additionally, the ore tenus rule does not extend to cloak with a presumption of correctness a trial judge's conclusions of law or the incorrect application of law to the facts.' Id." Fadalla v. Fadalla, 929 So.2d 429, 433 (Ala.2005). "Under the ore tenus standard, the judgment of the trial court may not be disturbed unless its findings are "`clearly erroneous, without supporting evidence, manifestly unjust, or against the great weight of the evidence."'" Fowler v. Johnson, 961 So.2d 122, 129 (Ala.2006) (quoting Pollard v. Unus Props., LLC, 902 So.2d 18, 23 (Ala.2004), quoting in turn American Petroleum Equip. & Constr., Inc. v. Fancher, 708 So.2d 129, 132 (Ala. 1997)).

Analysis

The Board and East Montgomery argue that the trial court erroneously applied the law to the facts of the case and relied on facts that were not supported by the record. They ask this Court to vacate the judgment of the trial court holding that they do not own Parcel A. We agree that the trial court incorrectly applied the law of adverse possession to the facts of this case; therefore, we reverse its judgment and remand the case.

Alabama law recognizes two types of adverse possession: adverse possession by prescription and statutory adverse possession. A party claiming ownership by adverse possession by prescription must show that he or she had "actual, exclusive, open, notorious, and hostile possession under a claim of right for a 20-year period." Strickland v. Markos, 566 So.2d 229, 232 (Ala.1990). Statutory adverse possession, codified at § 6-5-200, Ala.Code 1975,

"`requires the same elements [as adverse possession by prescription], but the statute provides further that if the adverse possessor holds under...

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