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White v. White

Supreme Court of West Virginia

September 1, 2017

Edith R. White, by and through her power of attorney and next friend, Naomi June Hutchinson, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
v.
James Scott White, Brenda J. White, James Scott White, as administrator of The Estate of Ronald R. White, and Kelli D. White, Premier Bank, Inc., and Monongahela Power Company, Defendants Below, Respondents

         Nicholas County 14-C-83

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Edith R. White, by and through her power of attorney and next friend, Naomi June Hutchinson, by counsel Thomas K. Fast, appeals the May 12, 2016, "Order Ruling on Defendants' Laches Motions; Dismissing Defendant Kelli D. White; Dismissing Defendant Premier Bank, Inc.; and Dismissing Defendant Monongahela Power Company" entered by the Circuit Court of Nicholas County. Respondents James Scott White; Brenda J. White; and James Scott White, as administrator of the estate of Ronald R. White, by counsel William A. McCourt Jr., filed their response. Respondent Kelli D. White, by counsel Gregory A. Tucker, filed her response. Respondent Premier Bank, Inc., by counsel J. Mark Adkins and Joshua A. Johnson, filed its response.[1] Petitioner filed a reply only to Respondent Kelli D. White.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         Esau White died on March 13, 1973, survived by his widow, Edith White. In addition, he was survived by their daughter, Naomi June Hutchinson, who also holds Edith White's power of attorney; their son, John White, who is not a party to this action or the action below; and their son, Ronald R. White. Ronald R. White's Estate and heirs are also respondents in this action.[2]Through Esau White's will, petitioner inherited all of his rights, title, and interest in "one hundred acres by level measurement" situate on the water of Little Beaver Creek, Beaver District, Nicholas County, West Virginia ("the property"). By deed dated May 6, 1974, petitioner conveyed a remainder interest in the full 100 acres of the property to Ronald R. White, under the following language: "The said Edith White hereby reserves unto herself for and during the term of her natural life, a life estate in and to the property herein described and conveyed." That deed was recorded with the Clerk of the County Commission of Nicholas County. Both petitioner and Ronald White lived on the property until November of 2008 when petitioner moved to a nursing home. Ronald White continued to live on the property until his death on August 28, 2012, and after that time his widow, Respondent Brenda J. White, continued to live on the property.

         While petitioner and Ronald R. White lived on the property, a farm was continuously operated by him. After Ronald R. White's death, his son, Respondent James Scott White, continued farming operations on the property. As holder of the remainder interest in the property, Ronald R. White executed various deeds and leases with respect to the property, including the following: 1) a 1978 deed executed by Ronald R. White and Brenda White conveying an easement to Respondent Monongahela Power Company across the property for their personal benefit, though petitioner did not sign that conveyance; 2) two oil and gas leases, one in 1980 and another in 2008, to the property, which were also not signed by petitioner; 3) by deed dated February 8, 2012, Ronald R. White and Brenda White conveyed 2.446 acres of the property to Respondent Kelli D. White, which deed expressly reserved unto Ronald R. White a life estate for the use, occupancy, and control of the 2.446 acres; and 4) by deed dated August 15, 2012, Ronald R. White and Brenda White conveyed the entire 100 acre tract, excepting the 2.446 acres previously conveyed to Kelli D. White, to Brenda White, James Scott White, and Kelli D. White, though the deed expressly reserved unto Ronald R. White a life estate in common with Brenda White and James Scott White, for their use, occupancy, and control of the subject real estate. However, by deed dated July 25, 2013, Kelli D. White relinquished her interest in the property and conveyed her interest in all but the 2.446 acres to Brenda White. Following Ronald R. White's death, James Scott White qualified as the administrator of his estate.

         By trust deed dated October 26, 2012, Kelli D. White conveyed her interest in the 2.446 acres of the property to secure the Bank of Gassaway on a promissory note in the amount of $125, 000. That money was used to build a home situated on the property, and during construction of the same there were no objections by petitioner or Naomi June Hutchinson. Thereafter, Respondent Premier Bank acquired or merged with the Bank of Gassaway. Kelli D. White defaulted on her loan, and by deed dated April 23, 2014, she conveyed her interest in the 2.446 acres to Premier Bank. Kelli D. White does not currently occupy or reside on the 2.446 acres or on any of the property.

         On June 24, 2013, petitioner executed a durable power of attorney appointing Naomi June Hutchinson as her power of attorney. No suit was brought against Ronald D. White or the other respondents related to the use of the property until this action was filed in 2014.

         According to the circuit court, the following structures exist on the property: 1) petitioner's unoccupied mobile home;[3] 2) a stick-built home built by Ronald R. White in 1985-86, which is occupied by Brenda White; 3) a double-wide mobile home placed on the property in 2006 by James Scott White, which is occupied by James Scott White and his wife, Michelle White; and 4) the stick-built home built by Kelli D. White on the 2.446 acres, which was unoccupied and owned by Premier Bank in May of 2016.

         Petitioner filed the underlying action on July 21, 2014, essentially seeking to eject all of the respondents from the property, have them remove and/or destroy all structures and homes on the property, and have them restore the property to its original condition as farm land, as well as seeking to extinguish all leases and easements. Petitioner also sought rent, royalties, and profits arising from respondents' residences on the property, farming operations, and oil and gas leases.

         On December 29, 2015, the circuit court entered an order denying a joint motion to dismiss for lack of standing but granting a motion to compel the deposition of petitioner. As part of that order, the circuit court found that while petitioner moved into a nursing home in 2008, she "had the ability to manage property or business affairs by receiving and evaluating information" in 2013.

         Respondents filed three motions to dismiss, all based on the doctrines of laches and estoppel, pursuant to Rule 12(b) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. On May 12, 2016, the circuit court entered its "Order Ruling on Defendants' Laches Motions; Dismissing Defendant Kelli D. White; Dismissing Defendant Premier Bank, Inc.; and Dismissing Defendant Monongahela Power Company." In its order, the circuit court stated that because the parties relied upon facts outside the pleadings in support of and in opposition to the motions to dismiss, each motion would be treated as one for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. The circuit court also found that petitioner does not contest the existence of the elements necessary for the application of laches, but she argued that laches is inapplicable and that summary judgment is not appropriate. In considering the parties' arguments, the circuit court stated that it was undisputed that petitioner holds a life estate in the property and that respondents, with the exception of Kelli D. White, each possess the remainder interest. It found that petitioner's life estate in the property would not be affected by the application of the doctrine of laches. It further held that because it is not an action of legal title, laches may apply to petitioner's equitable demands.

         Petitioner argued below that summary judgment was not appropriate because there were questions of fact as to the handling of the money from the farm, the sale of the cattle, rentals from use of the land, and additional issues. The circuit court stated that "[w]hile these facts may be disputed, they do not relate to or affect the [circuit c]ourt's ruling on the legal issue of the application of the doctrine of laches." The circuit court considered the elements of laches set forth in State ex rel. Smith v. Abbot, 187 W.Va. 261, 264-65, 418 S.E.2d 575, 578-79 (1992), and found that the existence of those elements was undisputed. Based on these findings, the circuit court concluded that there were no genuine issues of material fact regarding the application of laches and granted respondents summary judgment as to petitioner's claims for ejectment and damages.

         After dismissing a number of the claims in the complaint due to the application of laches, the remaining claims were the following: 1) petitioner's demand for the return of her mobile home steps and personal items or compensation for the same; 2) attorney's fees and costs; and 3) any other relief deemed appropriate by the court. Specifically, petitioner alleged that James Scott White removed the entrance steps to her mobile home, in addition to multiple personal items from inside the mobile home. The circuit court determined that laches did not bar that claim. It also concluded that

as a life-tenant, [petitioner] has the full right to occupy and use the [p]roperty. Notwithstanding [petitioner's] rights as a life tenant, the White [respondents] may continue to reside in their homes on the [p]roperty, rent free, and the White [respondents] are entitled to unrestricted ingress and egress to their residences and reasonable enjoyment of the property surrounding their residences. Similarly, the home owned by [respondent] Premier Bank on the 2.446 acres of the [p]roperty may remain and may be reasonably maintained by [respondent] Premier Bank or its agents or employees. However, for the remainder of ...

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