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Harrell v. Cain

Supreme Court of West Virginia

June 5, 2019

JAMES H. HARRELL, JR. and BETSY J. HARRELL, Defendants Below, Petitioners
v.
GWENDOLYN CAIN, Executrix of the Estate of Arthur E. Lewis, deceased; PAUL ALFORD, individually; and AMBRIA ALFORD, an infant by and through her guardian, Gwendolyn Cain, Plaintiffs Below, Respondents

          Submitted: April 23, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Hancock County The Honorable Jason A. Cuomo, Judge Civil Action No. 10-C-100

          William J. Leon, Esq. William J. Leon, LC Morgantown, West Virginia Counsel for the Petitioners

          Thomas J. Decapio, Esq. Kevin M. Pearl, Esq. Frankovitch, Anetakis, Simon, Decapio & Pearl, LLP Weirton, West Virginia Counsel for the Respondents

          JUSTICE WORKMAN dissents and reserves the right to file a separate opinion.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "Deeds are subject to the principles of interpretation and construction that govern contracts generally." Syl. Pt. 3, Faith United Methodist Church & Cemetery of Terra Alta v. Morgan, 231 W.Va. 423, 745 S.E.2d 461 (2013).

         2. "In reviewing challenges to the findings and conclusions of the circuit court made after a bench trial, a two-pronged deferential standard of review is applied. The final order and the ultimate disposition are reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard, and the circuit court's underlying factual findings are reviewed under a clearly erroneous standard. Questions of law are subject to a de novo review." Syl. Pt. 1, Pub. Citizen, Inc. v. First Nat'l Bank in Fairmont, 198 W.Va. 329, 480 S.E.2d 538 (1996).

         3. The determination of whether a deed, contract, or other writing is ambiguous and does not clearly express the intention of the parties is a question of law to be determined by the court.

         4. If a circuit court finds that a deed, contract, or other writing is ambiguous and does not clearly express the intention of the parties, then the proper interpretation of that ambiguous document, when the facts are in dispute, presents a question of fact for the factfinder to resolve after considering all relevant extrinsic evidence.

         5. "For ascertainment of the intent of the parties to a deed in which the description of the subject matter is inconsistent, contradictory and ambiguous, extrinsic evidence is admissible." Syl. Pt. 1, State v. Herold, 76 W.Va. 537, 85 S.E. 733 (1915).

         6. "To enable the court to construe a deed or other writing, ambiguous on its face, it is always permissible to prove the situation of the parties, the circumstances surrounding them when the contract was entered into and their subsequent conduct giving it a practical construction, but not their verbal declarations. But, if a latent ambiguity is disclosed by such evidence, such for instance as that the terms of the writing are equally applicable to two or more objects, when only a certain one of them was meant, then prior and contemporaneous transactions and collocutions of the parties are admissible, for the purpose of identifying the particular object intended." Syllabus Point 2, Snider v. Robinett, 78 W.Va. 88, 88 S.E. 599 (1916).

         7. "Where there is ambiguity in a deed, or where it admits of two constructions, that one will be adopted which is most favorable to the grantee." Syllabus Point 6, Paxton v. Benedum-Trees Oil Co., 80 W.Va. 187, 94 S.E. 472 (1917).

          OPINION

          HUTCHISON, JUSTICE

         In this appeal from the Circuit Court of Hancock County, we review the circuit court's January 26, 2018, declaratory judgment order issued after a bench trial. The circuit court's order interpreted a 1977 quitclaim deed whereby the grantor gave the grantee a parcel of land. However, the grantor imprecisely defined the parcel's southern border in the deed, leaving two questions: whether the grantee received a 93.15-acre parcel or only a 33-acre parcel; and if the grantee received only a 33-acre parcel, then who owned the remaining 60.15 acres. The parties are successors of the grantor and grantee.

         After finding the 1977 deed was ambiguous, the trial court conducted a bench trial. Substantial evidence was produced that, in the decades after 1977, the grantor, the grantee, their spouses, their families and their heirs conducted themselves as though the grantee owned the entire 93.15-acre parcel. Accordingly, the circuit court entered judgment for the grantee's successors. The grantor's successors now appeal.

         As we discuss below, we find no error in the circuit court's findings and affirm the circuit court's declaratory judgment order.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Raymond Lewis and Arthur Lewis were brothers. In 1966, Raymond and Arthur (and their respective spouses[1]) purchased a roughly 185-acre parcel in Hancock County. An east-west road crossed the parcel, the "old Lawrenceville Road" (now designated as West Virginia State Route 16/2). Raymond and Arthur owned the parcel as tenants in common, and over the years conveyed around 48 of the 185 acres in their parcel to others.

         Eleven years later, Arthur informed Raymond that he wished to build a house on the parcel. In response, Raymond and Arthur (and their spouses) exchanged quitclaim deeds with one another to divide their remaining 137 acres. On November 29, 1977, Arthur delivered a quitclaim deed conveying to Raymond all the land north of the old Lawrenceville Road. Raymond's tract was defined entirely by metes and bounds. However, the parties now agree that Raymond's tract consisted of about 40 acres, leaving about 93.15 acres[2] in the names of both brothers. The parties do not dispute Raymond's tract.

         This case centers on the November 29, 1977, quitclaim deed that Raymond gave to Arthur (the "Arthur Deed"). The quitclaim deed conveyed a parcel south of the old Lawrenceville Road. The Arthur Deed adequately describes the western, northern, and eastern boundaries of the parcel with metes and bounds. Problematically, it does not describe the southern boundary with sufficient specificity to determine whether Raymond intended to convey to Arthur all, or only part, of the parties' acreage south of the old Lawrenceville Road. Arthur's successors contend Raymond conveyed to Arthur all 93.15 acres south of the old Lawrenceville Road; Raymond's successors contend that only about 33 acres of the land was conveyed, and that they own the remaining 60 acres as tenants in common with Arthur's successors.

         The parties' arguments focus on the southern boundary of Arthur's parcel. Although the property had an inverted "V"-shaped southern border, the Arthur Deed describes the southern boundary with a straight line. Moreover, the deed description fails to delineate where the southern boundary line begins or ends. Specifically, the deed description contains a call which reads: "beginning at a point on the Pennsylvania State Line, then North 68°, 54' -11" West to the centerline of the dirt road[.]"[3] There is nothing in the deed to suggest where this starting "point" on the state line was located. This boundary line had not been in any prior deed.

         The circuit court found at the bench trial that, after Raymond and Arthur divided their lands in 1977, the brothers and their families acted as though Arthur was the sole owner of all of the land south of the old Lawrenceville Road (now a 93.15-acre parcel). It was not until 2005, when First Energy Corporation ("First Energy") approached Arthur seeking to buy a 4.446-acre lot, that Arthur and his family, as well as Raymond's family, first learned of the flawed border description in the Arthur Deed. First Energy revealed that, in its title search, it found that the southern border of Arthur's parcel did not close.[4]

         The plaintiffs in this case are Arthur's descendants in title. Arthur Lewis died testate in 2006 still owning his parcel south of the old Lawrenceville Road.[5] By his will, Arthur left the parcel to his grandsons, Dexter Alford and plaintiff Paul Alford. When Dexter died in 2008, plaintiff Ambria Alford (then a minor) inherited Dexter's one-half share of the parcel via intestate succession. Plaintiff Gwendolyn Cain was Arthur's daughter, executor of Arthur's estate, and the guardian of Ambria Alford.

         The defendants are Raymond's descendants in title. Raymond died in 1994, and his wife died in 1996. Their son and daughter-in-law, Thomas and Vicki Lewis, [6]inherited ownership of Raymond's 40-acre parcel. However, in June 2008, Thomas and Vicki Lewis gave a quitclaim deed to the defendants and petitioners in this appeal, James and Betsy Harrell. The description in the quitclaim deed to the Harrells is not limited to the 40-acre parcel, but rather purports to convey all of Raymond's interest in the 185-acre tract (less several conveyances) that he owned as tenant in common with Arthur between 1966 and 1977.

         The plaintiffs contend that the 1977 Arthur Deed conveyed to Arthur all of the remaining acreage owned by the brothers south of the old Lawrenceville Road, a parcel the parties say is 93.15 acres in size. However, once the defendants received their quitclaim deed from Raymond's heirs in 2008, disputes began between the defendants and the plaintiffs. The defendants claimed the Arthur Deed only conveyed a parcel south of the old Lawrenceville Road about 33 acres in size. Therefore, the defendants asserted their right to enter the remaining 60 acres south of that parcel, as tenants in common with the plaintiffs.

         The plaintiffs filed the instant case against the defendants for a declaratory judgment to quiet title in 2010. The plaintiffs asked for a judgment declaring that the defendants owned no interest in the 93.15-acre parcel south of the old Lawrenceville Road, and declaring that plaintiffs Paul Alford and Ambria Alford owned the parcel in equal undivided one-half shares.

         In April 2017, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The plaintiffs argued that the 1977 Arthur Deed was ambiguous, but that Raymond and Arthur's conduct after 1977 established that Raymond and Arthur believed and acted as though Arthur owned all of the 93.15 acres south of the old Lawrenceville Road. The defendants argued that while the Arthur Deed "appears to be ambiguous," Raymond's and Arthur's constructive knowledge of property boundaries revealed by a title examination back to the 1850s removes that ambiguity and shows Raymond intended to convey to Arthur only about 33 acres.

         In an order dated May 2, 2017, the circuit court granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiffs. The court examined the language of the 1977 Arthur Deed and found that "the metes and bounds within the description [of Arthur's parcel] are inaccurate and fail[] to close the southern border of the property purported to be conveyed." Because of this, the circuit court could not determine whether the intent of Raymond was to convey to Arthur a mere 33 acres, or the entire 93.15 acres, south of the old Lawrenceville Road. The circuit court therefore declared that the Arthur Deed was ambiguous, and granted judgment to the plaintiffs on this legal question alone.

         The circuit court then cited the common-law rule that "[d]eeds are subject to the principles of interpretation and construction that govern contracts generally." Syl. Pt. 3, Faith United Methodist Church & Cemetery of Terra Alta v. Morgan, 231 W.Va. 423, 745 S.E.2d 461 (2013). To construe an inconsistent or ambiguous writing, the court recognized that it needed to weigh extrinsic evidence of the intent of the parties to the writing. To do this, the circuit court understood it needed to evaluate the evidence regarding Raymond and Arthur's conduct before and after their exchange of quitclaim deeds in 1977.

         On August 8, 2017, the circuit court conducted a bench trial and allowed the plaintiffs and defendants to present evidence regarding Raymond and Arthur's intent behind the ambiguous 1977 Arthur Deed. The plaintiffs' evidence was that, during their lifetimes and after 1977, Arthur and Raymond agreed and acted as though Arthur owned the entire 93.15-acre parcel south of the old Lawrenceville Road. As Arthur's daughter testified, Raymond "took the nice 40 acres, the nice level ground" north of the old Lawrenceville Road while her "dad took the other side [of the road], the hills." Arthur made numerous improvements to the 93.15-acre parcel, all at his own expense. For instance, Arthur built a house that he and his wife lived in. He also built a lake that he then stocked with fish, cut and maintained trails with a bulldozer, and allowed his grandsons and their friends to build a cabin on the disputed portion of the 93.15-acre parcel. He also built fences. Conversely, Raymond made no improvements to the acreage south of the old Lawrenceville Road.

         Several other witnesses testified that Arthur used the 93.15-acre parcel as his own, and that he brush-hogged the land; ran rabbit dogs, hunted deer and turkey, fished and camped on the land; and grew gardens. One witness testified that, in 1988, Arthur gave him a handwritten permission slip to hunt on the entire 93.15-acre parcel, and that in the 1990s he frequently hunted on the parcel. The witness said that on one occasion, he met Arthur and Raymond on the road separating their properties. Arthur explained to the witness that he was allowed to hunt on the southern side of the old Lawrenceville Road; Raymond said he was raising pheasants on his property, so he did not want anyone hunting on his parcel on the northern side of the Road.

         The plaintiffs' evidence also showed that Arthur had the 93.15-acre parcel logged three times, in the 1980s, 1990s, and in the early 2000s. Arthur kept all of the money paid for the timber. Similarly, Raymond had his 40-acre parcel logged; Raymond kept all of the money from the sale of that timber for himself.

         Plaintiff Paul Alford testified that his grandfather, Arthur Lewis, had walked with him and shown him the boundaries of his land as encompassing the entire 93.15 acres. Plaintiff Gwendolyn Cain (Paul's mother and Arthur's daughter) described how, in 1990, Arthur tried to persuade her to build a house, barn and cattle farm on the portion of the 93.15-acre parcel that the defendants claim they now own in common with the plaintiffs. Mrs. Cain declined to build on the land, but went on to describe how Raymond and Arthur had conveyed to her a half-acre tract in the early 1970s that adjoined what is now the disputed portion of Arthur's parcel. Mrs. Cain also testified that she was the executor of Arthur's estate after he died in 2006. She described that Arthur's will (executed in 2000) bequeathed to her son Dexter, as the sole owner, a six-acre tract that surrounded her half-acre tract. This six-acre tract is located entirely within the disputed area claimed by the defendants.

         The plaintiffs also offered the circuit court evidence regarding the real estate taxes paid on the land. The evidence showed that, after 1977, Arthur paid all of the taxes on the entire 93.15-acre parcel.[7] After Arthur's death, plaintiff Paul Alford paid the taxes on the entire 93.15-acre parcel.

         Lastly, the plaintiffs relied on documents from the estates of Raymond Lewis and his wife, Jean Lewis. When Raymond died in 1993, an appraisal of his estate signed under oath by Jean did not identify Raymond having any ownership interest in Arthur's 93.15-acre parcel. Instead, the appraisal showed ownership only of the 40-acre tract north of the old Lawrenceville Road. Similarly, when Jean died in 1996, an appraisal of her estate signed under oath by her son, Thomas Lewis, did not identify Jean as having an interest in the 93.15-acre parcel. The plaintiffs also offered testimony that, ...


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