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Warhurst v. One Twenty Foot Bertran

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

March 13, 2015

ONE TWENTY FOOT BERTRAN, 1969 Model Year, bearing Alabama Registration No. AL8238LM, her engines, tackle, equipment, appurtenances, and attached travel trailer, etc., in rem, and DAVID L. JONES, in personam, Defendants.


KATHERINE P. NELSON, Magistrate Judge.

This action is before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for final disposition, with the express written consent of the parties, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See Docs. 15, 16. This lawsuit was tried before the Court, without a jury, December 30, 2014. (Doc. 62). Present at the trial were the following: plaintiff, Eugene Warhurst, Esq., along with his counsel of record, Gregory Buffalow, Esq., and defendant/counter-plaintiff David Jones, along with his counsel of record, Daniel Sayers, Esq.

In rendering judgment following a non-jury trial, FED. R. CIV. P. 52(a) requires the Court to make specific findings of fact and to state conclusions of law separately. The rule "does not require a finding on every contention raised by the parties, " but requires the Court to provide sufficient detail demonstrating that care was taken in ascertaining and analyzing the facts necessary to the decision and to provide "sufficient particularity" to facilitate meaningful review. Feazell v. Tropicana Prods., Inc., 819 F.2d 1036, 1042 (11th Cir. 1987). Thus, in accordance with the requirements of Rule 52(a), having heard and considered all of the testimony[1], evidence, and arguments presented at trial, the Court now enters the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.

I. Background and Principal Contentions of the Parties

This case involves the possession of a 20-foot Bertram[2] watercraft, 1969 Model Year, bearing Alabama Registration No. AL8238LM (hereafter "the Bertram", "the boat", or "the vessel") and sued here in rem. The value of the vessel is estimated at $15, 000. See Doc. 1 at 4. The parties do not contest title to the boat, which lies with Plaintiff Earnest Warhurst (hereafter "Plaintiff"). Rather, the parties contest possession of the boat, and Defendant David Jones (hereafter "Defendant") brings a counterclaim seeking payment for repairs made to the boat.[3]

The boat is currently under the arrest of the United States Marshal. (Doc. 2). Prior to being arrested, it was in the possession of the Defendant since at least June 2013 for the purposes of making repairs.[4] (Doc. 1 compare Doc. 9). The Plaintiff contends that he has fully paid for all repairs made by the Defendant and brings this Rule D Possessory action in order to restore his possession of the Bertram. The Plaintiff contends that the Defendant continues to withhold his boat (up until the time of arrest) despite requests for return. (Doc. 1 at 3).

In response, the Defendant[5] contends that he is owed $4, 1550.00 for repairs and improvements made to the boat. (Doc. 31 at 1). He further contends that his possession of the boat was based on a mechanic's lien due to the Plaintiff's non-payment. (Doc. 9 at 3) Jones also seeks fees of $10.00 per day for storing the boat from October 10, 2013 to June 6, 2014. (Doc. 31 at 2).

II. Jurisdiction

Venue and personal jurisdiction are proper because the events giving rise to this claim occurred in the Southern District of Alabama (Baldwin County). Whether subject-matter jurisdiction is proper has been a significant source of contention in this case. ( See Docs. 23, 36, 27). After ordering briefing and hearing oral arguments of counsel, the undersigned ultimately concluded that this Court has admiralty/maritime jurisdiction in this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1333 ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction... [over a]ny civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction...").[6]

"Under Rule D... a party can bring a claim for possession and to try title with respect to a vessel or other maritime property. Petitory suits are suits in which it is sought to try the title to a ship independently of any possession of the vessel' [while] possessory actions are actions to recover vessels or other property to which an owner, seaman or lienor is of right entitled.'" Santiago v. Evans, 2012 WL 3231025, at *3 (M.D. Fla. June 21, 2012) (quoting Thypin Steel Co. v. Asoma Corp., 215 F.3d 273, 282 (2d Cir. 2000)), report and recommendation adopted, 2012 WL 3231016 (M.D. Fla. Aug. 6, 2012), aff'd, 547 Fed.App'x 923 (11th Cir. Nov. 4, 2013) (per curiam).

As the former Fifth Circuit[7] explained in Richard Bertram & Co. v. The Yacht, Wanda , also "a suit in the nature of a possessory or petitory action brought in admiralty by the plaintiff[, ]... [t]he mere fact that a ship is involved will not bring [a] cause within the jurisdiction of the admiralty court." 447 F.2d 966 (5th Cir. 1971) at 967-68. Although, Plaintiff has alleged legal title to the defendant vessel (as is required under Supplemental Admiralty Rule D, as opposed to merely alleging equitable interest in the vessel[8]), Defendant has answered that legal title to the vessel is not in dispute. (Doc. 54 at 1-2). Defendant has furthered answered that his right to possession of the boat is based on a common-law lien, not the right of title; he contends that it is possession claims based on the right of title which are in the jurisdiction of the admiralty court. ( Id. )

It does not appear, either from Rule D or from other court opinions, that dispute of legal title is required for Rule D possessory action. Rule D makes note both of actions for possession and of actions to quiet title. FED. R. CIV. P. SUPP. D ("... actions for possession, partition, and to try title..."). Additionally, the former Fifth Circuit has recognized that suits for possession based on the claimant's right to title are properly within the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal judiciary. Gallagher v. Unenrolled Motor Vessel River Queen, 475 F.2d 117 (5th Cir. 1973) ( citing Ward v. Peck, 59 U.S. 267 (1855)). A possessory suit will not lie to "enforce a merely equitable title of one out of possession." Stathos v. The MARO, 134 F.Supp. 330, 332 (E.D. Va. 1955); see also The Nellie T., 235 F. 117 (2nd Cir. 1916). Admiralty jurisdiction also does not extend to a dispute over a contract to build a vessel, in part because the claimant has not yet possessed the vessel in question. Richard Bertram & Co. v. Yacht Wanda, 447 F.2d 966, 967 (5th Cir. 1971). Rather, a claimant must assert that he or she is the legal owner of a vessel and that he or she has been deprived of possession. Barsom v. P/V Aquidneck Ferry, 2013 WL 5447551, at *2 (D.R.I. Sept. 30, 2013).

Other courts have found Rule D possessory jurisdiction in lienor-type situations such as that presented by Defendant's mechanic's lien. In Gallagher, the former Fifth Circuit found that jurisdiction was proper in a dispute as to who should possess a boat following non-payment of slip rental. 475 F.2d 117 , 118 (1973). This set of facts is notably similar to the present case, where Defendant refused to release the Bertram due to unpaid repair bills. The fact that the opposing rights (mechanic's lien) alleged by the Defendant are based on state law does not defeat admiralty jurisdiction. Rather, jurisdiction is proper in a Rule D possessory suit where the Plaintiff alleges "ownership, right to immediate possession, [and] an unlawful... ...

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