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Casey v. Bingham

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

May 11, 2018

Calvin Casey
Pam Bingham and Chris Bingham

          Appeal from Marshall Circuit Court (CV-16-37)

          PITTMAN, JUDGE.

         Calvin Casey, the defendant in an action seeking possession of land, appeals from a judgment entered in favor of the plaintiffs, Pam Bingham ("Bingham") and her husband, Chris Bingham, by the Marshall Circuit Court after a pretrial hearing. We reverse and remand.

         The abbreviated record in this appeal indicates that Casey and Bingham were formerly married to each other and that, during their marriage, a residence that they occupied with their son was located on a tract of land in Marshall County measuring approximately six and a half acres. There are no deeds evidencing any conveyances of the property, or any portion thereof, in the record, but the judgment under review refers to a previous order entered by the Marshall Circuit Court in July 2016 in a separate action involving these same parties ("the quiet-title/declaratory-judgment action") indicating that the entire tract formerly had belonged to Bingham's father and mother, Charles Stephens and Patricia Stephens. According to Casey's postjudgment motion, a .86-acre parcel of property -- which a survey document attached to the circuit court's judgment indicates is completely contained within the larger approximately 6.5-acre tract -- was conveyed to Bingham and Casey during their marriage. In 2003, Casey and Bingham divorced, but they continued to own the .86-acre parcel as tenants in common until 2007, when Bingham conveyed her interest in the parcel to Casey. Title to the remaining five-plus acres in the larger tract, on which were located two metal buildings referred to by Casey as "the barn" and "the shop, " apparently remained in Charles and Patricia Stephens. However, the Stephenses themselves were divorced in 2004 by a judgment of the Madison Circuit Court, and the July 2016 order of the Marshall Circuit Court indicates that, pursuant to the settlement agreement incorporated into their divorce judgment, the Stephenses retained title to the five-plus acres ("the disputed tract") as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. In contrast, Casey testified, in an affidavit attached to his postjudgment motion, that the Stephenses had agreed to convey the disputed tract to him after the Stephenses' divorce judgment was entered and that Patricia Stephens had actually executed a quitclaim deed to do that; however, Casey further testified that Bingham had convinced Charles Stephens not to sign a deed conveying the disputed tract to him because of an ongoing postmarital dispute between Casey and Bingham.

         According to Casey's affidavit, after Patricia Stephens died in 2012, Charles Stephens executed a deed in which he conveyed his interests in the disputed tract to Bingham and her husband, and Bingham offered to sell that tract to Casey (who, for all that appears in the record, declined to purchase the rights of Bingham and her husband therein). Rather, Casey continued to use both the .86-acre parcel and the disputed tract, and he brought a quiet-title action against Bingham and her husband in the Marshall Circuit Court based upon the quitclaim deed he had received from Patricia Stephens during her lifetime; Bingham and her husband responded by asserting a counterclaim seeking a judgment declaring that they and not Casey were the rightful owners of the disputed tract because of Charles Stephens's deed to them. The quiet-title/declaratory-judgment action yielded the July 2016 order ruling that Casey's quitclaim deed was void and that title to the disputed tract had been vested in Charles Stephens by virtue of his having survived Patricia Stephens; that order also provided that "[a]ll other relief requested which is not granted herein is hereby denied."

         In October 2016, Bingham and her husband brought an action in the Marshall District Court against Casey. In their Form C-59 complaint ("Statement of Claim -- Eviction/Unlawful Detainer") filed in the district court, Bingham and her husband demanded the immediate possession of the disputed tract (which was identified in the complaint by its mailing address in Arab). The stated basis for the plaintiffs' contention that Casey no longer had the right to possess the disputed tract was the order that had been entered by the Marshall Circuit Court in the quiet-title/declaratory-judgment action in July 2016. Notice of the district-court action was posted at the disputed tract on Sunday, October 9, 2016, and Casey, through counsel, filed an answer denying the plaintiffs' contentions on Monday, October 17, 2016.[1]

         On October 28, 2016, the district court set a trial date of November 7, 2016.[2] However, on the date of trial, counsel for Casey moved for a continuance because, she averred, she had four other matters scheduled for a trial on that date; the district court, citing Ala. Code 1975, § 35-9A-461, a portion of the Alabama Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act governing residential-eviction actions, denied the requested continuance on the stated basis that the action commenced by Bingham and her husband was entitled to precedence in scheduling over all other civil cases.

         The case was called by the district court for trial as scheduled on November 7, 2016, and, although the plaintiffs were present, Casey was not present; the district court then proceeded to swear in witnesses and take testimony and entered a judgment on that date awarding possession of the disputed tract to Bingham and her husband. On November 9, 2016, Casey filed a postjudgment motion pursuant to Rule 59(dc), Ala. R. Civ. P., requesting that the district court vacate its judgment and hold a new trial with Casey's counsel in attendance; however, the district court denied that motion on November 14, 2016.

         Under Article 8 of Chapter 6, Ala. Code 1975, a party may appeal from a judgment entered in an action alleging unlawful detainer or forcible entry and detainer from the district court to the circuit court within seven days; similarly, under Ala. Code 1975, § 35-9A-461(d), any party may appeal to circuit court from an eviction judgment entered by a district court within seven days. On November 21, 2016, seven days after the denial of Casey's postjudgment motion (the pendency of which tolled the time for taking an appeal, see Ala. Code 1975, §§ 35-9A-461(d) and 12-12-70(a)), Casey filed a notice of appeal to the Marshall Circuit Court and indicated a jury demand thereon. With certain exceptions that are not pertinent in this case, Ala. Code 1975, § 12-12-71, provides that "all appeals from final judgments of the district court shall be to the circuit court for trial de novo" (emphasis added). Despite the jury demand in the notice of appeal, the circuit court initially set the case for a bench trial on April 20, 2017; however, that court determined that that setting had been the result of a clerical error and later set the case for a jury trial on June 19, 2017. However, on June 6, 2017, the circuit court removed the case from the June 19, 2017, trial docket and instead set it "for pretrial hearing" on that date. At the request of Casey's counsel, the circuit court entered an order stating that "[t]he pretrial hearing in this matter is reset for June 20, 2017."

         Despite having set the case only for a pretrial hearing, the circuit court entered, on August 15, 2017, a final judgment in favor of Bingham and her husband. In its judgment, the circuit court described the November 7, 2016, judgment of the district court as being a default judgment in an unlawful-detainer action, and, despite the de novo nature of Casey's appeal, the circuit court indicated that it had, at the June 20, 2017, pretrial hearing, "review[ed] the action of the [d]istrict [c]ourt"; had "reviewed facts"; had "reviewed court records" in the district-court action (as well as in the previous quiet-title/declaratory-judgment action in the Marshall Circuit Court involving the parties and the divorce action in the Madison Circuit Court involving the Stephenses); and had "heard the arguments from both sides." The circuit court further expressly determined that the July 2016 order in the quiet-title/declaratory-judgment action was a final judgment, notwithstanding Casey's counsel's contention that certain claims remained unadjudicated in that action; that the two metal structures "discussed in the hearing ... in [d]istrict [c]ourt ... and personal property being contained in th[em] are clearly located and affixed to the real ... property of [Bingham and her husband]"; that "continued burning of trash or other items on the [disputed tract] by [Casey and his wife] can be considered trespass to land and a danger to the Bingham property, and therefore must stop"; and that Casey and his wife were to remove any items of personal property inside the two metal structures on the disputed tract within 30 days. The circuit court attached to its judgment the district court's judgment, a document indicating the results of a 2013 survey of the disputed tract, an aerial photograph of the disputed tract, and a copy of the July 2016 order in the quiet-title/declaratory-judgment action.

         Casey timely filed a postjudgment motion pursuant to Rule 59, Ala. R. Civ. P., in which he contended, among other things, that the circuit court had erred in "upholding" the district court's denial of the requested continuance and that court's "default judgment"; Casey also contended that the circuit court had erred in reaching the merits of the case at a scheduled pretrial hearing without notice to Casey. Attached to Casey's motion was his own affidavit, in which he testified that the circuit court, at the June 20, 2017, pretrial hearing, had reviewed documentary exhibits, including "binders with pictures in them, " that Bingham and her husband had brought to the hearing. The circuit court denied that postjudgment motion, and Casey appealed to this court.

         On appeal, in his first three issues, Casey reasserts his contentions regarding the propriety of the district court's determinations regarding whether his answer was timely, whether a continuance was due to be granted on November 7, 2016, and whether the district court properly proceeded to determine the merits in Casey's absence notwithstanding Casey's contention that the circuit court's July 2016 order in the quiet-title/declaratory-judgment action was nonfinal.[3]Bingham and her husband, in their appellees' brief, correctly note that the circuit court's role in this case was to hear the cause de novo and not to assess the correctness of the district court's judgment; our review, in turn, is limited to the correctness of the judgment of the circuit court, not the district court, as our decision in Crews v. Jackson, 218 So.3d 368 (Ala. Civ. App. 2016), makes clear:

"We note that it appears that a portion of Crews's arguments on appeal pertain to orders entered by the district court. Crews's appeal to the circuit court was a de novo appeal. See Ala. Code 1975, § 12-12-71 ('Except as provided in Section 12-12-72[, Ala. Code 1975, ] and in subsection (e) of Section 12-15-120, [Ala. Code 1975, ] all appeals from final judgments of the district court shall be to the circuit court for trial de novo.').
"'"'Alabama cases have consistently held that a trial de novo means an entirely new trial, "as if no trial had ever been had, and just as if it had originated in the circuit court." Cloverleaf Land Co. v. State, 276 Ala. 443, 163 So.2d 602 (1964).'" State v. Reynolds, 887 So.2d 848, 853 (Ala. 2004) (quoting Ex parte Palughi, 494 So.2d 404, 408 (Ala. 1986)). "A trial de novo ... means 'trying anew the matters involved in the original hearing as if they had not been heard before and as if no decision had been previously entered.'" Neal v. First Alabama Bank of Huntsville, N.A., 440 So.2d ...

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