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Littleton v. Wells

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

February 22, 2019

Rex Alan Littleton and Lyle Neal Littleton
Alan S. Wells and Sharee B. Wells

          Appeal from Chilton Circuit Court (CV-16-900001)


         Rex Alan Littleton ("Rex") and Lyle Neal Littleton ("Neal") appeal from a judgment of the Chilton Circuit Court ("the trial court") denying their claim of adverse possession of a disputed parcel of property ("the disputed property") in Chilton County and establishing a boundary line between the Littletons' property and the property of Alan S. Wells ("Scotty") and Sharee B. Wells. The Wellses filed the initial complaint in this matter, requesting that the trial court determine the boundary line between their property and that of the Littletons. In turn, the Littletons filed a counterclaim alleging adverse possession of the disputed property.

         The record indicates the following. On September 4, 2015, Georgia Blackmon sold approximately 82 acres of property to Scotty and Sharee Wells ("the Wells property"). Blackmon testified that that property had been in her family for at least three generations. To the west, the Wells property abuts two contiguous parcels of property, one parcel lying directly to the north of the other. The parcel to the north is owned by Neal; the parcel to the south is owned by Neal's brother, Rex. Those two parcels are hereinafter collectively referred to as "the Littleton property." The Littletons' parents had purchased the Littleton property in 1964, and each brother had been conveyed his individual parcel by their mother in July 2000, after their father's death in 1999.

         Blackmon testified that she used to visit what became the Wells property "all the time" when she was a child, but since roughly 1989, when she was about 14 years old, she said, she had been to the Wells property "maybe twice." Blackmon said that she did not know the names of the two creeks on the Wells property and that she had never maintained any fences on that property. She also said that she was never made aware of a dispute over where the boundary line between the Wells property and the Littleton property was located.

         Scotty testified that, before he purchased the land from Blackmon, he was made aware that there was a dispute regarding the ownership of a portion of the Wells property. He said that he spoke to Neal "to find where the property line was." Neal drove Scotty and his wife, Sharee, to a creek and pointed out three fence lines. Scotty described the three fence lines, saying one was on the Littleton property, a second one was "what [he] believe[d] is the original property line, which is on [Neal's] side of the creek," and a third fence line was on the Wellses' side of the creek. The disputed property is generally rectangular, with what the parties called a "bulge" in the middle of one side of the rectangle, running north and south along the eastern edge of the Littleton property, which is also the western edge of the Wells property. Scotty described the disputed property as "just wildland." He said that it sloped "steep downward" and that there were no pastures or gardens on the property. As discussed more fully below, Rex disputed Scotty's characterization of the disputed property. Scotty also said that Neal did not give him a definitive answer about where the boundary line between the Wells property and the Littleton property lay. Scotty also acknowledged that he had not had a survey performed. He said that, instead, he was relying on a 1964 survey "and I don't know that it goes bad."

         Ginger Moates, an employee in the Chilton County mapping office, testified that, in 2000, the mapping office found a "conflict" over the ownership of the disputed property.[1] She said that the owners of the property at that time would have been notified of the conflict, either via telephone or letter. Before the mapping office noted the conflict, Moates said, it considered the section or plat line to have been the boundary line, which would place the disputed property on the Wells property. However, Moates also testified that the plat lines or section lines were not to be considered specific property lines. She said that, on each of their maps, the office would include a disclaimer at the bottom reading: "'This is only for tax purposes only. Not for conveyance.'" The proper way to determine exact boundary lines, she said, was to have a survey performed.

         Rex testified that he recalled that, as a child, he would carry buckets of nails to help his uncles and grandfather work on the fence that Scotty had described as the third fence line, i.e., the fence line that was situated the farthest east. Rex marked an aerial photograph with x's along a line imposed on the map to indicate the fence he was discussing. That photograph is contained in the record as an exhibit. Although an actual fence cannot be seen in the photograph, Rex explained that he knew the location of the fence based on roads that are visible in the photograph. He testified that his father made the roads with a Caterpillar tractor, including one that ran from a barn, crossed a creek, and ended at the fence line on the eastern boundary of the disputed property. That road is clearly visible in the photograph. According to Rex, the road then turned north and ran along the fence. Rex said that his family had used the road to maintain the fence since 1964. He said that, since his father died in 1999, he and his brother, Neal, took turns "bush-hogging the road out" and cutting limbs from trees so that a pickup truck could be driven along the road. Before his father died, Rex said, he had helped maintain the road and the fence "off and on."

         Rex said that, to his knowledge, no one ever confronted anyone in his family when they were working on the road or the easternmost fence. No one in the Littleton family ever asked permission to maintain the road or that fence. He testified that their work on the fence was done during daylight hours. If a tree fell across the fence at night, however, Rex said, they would repair the fence at night because they had cows "down there," i.e., on the disputed property. Photographs of the third fence line show trees that have grown around the barbed wire. The fence has as many as seven strands of barbed wire. Some of the strands are old and rusty; some of the strands are much newer.

         Rex said that the Littletons had always thought the disputed property was theirs. They treated it as their own and grazed livestock on the disputed property. Members of the Littleton family hunted on the disputed property every year, Rex said. The family also held "weenie-roasts" at the creek running through the disputed property, and the children played in the creek. At one time, Rex testified, the Littletons leased the disputed property to another individual who kept horses on it.

         Rex testified that the Littleton family kept cows on the disputed property until the late 1990s. Neal testified that he agreed with Rex's testimony except for that last contention. Neal said that he had kept cows on the disputed property until about 2005 and that, at the time of the trial, he was keeping a mule on the property. Like Rex, Neal testified that he had always considered the third fence line, i.e., the easternmost fence line, to be the boundary line between the Littleton property and the Wells property.

         The parties stipulated that Rex and Neal's uncle, Royce Littleton, would testify to the same information previously given by Rex and Neal regarding use of the disputed property and maintenance of the road and the third fence line. The Littletons offered to have the surveyor who performed the 2000 survey testify as an expert witness; however, the trial judge stated that he did not need him to explain the survey, which is included as an exhibit in the record. The Littletons also offered to have people who were not relatives testify as to how the disputed property had been used. However, that testimony, too, would be cumulative, and, after talking with the trial court, they opted not to present additional testimony.

         On March 8, 2018, the trial court entered a judgment finding that the "line dividing the subject properties of the parties" was the quarter-quarter section line seen on maps and plats. The trial court stated: "Evidence of this fact was established, inter alia, by the testimony of Ms. Ginger Moates, a long-time employee of the mapping department of the Chilton County Tax Assessor's office." The trial court then set forth the description of the boundary line, specifying

"[t]hat the dividing line [between the Littleton property and the Wells property] is found to be the Quarter Section/Quarter Section line running along the West side of the Wells' property (described as the West boundary line of the East half of the Southwest Quarter of Section 22, Township 23, Range 15, Chilton County) and the East side of the Littletons' property (Described as the East boundary line of the Northwest Quarter of the Southwest Quarter of Section 22, Township 23, Range 15, Chilton Count (Neal Littleton's parcel) and the East boundary line of the Southwest Quarter of the Southwest Quarter of Section 22, Township 23, Range 15, Chilton County (Rex Littleton's parcel))."

         The trial court ordered the Wellses to have a survey conducted depicting what it called "the disputed line" and stated that it would then adopt that line as the true boundary line, which it did in a March 27, 2018, order. The trial court also ...

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