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HUGH H. LEARD AND LILLIAN C. LEARD v. WESLEY B. BRELAND AND BEVERLY I. BRELAND

OCTOBER 28, 1987

HUGH H. LEARD AND LILLIAN C. LEARD
v.
WESLEY B. BRELAND AND BEVERLY I. BRELAND



EN BANC:

PRATHER, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

The measure of damages to a growing crop is the central issue addressed in this opinion. This appeal arises from a decision of the Chancery Court of Stone County, Mississippi wherein Hugh H. Leard and his wife, landowners and defendants below, were found to have breached a lease contract entered into with their lessees, Wesley B. Breland and his wife, plaintiffs below. The Leards appeal assigning the following errors:

(1) The finding of the learned chancellor is contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence.

 (2) The learned chancellor erred in failing to recognize the obligations undertaken by the parties in their lease contract or agreement as written.

 (3) The lower court erred in failing to find for the appellants and in failing to award them damages as shown by the evidence to repair the damage caused by lessees' failure to comply with the lease.

 (4) The lower court failed to comply with the maxims of equity.

 (5) Even if the plaintiffs were entitled to prevail, which the appellants deny, the learned chancellor erred in applying the proper measure of damages.

 I.

 On September 29, 1981 the parties above entered into an agricultural lease agreement covering 260 acres of crop land owned by the Leards in Stone County, Mississippi. The lease, prepared by Leard, was for a term of three years beginning

 January 1, 1982 and ending December 31, 1984. The litigation arose when the Leards exercised their right of re-entry for condition broken after the Brelands allegedly failed to comply with the paragraph of the lease pertaining to the use, maintenance, care, waste and rent of the land.

 The bi-annual lease rental payment of $5,460.00, due January 1, 1982 was paid by Breland. Payments made during the first lease period exceeded the initial installment due by approximately $1,000. Leard granted Breland an extension or time for rent payment due on June 15, 1982 until August 10, 1982, and a further extension of the August 10th payment to November 1, 1982. Breland testified that he paid additional monies to secure extensions and that Mr. Leard had agreed and typed documents to verify the extensions.

 Breland testified that he and Leard got along well and that Leard was satisfied with Breland's performance and his decision to allow all but 85 acres of the crop land to remain fallow for the summer crop year of 1982. Breland disked all the acreage twice and was going to disk the property a third time in mid-October. A large volume of soybean stem and weed residue left windrowed on the property by a prior lessee had caused extensive problems for him in tilling the soil.

 Although all the land was not placed in crops during the initial summer, Breland testified that he cultivated the soil, and prepared it for later crop production. Breland further claimed that he had cleared a 20 foot road-bed as required by the lease. Breland submitted documents to indicate that the property had been fertilized and that lime had been applied which had a useful life of two to three years.

 To the contrary however, Leard testified that he contacted Breland soon after Breland's possession of the land to point out ditches, grass waterways and terraces to be maintained. Yet, testified Leard, Breland failed to comply with his instructions. Leard contends that as late as May, 1982 Breland had done nothing to prepare the soil for soybean crop, normally planted in April, May or June. The crop was planted in late June and early July. Although the lease required no specific acreage of land to be planted nor that any maintenance be performed within a specific time Leard testified that he was concerned about the condition of the land, the failure to plant other acreage of the land, the failure to control weeds, brush, and erosion, and the payment of rent.

 Breland, however, testified that there were no problems

 between himself and Leard until sometime around September 25, 1982, when Leard learned that Breland had Federal Crop insurance and Leard insisted that Breland assign the benefits payable under the insurance policy to him. Breland refused.

 On September 30, 1982 Leard mailed Breland a copy of a letter written by Leard to Mr. James J. Riley with All-Risk Crop Insurance. The letter indicated that Breland was past due on rental payments and that Leard intended to exercise his right of re-entry to harvest the crops as provided in the lease agreement.

 On October 4th Leard wrote Breland that he would make immediate re-entry for the purpose of harvesting the crop. Breland testified that that very same day, he went to the farm and saw Leard's workmen cutting the immature soybean crop for hay. Leard sold the hay and retained the proceeds. Breland filed this action for breach of the lease agreement alleging that the Leards were in direct violation of the lease and had caused damages in the approximate sum of $90,000. The lower court found in favor of the Brelands awarding them damages and possession of the acreage, rent free, pending the resolution of litigation in this case. Counsel represented in oral argument, however, that the landowner has been in possession of the farm land continuously since October 4, 1982, notwithstanding the lessee's award of possession. Therefore, the issues are narrowed to the year 1982.

 II.

 Was the finding of the chancellor contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence and erroneous in failing to recognize the contractual obligations?

 At trial, there was sharp conflicting evidence offered on behalf of Breland and of Leard as to the issue of Breland's contractual breach. Leard contends that his act to re-enter upon condition broken was precipitated by Breland's failure to perform the terms of the lease and of his failure to make rental payments on time. Yet the record documents a clear and unambiguous memorandum, signed by both parties, granting an extension for such rental payments. Leard testified that Breland had failed to provide" good ...


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