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Crowell v. Butts

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

December 10, 2013

WILLIE CROWELL, APPELLANT
v.
ANNE BUTTS D/B/A MAGNOLIA WRECKER & TOWING SERVICE AND FANI ATKINSON, APPELLEES

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 04/12/2012

Page 720

HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, HON. WINSTON L. KIDD, TRIAL JUDGE

FOR APPELLANT: ANDREW ROSS WILSON.

FOR APPELLEES: MICHAEL LEE DULANEY, DANIEL SIDNEY DALE.

ROBERTS, J. LEE, C.J., GRIFFIS, P.J., ISHEE, CARLTON, MAXWELL AND FAIR, JJ., CONCUR. JAMES, J., CONCURS IN PART AND DISSENTS IN PART WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION, JOINED BY IRVING, P.J., AND BARNES, J.

OPINION

Page 721

EN BANC

ROBERTS, J.

¶1. After Willie Crowell fell behind in his rent payments, his landlord changed the locks on his auto-repair shop and had the vehicles on the property towed. Crowell filed a replevin action against the towing company for the return of the vehicles, and an unlawful-reentry action against his landlord. The trial court involuntarily dismissed both claims as meritless. We reverse. Crowell met the statutory requirements to maintain his replevin action, and the evidence showed Crowell's landlord acted without authority in using self-help to reenter the property. The replevin action is remanded, as a full hearing is necessary to determine which party has a superior possessory right to the towed vehicles. The unlawful-reentry issue is rendered in favor of Crowell, as the landlord failed to provide Crowell with a notice and hearing before reentering the property.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶2. On December 21, 2009, Crowell entered a handwritten one-year lease agreement with Fani Atkinson for the rental of one acre of land and a metal building owned by Atkinson. The term of the lease was from January 1, 2010, to December 1, 2010. Crowell used the premises as an auto-repair shop. After Crowell became several months delinquent in his rent, Atkinson issued Crowell a notice of default on August 18, 2010. As of the date of the notice, Crowell owed $2,250 in past-due rent. The notice informed Crowell that he had until September 19, 2010, to clear his delinquency or vacate the property. The notice also provided that on September 18, 2010, all equipment on the premises would be towed and impounded, and Crowell would be denied access to the premises after that date.

¶3. According to Crowell, he approached Atkinson on Friday, September 17, 2010, and offered to give her $2,800 in cash to extinguish his delinquency, but Atkinson refused. However, Atkinson denies this allegation. Atkinson contacted Anne Butts of Magnolia Wrecker & Towing Service to remove thirty-seven vehicles from the premises in the early morning hours between midnight and 5 a.m. on Sunday, September 19, 2010. Butts towed all thirty-seven vehicles to her business establishment. After the vehicles were towed, Atkinson replaced the lock on the property gate

Page 722

with a new one. Later that day, Crowell arrived at the property and found that he had been locked out, and that all of his personal property, including the thirty-seven vehicles he claimed he rightfully possessed, had been removed.

¶4. On October 12, 2010, Crowell filed a replevin action in the County Court of Hinds County, naming Atkinson and Butts, d/b/a Magnolia Wrecker, as defendants. A bench trial was held in county court on May 3, 2011. Crowell testified and called Atkinson and Butts as adverse witnesses. Atkinson claimed her reentry was lawful because Crowell was behind on his rent, and Butts claimed that she rightfully possessed the vehicles through a statutory lien for the unpaid towing/storage fees. Crowell countered that because Atkinson unlawfully ordered the vehicles towed, he should not have to pay the towing/storage fees. Crowell also sought to discuss Atkinson's breach of the lease agreement. However, the trial court was informed that Crowell had a separate civil action pending against Atkinson and Butts covering all matters surrounding the lease agreement. Thus, the trial court declined to address those issues.

¶5. At the conclusion of Crowell's case-in-chief, Atkinson and Butts moved for an involuntary dismissal. [1] Finding that Crowell failed to show he was entitled to immediate possession of the vehicles and that Atkinson lawfully reentered the property, the trial court dismissed Crowell's case with prejudice. Crowell appealed to the Hinds County Circuit Court, which affirmed the county's court decision. Crowell now appeals the circuit court's order.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶6. The grant or denial of a motion under Rule 41(b) must be supported by substantial evidence and is reviewed for manifest error. Milligan v. Milligan, 956 So.2d 1066, 1072 (¶ 14) (Miss.Ct.App. 2007) (citing Stewart v. Merchs. Nat'l Bank, 700 So.2d 255, 259 (Miss. 1997)). " Involuntary dismissals are rightly granted during a non[]jury trial pursuant to Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure 41(b) at the close of the plaintiff's case-in-chief for failure to show a right to relief." Milligan, 956 So.2d at 1072 (¶ 14) (citing Glover v. Jackson State Univ., 755 So.2d 395, 404 (¶ 23) (Miss. 2000)). Unlike the standard for a motion for a directed verdict, " the [trial court] should review the evidence fairly, and not in the light most favorable to the plaintiff . . . ." Id. (citing Century 21 Deep S. Properties Ltd. v. Corson, 612 So.2d 359, 369 (Miss. 1992)). " The result is that the ruling for an involuntary dismissal is practically equivalent to a finding of fact." Id. (quoting Ainsworth v. Callon Petroleum Co., 521 So.2d 1272, 1274 (Miss. 1987)).

¶7. Because this appeal originated in county court, " [t]he county court was the fact[-]finder, and the circuit court, as well as [the appellate court], are bound by the judgment of the county court if supported by substantial evidence and not manifestly wrong." Patel v. Telerent Leasing Corp., 574 So.2d 3, 6 (Miss. 1990). We must " assume[] the [county court] judge made all ...


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