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Estate of Jones v. Pruitt

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

September 26, 2017

ESTATE OF FRANCES CHRISTINE JONES, BY AND THROUGH THE DULY APPOINTED AND QUALIFIED EXECUTOR SIDNEY JONES; SIDNEY JONES, HEIR AT LAW OF FRANCES CHRISTINE JONES, DECEDENT; LINDRITH JONES THOMPSON, HEIR AT LAW OF FRANCES CHRISTINE JONES, DECEDENT; AND JEFFREY PATRICK JONES, TRUSTEE OF THE LINDRITH JONES THOMPSON TESTAMENTARY TRUST, AN UNFUNDED TESTAMENTARY TRUST ESTABLISHED PURSUANT TO THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF FRANCES CHRISTINE JONES, DECEASED APPELLANTS/ CROSS-APPELLEES
v.
IROZENELL PRUITT APPELLEE/ CROSS-APPELLANTANDBOCEE PRUITT APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 12/31/2014

         MADISON COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. JANACE HARVEY-GOREE TRIAL JUDGE

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: PAMELA L. HANCOCK GLENN S. SWARTZFAGER

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: C.R. MONTGOMERY JOHN PRINCE MARTIN

          BEFORE IRVING, P.J., FAIR AND WILSON, JJ.

          IRVING, P.J.

         ¶1. Sidney Jones, Jeffrey Patrick Jones, and Lindrith Jones Thompson-hereinafter collectively referred to as the Joneses-brought a claim against Irozenell Pruitt and Bocee Pruitt-hereinafter collectively referred to as the Pruitts, as to the direct appeal-maintaining that they had acquired ownership of two segments of the Pruitts' land through either adverse possession or a prescriptive easement. The Pruitts responded with a counterclaim for ejectment, and sought damages for trespass and attorneys' fees. Chancellor Janace Harvey-Goree of the Chancery Court of Madison County denied the Joneses' claims, and granted the Pruitts' claims for ejectment and attorneys' fees. The Joneses filed a motion for reconsideration or a new trial, and Chancellor Robert Clark modified the judgment entered by Chancellor Harvey-Goree to eliminate the award of attorneys' fees. The Joneses have appealed, maintaining that the chancery court erred in (1) denying their claims with respect to the two segments of the Pruitts' land, and (2) excluding expert testimony regarding a survey of one segment of the disputed land, which was prepared by a now-deceased surveyor. Irozenell Pruitt filed a cross-appeal, [1] maintaining that the chancery court erred in denying attorneys' fees. We affirm, both on direct appeal and cross-appeal.

         FACTS

         ¶2. Frances Christine Jones and her husband bought a 206-acre plot of land in Madison County, Mississippi, in the 1950s. After her husband died in 1968, Frances held title to the land until she died in 1993. Frances's will specified that the land be left in equal parts to her three children, Sidney, Jeffrey, and Lindrith.[2] Although they did not actually hold record title to the land until Frances's estate was closed in 2000, the Joneses frequently used the land for farming and hunting from the 1970s until the 1990s. The Joneses also allowed others to farm or hunt on the land; at trial, several witnesses testified to having utilized the property in that manner.

         ¶3. Bocee Pruitt inherited the property adjacent to the Joneses' property in 1966. Bocee transferred title to her daughter, Irozenell, on October 4, 2011. The Pruitts did not live on the land, and visited infrequently. The Joneses and the Pruitts maintained a peaceful relationship prior to the current dispute.

         ¶4. At trial, Sidney testified that he, his family, and their guests have historically accessed the Joneses' property through a 455-foot section of road-hereinafter referred to as the "roadway"-connecting their property to Patrick Road, a public road. Sidney testified that the road existed at the time his parents bought the property in the 1950s; however, it has since been widened and improved upon. In or about 1974, Sidney installed a gate at the roadway's entrance at Patrick Road. Sidney testified that he never asked for anyone's permission to put the gate up, and that no one ever told him that he could not. Sidney replaced that gate with a larger one approximately twenty years later. Both the old gate and the new gate had locks on them, and Sidney testified that "[o]nly the people that farm the land and people that had a key to the gate, mostly family members, " could access the roadway. Sidney testified that the only conversation he had with Bocee regarding his placement of a gate on that road occurred five to ten years prior to trial, when Bocee asked him for a key to the new gate. Sidney testified that he told her "that if it was necessary for them to get to their place through those gates, [he] would gladly give her a key, but it was not necessary. They had their own entrance." Sidney further testified that he "always felt like [he] used [the roadway] as [his] own, " and that neither Bocee nor Irozenell ever confronted him as to his use of the roadway, prior to October 8, 2011.

         ¶5. In contrast, Bocee testified at trial that, before transferring title to Irozenell, she "permitted Sidney Jones to hunt on [her] land, to put up a gate to protect [them], to keep people from just driving in doing whatever they wanted to do, " and that "Sidney Jones promised [her] that if [she] would let him continue to use the land, he would be [her] eyes because [she] was out of town and he would watch out. And, if anything illegal occurred out there, he would call [her]." Bocee further testified that she had expressly given Sidney permission to erect the gate on the roadway, after he called her and asked to remove the old gate currently in place and replace it with a new one. However, Bocee testified that although she requested a key to the new gate, Sidney never gave her one. Bocee also testified that Sidney had not kept his promise to keep the roadway maintained, and that it had become overgrown and had developed deep holes as a result of his use of heavy machinery on the road.

         ¶6. Both Sidney and Jeffrey testified at trial that their property is landlocked, and that the surrounding properties are owned by multiple neighbors. Jeffrey testified that, to create a new access point, the Joneses would still have to obtain an easement allowing access over one of those properties. Furthermore, building a road pursuant to such a new easement would not be feasible, as a new road would be several miles long and would have to run through plow fields and ditches. In response, Irozenell testified that she never sought to eject the Joneses from the roadway; rather, she wanted them to remove their lock from the gate at the roadway's entrance.

         ¶7. Additionally, Sidney testified that, since 1994, when he and his family hunted the land, they would camp in an area on the very edge of their property, adjacent to a barbed-wire fence. This barbed-wire fence served as the boundary between the Joneses' property and the Pruitts'. The Joneses built an actual "deer[-]camp structure" in the camp area, which consisted of a 750-square-foot wooden shelter, of sorts. Sidney testified that this construction took place in 2001, while Jeffrey testified that it took place "in late [19]99, 2000, 2001." At some point-although the Joneses and Pruitts differ in their accounts as to when-the structure was enlarged to the extent that it crossed the barbed-wire fence and encroached onto the Pruitts' property. Sidney testified that no one ever gave him permission to cross the barbed-wire fence. However, Irozenell testified that a survey was conducted sometime around 2004, which did not reflect that the deer-camp structure was encroaching onto their property. Irozenell further testified that she visited the land in 2004 during a family reunion, and that the structure was not encroaching onto her land at that time.

         ¶8. At some point, Bocee asked Sidney to remove the deer-camp structure from her property. Sidney agreed to do so, but ultimately never did. On October 8, 2011, Bocee, Ironezell, and Bocee's sister delivered an eviction notice demanding that Sidney "remove all buildings, materials, and personal property" from the Pruitts' land, and that Sidney "remove [the] lock from the gate entering the property, " within the next thirty days. Sidney agreed to comply but requested an extension of the time period so that he could harvest his crop before winter. The Pruitts orally agreed to extend the thirty-day deadline to the beginning of the next year (2012). However, the Joneses ultimately refused to comply and, as stated above, filed their complaint on December 29, 2011. The Pruitts filed their answer and counterclaim.

         ¶9. The Chancery Court of Madison County, Chancellor Harvey-Goree presiding, conducted a two-day trial. During trial, the Joneses presented Kelly Blake Mendrop, who was admitted as an expert in civil roadway design and construction. Mendrop testified that he had prepared a report using his personal observations of the property, aerial photographs depicting the property, and a survey that had been previously prepared by "Mr. McDonald."[3]Mendrop testified that he used Mr. McDonald's survey as a "basis" for when he looked at the property, but that he "did not review property lines or apparent property lines, " nor did he conduct "a detailed review" of the survey. At this point, counsel for the Pruitts objected on the basis that Mr. McDonald was deceased, and that Mendrop was therefore barred from testifying as to "the credibility of the survey and whether or not it was done accurately." The court agreed, finding that Mendrop could not testify as to the truth and veracity of the survey. Mendrop continued his testimony, and counsel for the Joneses asked Mendrop if there were any points on the survey that he verified or identified when he made his personal visit to the property in question. Mendrop began describing the property as it was depicted on the survey, along with his personal observation of the property. At this point, counsel for the Pruitts again objected on the basis that Mendrop could testify from his personal observations of the property, but not in reference to the survey. The survey was not mentioned again during the remainder of Mendrop's testimony.

         ¶10. On January 5, 2015, [4] the court filed its "Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Judgment, " in which it denied the Joneses' claims for adverse possession or a prescriptive easement as to the roadway and denied the Joneses' claim for adverse possession as to the deer-camp structure. The court instructed the Joneses to remove the lock from the gate on the roadway within thirty days. Further, the court granted the counterclaim for ejectment in part, ordering the Joneses to remove their deer-camp structure from the Pruitts' property by February 1, 2015. The chancery court also ...


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