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McCarty v. Wood

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

January 23, 2018

CURTIS RAY MCCARTY JR. APPELLANT/ CROSS-APPELLEE
v.
ARTHUR WOOD III AND PAULA WOOD APPELLEES/ CROSS-APPELLANTS

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 03/01/2016

         WAYNE COUNTY SPECIAL COURT OF EMINENT DOMAIN HON. LESTER F. WILLIAMSON JR. Judge

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: J. RICHARD BARRY JAMES CORNELIUS GRIFFIN

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: TERRY L. CAVES RISHER GRANTHAM CAVES

         EN BANC.

          WILSON, J.

         ¶1. Curtis Ray McCarty Jr. has thirty to thirty-five acres of land in rural Wayne County, but he has no way to get to it. He used to drive there on a dirt and gravel private road that crossed the lands of neighboring property owners. But in 2004, Arthur Wood III, who owns the property surrounding McCarty's land, put an end to McCarty's use of the road. McCarty sued Wood, and they have been litigating ever since. McCarty first sued Wood in chancery court. Around the time that lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice, McCarty sued Wood in circuit court, but that action was also dismissed with prejudice. Finally, McCarty filed a petition in the Wayne County Special Court of Eminent Domain to establish a "private road" pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 65-7-201 (Rev. 2012). The issue in this appeal is whether either res judicata or collateral estoppel bars McCarty's petition. For the reasons discussed below, we conclude that neither doctrine bars McCarty's petition.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. McCarty purchased thirty to thirty-five acres of land in rural Wayne County in 1993. McCarty had a trailer and farming equipment on the property, which he used for hunting, cattle, timber, and hay. McCarty's property was landlocked when he bought it, but he accessed it by a dirt and gravel private road that runs from Chicora River Road across land owned by various timber companies. The timber companies did not object to McCarty using the road, and he even put a lock on a gate on the road and graded the road occasionally.

         ¶3. In July 2003, Wood[1] bought the land surrounding McCarty's land. Wood wanted to control access to the road by putting his own lock on a gate on the road, but he gave McCarty a key to the lock and permission to continue using the road. Wood later had problems with trespassers cutting the locks. Each time Wood had to replace the lock, he gave McCarty a key to the new lock, but according to McCarty, Wood sometimes failed to tell him that the lock had been changed. This inconvenienced and frustrated McCarty and led to an argument between the two men in November 2004. According to McCarty, Wood tried to buy his property, and when he refused to sell, Wood refused to give him a key to the new lock on the gate, which prevented him from accessing his property.

         ¶4. In July 2005, McCarty filed a complaint against Wood in the Wayne County Chancery Court. The complaint asserted claims for an implied easement or easement by necessity, a prescriptive easement, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. McCarty sought an easement over the private road, compensatory damages of $50, 000, and punitive damages of $100, 000. As to the easement claims, McCarty also named Leaf River Forest Products as a defendant as the alleged owner of land that the private road crossed between Wood's property and Chicora River Road. However, Plum Creek South Timberlands LLC (Plum Creek), the true owner of the relevant land, was later substituted for Leaf River. In October 2005, the chancery court entered an agreed order granting McCarty a temporary easement to use the road for one year or until a trial on the merits, whichever occurred first.

         ¶5. The case was set for trial in April 2008, but McCarty failed to appear. Wood then filed a "motion for summary judgment" in which he argued both that "the complaint should be dismissed for failure to prosecute" and that McCarty had failed to prove the various elements of a prescriptive easement or an easement by necessity. McCarty failed to respond to Wood's motion, and in September 2009 the chancery court granted Wood's motion and dismissed the case "with prejudice." However, the chancery court's order did not specify the grounds on which the case was dismissed.

         ¶6. In August 2009, while the chancery court case was still pending, McCarty filed a two- page complaint against Wood in the Wayne County Circuit Court. The complaint, which sought $40, 000 in compensatory damages, was basically just a shorter version of the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress that McCarty had asserted in chancery court. Wood answered and filed a motion for summary judgment. He argued that the circuit court complaint was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. In May 2010, the circuit court granted Wood's motion for summary judgment and also awarded him $5, 996.87 in attorney's fees, which were assessed against McCarty's attorney pursuant to the Mississippi Litigation Accountability Act, Miss. Code Ann. §§ 11-55-1 to -15 (Rev. 2012).

         ¶7. In October 2014, McCarty filed a "Complaint to Condemn Real Property" in the Wayne County Special Court of Eminent Domain. He named Wood and Plum Creek as defendants and alleged that he was entitled to a "private road" across their lands pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 65-7-201. Wood answered and filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the complaint was barred by the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel based on the prior judgments in the circuit court and chancery court actions. Plum Creek filed a motion for summary judgment adopting Wood's arguments, and McCarty responded to the motions.

         ¶8. The court subsequently ordered the parties to participate in mediation. During the mediation, Plum Creek agreed to grant McCarty an option to purchase a right of way across the section of the private road on its land.[2] However, McCarty and Wood did not reach an agreement. McCarty alleged that Wood refused to even discuss a right of way and only offered to buy McCarty's property "for $200.00 an acre, a far undervalued price." Wood moved to strike McCarty's allegation as a violation of the parties' mediation agreement and an improper disclosure of confidential settlement negotiations.

         ¶9. Following the unsuccessful mediation, the court entered a memorandum opinion and order finding that McCarty's complaint for a private road was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. Accordingly, the court granted Wood's motion for summary judgment.

         ¶10. McCarty filed a timely motion to alter or amend the judgment, and Wood filed a motion for attorney's fees pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 11 and the Litigation Accountability Act. The court subsequently denied both motions. The court acknowledged that the case raised "a novel issue" of res judicata and that the result was "harsh." However, the court again concluded that res judicata barred McCarty's petition. The court denied Wood's request for attorney's fees because it did "not find the action to be frivolous." McCarty filed a notice of appeal, and Wood filed a cross-appeal from the denial of his motion for attorney's fees.

         ANALYSIS

         ¶11. The issues in this appeal are whether McCarty's petition for a private road is barred by either (1) res judicata (as the special court of eminent domain ruled) or (2) collateral estoppel (which Wood raises as an alternative ground for affirmance).[3] For the reasons that follow, we hold that neither doctrine bars McCarty's petition. Therefore, we reverse and remand in the direct appeal. ...


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