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Harris v. State

Supreme Court of Mississippi

November 8, 2018

DAVID NEIL HARRIS, SR., VECIE MICHELE HARRIS, AND CLYDE H. GUNN, III
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI, SECRETARY OF STATE, JACKSON COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI, CITY OF OCEAN SPRINGS, MISSISSIPPI AND DELBERT HOSEMANN, JR.

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 07/12/2016

          JACKSON COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. HOLLIS McGEHEE TRIAL JUDGE

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: JOHN G. CORLEW VIRGINIA T. MUNFORD DAVID N. HARRIS, JR. W. TREY JONES JOSEPH A. SCLAFANI HUGH D. KEATING JE'NELL B. BLUM ROBERT W. WILKINSON AMY LASSITTER ST. PE' DAVID CRANE LEE D. THAMES, JR.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: DAVID N. HARRIS, JR. A. SCOTT CUMBEST JOHN G. CORLEW.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: JOSEPH ANTHONY SCLAFANI W. TREY JONES HUGH D. KEATING JE'NELL B. BLUM LEE D. THAMES, JR. DAVID CRANE ROBERT W. WILKINSON.

          BEFORE WALLER, C.J., COLEMAN AND CHAMBERLIN, JJ.

          CHAMBERLIN, JUSTICE

         ¶1. Landowners David Neil Harris, Sr., Vecie Michelle Harris ("Harris")[1] and Clyde H. Gunn III filed suits to confirm title to their waterfront properties in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The State of Mississippi (the "State"), the County of Jackson (the "County") and the City of Ocean Springs (the "City") asserted title to a portion of the same waterfront properties claimed by the landowners: a strip of sand beach located south of a road and a seawall. After a full trial on the merits, the chancellor found that the State of Mississippi held title to the sand beach in front of the Harris and Gunn properties as public-trust tidelands. The landowners now appeal. After review, we find no error and affirm the chancellor's final judgments.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. Harris and Gunn both own beachfront property along "East Beach" in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Hosemann v. Harris, 163 So.3d 263, 265 (Miss. 2015). "Starting from the Mississippi Sound going north, there is marsh grass, a sand beach, a seawall, a road, and the yards of the Gunn and Harris properties." Id.

         ¶3. Harris and Gunn previously filed for an injunction in Hinds County Chancery Court to prevent the City from constructing a sidewalk on the beach. Sec'y of State v. Gunn, 75 So.3d 1015, 1016 (Miss. 2011). As the parties represented that suits to confirm title had already been filed in the Jackson County Chancery Court, the Hinds County Chancery Court refrained from confirming title but did issue a permanent injunction preventing the City from constructing the sidewalk. Id. at 1016-17, 1019. On appeal, this Court vacated the permanent injunction and left the initial preliminary injunction in place until ownership of the beach could be determined. Id. at 1017.

         ¶4. Harris and Gunn then each proceeded to confirm title in the Jackson County actions. Harris, 163 So.3d at 266. Their suits were consolidated first for discovery and later for all purposes. Id.

         ¶5. Eventually, the chancellor granted Harris and Gunn partial summary judgment, finding that under the Public Trust Tidelands Act (the "Tidelands Act") the boundary of the tidelands was the mean high-water line closest in time to July 1, 1973.[2] Id. The chancellor ruled "that the State had failed in its burden to produce admissible evidence showing the boundary was not this line." Id.

         ¶6. A trial was held on the County's and City's remaining adverse possession and prescriptive easement claims. Id. "The chancellor confirmed and quieted title to the sand beach in Gunn and Harris, subject to prescriptive easements for the County and City. The court held the State, County, and City failed to prove adverse possession or public prescriptive easement by clear and convincing evidence." Id. at 266-67. The chancellor did find that the County had an easement to maintain the sand beach for seawall protection and that the City had an easement for road maintenance. Id. at 267.

         ¶7. The State, County and City appealed the decision. Id. On appeal, this Court reversed the chancellor's grant of partial summary judgment to Harris and Gunn, reversed the remaining aspects of the chancellor's judgment and remanded the case for a full trial on the merits. Id. at 274.

         ¶8. On remand, a five-day trial was held. On June 3, 2016, the chancellor issued an opinion letter to counsel, detailing his findings of fact and conclusions of law. The chancellor also entered final judgments in both cases. The final judgments confirmed title to Harris and Gunn to their properties up to the southern edge or toe of the seawall, except for easements awarded to the County where the seawall was located and to the City where the roadway was located. The judgments also confirmed that the sand beach located south of the seawall was public-trust tidelands owned by the State. As to the injunction granted by the Hinds County Chancery Court, the judgments directed the parties to provide the Hinds County Chancery Court copies of the judgments to resolve the injunction. Last, the final judgments recognized that the County and City had met their burdens of proof on their claims of ownership to the sand beach through prescriptive easements and adverse possession. The judgments noted, though, that the County's and City's claims did not and could not defeat title held by the State.

         ¶9. Aggrieved, Harris[3] and Gunn now appeal. Gunn raises two issues:

[I.] Whether the uncontradicted evidence demonstrates that the mean high waterline along the South Boundary of the Clyde H. Gunn, III property is located waterward of the seawall, waterward of the sand beach, waterward of the marsh grass and waterward of the water's edge and pursuant to the Public Trust Tideland Act of 1989, that line is the line of demarcation between public trust tidelands and private property and Mr. Gunn is entitled to confirmation of his title to the water's edge as described in the continuous chain of title to his property commencing with the conveyance of that property to Louis Arlan Caillavet by the United States of America by patent dated February 2, 1837.
[II.] Whether there is clear and convincing evidence to support claims of adverse possession and prescriptive easement made by Jackson County, Mississippi and the City of Ocean Springs to the beach front property of Plaintiffs/Appellants.

         We address the tidelands issue first; it is dispositive of Gunn's appeal.[4] Harris raises five errors all of which concern the chancellor's factual findings. For clarity, we combine a number of these alleged errors and address them second.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶10. "This Court will not reverse the chancellor's findings of fact 'unless they are manifestly wrong, not supported by substantial credible evidence, or an erroneous legal standard was applied.'" Bayview Land, Ltd. v. State ex rel. Clark, 950 So.2d 966, 971-72 (Miss. 2006) (quoting Columbia Land Dev., LLC v. Sec'y of State, 868 So.2d 1006, 1011 (Miss. 2004)). "On the other hand, when we review questions of law, a de novo standard of review is applied." Id. at 972 (citing Tucker v. Prisock, 791 So.2d 190, 192 (Miss. 2001)).

         ANALYSIS

         I. Tidelands Common Law and the Tidelands Act

         ¶11. The parties disagree on what law controls. Harris and Gunn argue that the boundary line drawn by the Secretary of State, pursuant to the Public Trust Tidelands Act, governs. It is undisputed that the Secretary of State drew this line seaward of East Beach in the waters of the Mississippi Sound. Harris and Gunn support their argument by citing their deeds, which describe their property as reaching "to the water's edge." The State, County and City respond that the line drawn by the Secretary of State is not determinative of the boundary of the tidelands. Instead, they argue that the line functions as a starting point to determine the boundary of the tidelands and does not control because they claim that the County constructed East Beach. Thus, the State, County and City argue that the artificial beach is tidelands, held in trust by the State. In order to resolve the controlling law, we begin our analysis with a brief summary of the body of law as it is relevant to this appeal.[5]

         A. A Brief Summary of Tidelands Law

         ¶12. "When admitted into the Union, the State of Mississippi was granted title to lands subject to the ebb and flow of the tide and up to the mean high water level, without regard to navigability." Harris, 163 So.3d at 268. The Mississippi Constitution provides that "[l]ands belonging to, or under the control of the State, shall never be donated directly or indirectly, to private corporations or individuals. . . ." Miss. Const. art. 4, § 95.

         ¶13. Despite article 4, section 95, this Court, in Harrison County v. Guice, held that the upland landowner acquires fee simple title to additional lands created by filling tidelands where the landowner had no part in creating the additional land. Harrison Cty. v. Guice, 140 So.2d 838, 841-42 (Miss. 1962), overruled by Miss. State Highway Comm'n v. Gilich, 609 So.2d 367 (Miss. 1992). The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit declined to follow Guice, recognizing article 4, section 95: "The common law doctrine of artificial accretion must yield to the command of the Mississippi Constitution as to the disposition of state owned lands." United States v. Harrison Cty., Miss., 399 F.2d 485, 491 (5th Cir. 1968) (citing Miss. Const. art. 4, § 95).

         ¶14. In 1989, the Legislature passed the Public Trust Tidelands Act "to resolve the uncertainty and disputes . . . as to the location of the boundary between the state's public trust tidelands and the upland property." Miss. Code Ann. § 29-15-3(2) (Rev. 2010). Also, the Legislature confirmed "the mean high water boundary line as determined by the Mississippi Supreme Court, the laws of this state and this chapter." Id. It further recognized that tidelands are held in trust for the public ...


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