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Sullivan v. Estate of Maddox

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

July 30, 2019

DEMPSEY SULLIVAN, BILLIE JOYCE SULLIVAN, AND TERRELL STUBBS, INDIVIDUALLY APPELLANTS/CROSS-APPELLEES
v.
ESTATE OF SAMUEL MADDOX APPELLEE/CROSS-APPELLANT

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/23/2017

          SIMPSON COUNTY CHANCERY COURT, HON. GERALD MARION MARTIN JUDGE.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: W. TERRELL STUBBS JAMES LAWTON ROBERTSON.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: JAMES BURVON SYKES III L. WESLEY BROADHEAD.

         EN BANC.

          CARLTON, P.J.

         ¶1. Dempsey Sullivan and Billie Joyce Sullivan (collectively, the Sullivans)[1] filed a complaint in 2010 seeking an injunction to prohibit their neighbors Steve Maddox and Samuel Maddox[2] (collectively, the Maddoxes) from entering their property in Simpson County. The Maddoxes filed a counterclaim asserting that they possessed an easement across the Sullivans' property. During the course of litigation, the chancellor entered an order dismissing the Sullivans' complaint for an injunction with prejudice and issuing sanctions against their attorney, Terrell Stubbs. The chancellor appointed a special master to determine the issue of the easement. The special master submitted a report, finding that the Maddoxes did not possess a valid easement over the Sullivans' property and recommending that the chancellor dismiss the Maddoxes' counterclaim with prejudice.

         ¶2. The chancellor ultimately entered a final judgment that, among other things, ratified and adopted the special master's report, dismissed the Maddoxes' counterclaim with prejudice after finding that no easement existed, affirmed and ratified all prior orders and judgments filed in the matter, and assessed the costs of the special master to the Maddoxes.

         ¶3. The Sullivans now appeal, asserting the following assignments of error: (1) they did not receive proper notice when the chancellor dismissed their complaint with prejudice; (2) the chancellor erred in dismissing their complaint on the merits; (3) the chancellor erred in awarding sanctions; (4) the Estate of Samuel Maddox was improperly substituted as a party for Samuel Maddox; and (5) the chancellor erred by ratifying and affirming all prior orders of the chancery court. The Maddoxes filed a cross-appeal, arguing that the chancellor erred in holding that the Maddoxes did not have an easement of record or an easement by implication across the Sullivans' property.

         ¶4. After our review, we affirm the following: the chancellor's dismissal of the Sullivans' complaint with prejudice; the chancellor's award of sanctions; the chancellor's judgment ratifying and affirming all prior orders of the chancery court; the chancellor's order substituting the Estate of Samuel Maddox as a party; and the chancellor's judgment finding that the Maddoxes did not have an easement of record or an easement by implication across the Sullivans' property. However, we reverse the chancellor's award of attorney's fees and expenses to the Maddoxes, which the chancellor issued as sanctions against Stubbs, and we remand this issue to the chancellor with instructions to: (1) dismiss the present action without prejudice as to Steve Maddox pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 25(a)(1) and (2) then reassess the distribution of the award of attorney's fees to the remaining party.

         FACTS[3]

         ¶5. On March 30, 2010, the Sullivans filed a complaint in Simpson County Chancery Court requesting injunctive relief to prohibit the Maddoxes from entering the Sullivans' property.[4] In their complaint, the Sullivans claimed that the Maddoxes wrongfully entered onto their property without the Sullivans' consent under the pretense of an alleged easement. The Sullivans attached the disputed easement to their complaint and asserted that the easement was not valid or enforceable. The Sullivans also requested that the chancellor set a hearing date with the time and place for a hearing to award a permanent restraining order or permanent injunction to prohibit the Maddoxes from entering their property.

         ¶6. On April 6, 2010, the Maddoxes filed their answer denying the essential allegations of the complaint. The Maddoxes also filed a counterclaim arguing that they possessed an easement and asking the chancellor to enjoin the Sullivans from interfering with their use of the easement. The Maddoxes also alleged several intentional torts and demanded damages from the Sullivans.

         ¶7. On April 16, 2010, the chancellor entered an agreed order that stated, among other things, that "[t]he parties have agreed that the [Maddoxes] will stay off [the Sullivans'] property for a period of [forty-five] days and should this matter not be resolved within [forty-five] days, this matter shall be brought back before this [c]ourt for further action."

         ¶8. On February 22, 2011, the chancellor held a conference and set Sullivan I for trial on May 3, 2011, and Sullivan II for trial on May 4, 2011.

         ¶9. On April 12, 2011, the Sullivans filed motions for recusal of the chancellor, Judge David Shoemake, in both Sullivan I and Sullivan II. In both motions, the Sullivans claimed "it has recently been brought to the undersigned's attention[] that Wesley Broadhead, attorney for the [Maddoxes], is currently representing Mike Stuckey, the husband of this [c]ourt's [a]dministrator, on a proceeding on appeal" in the Simpson County Circuit Court. The Sullivans asserted that based on this claim, the chancellor should recuse himself from Sullivan I and Sullivan II "in order to avoid even an appearance of impartiality or impropriety." The Maddoxes filed motions to consolidate the hearings on the motions to recuse filed in Sullivan I and II.

         ¶10. On May 3, 2011, the chancellor entered an order consolidating the hearings in regard to the Sullivans' motions to recuse. That same day, the chancellor entered its order denying Sullivan's motions to recuse in Sullivan I and Sullivan II. The next morning, prior to the commencement of the Sullivan II trial, the Sullivans renewed the motions to recuse, which the chancellor denied.

         ¶11. At the Sullivan II trial held on May 4, 2011, the chancellor heard testimony from Samuel Maddox; Steve Maddox; Dempsey Sullivan; Bobby Hall, who owned the property between Sullivan and Maddox; Stanley Eubanks, whose family once owned certain portions of the Sullivans' property; and Samuel Maddox Jr. The matter was then continued to a later date.

         ¶12. On March 13, 2013, [5] the Sullivans filed a second motion for the recusal of the chancellor in the present matter and in all other cases involving the Sullivans or their attorney, Stubbs. The Sullivans alleged that Judge Shoemake and his court administrator had a clear bias against the Sullivans that created a conflict in this case and in all cases involving the Sullivans. The Sullivans attached the following documents to the motion for recusal: Campaign Finance Reports for the 2010 Election Campaign filed by Judge Shoemake, who was a candidate; a copy of a bar complaint filed by Judge Shoemake's court's administrator against the former judge, Larry Buffington; a copy of the response to the bar complaint filed by Larry Buffington; and seven affidavits.

         ¶13. On April 4, 2013, the Maddoxes filed a joint response to the Sullivans' March 13, 2013 motion for recusal. In the response, the Maddoxes argued that the Sullivans should be sanctioned or disciplined pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 11 for knowingly continuing to make false statements of material fact to the court.

         ¶14. Nearly a week later, on April 10, 2013, the chancellor entered an order denying the motion for recusal, dismissing the Sullivans' complaint, imposing sanctions, and continuing the cause for a hearing on monetary sanctions. In his order, the chancellor stated that the Sullivans' March 13, 2013 motion to recuse was filed "801 days after this [c]ourt took the bench on January 1, 2011, and 673 days after May 3, 2011," the date the chancellor entered his first order denying the Sullivans' motion to recuse. The chancellor stated that Uniform Chancery Court Rule 1.11 does not allow parties to file unlimited motions to recuse, and the rule requires recusal motions to be filed within a reasonable period of time.

         ¶15. The chancellor discussed the Sullivans' motion to recuse, as well as the affidavits and bar complaint attached to the motion. The chancellor found that the attached documents failed to "evidence any bias or partiality of this [c]ourt" and produced "no evidence of this [c]ourt having any involvement in or knowledge of" improper campaign donations or other improper conduct.

         ¶16. Regarding the Sullivans' trespass claims, the chancellor found the Sullivans failed to prosecute the claims. The chancellor explained as follows:

The 2010 [c]omplaint filed by the [Sullivans] asked the [c]ourt to cancel an easement given on August 24, 1981, across property that is now owned by the [Sullivans], the easement now benefitting the [Maddoxes]. The [c]omplaint also seeks damages for trespass, negligence, and damages to the value of the real property, and numerous other claims for damages. The prior [c]hancellor, without a trial, entered an [o]rder on April 7, 2010, ordering the [Maddoxes] not to cross the [Sullivans'] property and stated further "should this matter not be resolved within 45 days, this matter shall be brought back before this [c]ourt for further action." Since the [Sullivans] have such an order, they have chosen not to bring their action back before the [c]ourt.
The [c]omplaint was filed March 30, 2010. The [Sullivans] have not sought to prosecute their [c]omplaint since the one day of trial on May 4, 2011. In fact, they have resisted all efforts by the [Maddoxes] to have the case concluded. Counsel for the [Sullivans] is well aware of Uniform Chancery Court Rule 1.11 which requires the filing of affidavits and requires a ruling by the [t]rial [c]ourt within thirty (30) days. To the [c]ourt, this is evidence of delay, dilatory conduct and a clear abuse of the judicial process, and in clear violation of [Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure] 41(b).

         The chancellor cited to Walker v. Parnell, 566 So.2d 1213, 1216 (Miss. 1990), and ultimately ruled that "the actions of [the Sullivans] and [Stubbs] show a complete failure to prosecute and a clear pattern of dilatory delay, and contumacious conduct . . . ." The chancellor then dismissed Sullivan's complaint pursuant to Rule 41(b).

         ¶17. The chancellor further found that "all of the above referenced actions evidence the filing of untimely and frivolous pleadings for the purpose of harassment and delay without substantial justification, and disrespect for the integrity of the [c]ourt and constitute the willful violation of Rule 11 . . . and the Litigation Accountability Act[, ]" as well as Mississippi Rule of Processional Conduct Rule 8.2(a).

         ¶18. In determining sanctions, the chancellor stated that he considered lesser sanctions along with the fact that Sullivan and Stubbs also previously attacked the integrity of the chancellor with allegations of improper campaign donations and the allegations of impartiality in Sullivan I. The chancellor recalled that Sullivan's attack in Sullivan I resulted in sanctions in the amount of $42, 922.91, which the Court of Appeals affirmed on appeal. The chancellor then stated that despite the sanctions issued in Sullivan I, Sullivan and Stubbs "continue[d] their dilatory conduct, delay, contumacious conduct and the preparing and procurement of affidavits all in an effort to embarrass and attack the integrity of the [c]ourt." The chancellor determined that a monetary sanction in the present matter would therefore be insufficient. The chancellor explained that he initially intended to impose a monetary sanction after the hearing on the amount of attorney's fees, but he felt "compelled to order and assess other sanctions." The chancellor thus held that the appropriate sanction in the present matter was to dismiss the Sullivans' 2010 complaint with prejudice.

         ¶19. The chancellor ordered the Sullivans to reimburse the Maddoxes for all expenses and attorney's fees incurred in the defense of the complaint and in prosecution of their demands for affirmative relief. The chancellor set a hearing for April 30, 2013, on the matter of the amount of sanctions to be assessed against the Sullivans. The chancellor also continued the present matter for a hearing on the amount of monetary attorney's fees sanctions. The chancellor ruled that "this [c]ourt retains jurisdiction of the issue of this matter until such time as final judgment is entered assessing the amount of attorneys' fees and any other fines, penalties, damages and/or other sanctions."

         ¶20. On April 24, 2013, the Sullivans filed a petition in the Mississippi Supreme Court pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Appellate Procedure 48(b), [6] seeking review of the chancellor's judgment denying the Sullivan's 2013 motion for recusal. On April 26, 2013, the Sullivans also filed an emergency motion to stay the sanctions hearing. The supreme court granted the Sullivans' motion to stay the sanctions hearing pending the supreme court's decision of the Sullivan's petition to review the chancellor's judgment. On June 12, 2013, the supreme court entered an order denying the Sullivans' petition for review of the chancellor's judgment denying the motion to recuse.

         ¶21. On May 8, 2013, the Sullivans filed their notice of appeal of the chancellor's order dismissing their complaint. The Maddoxes filed a motion to dismiss the appeal, asserting that the chancellor's April 10, 2013 judgment did not dispose of all of the claims against all of the parties. On April 1, 2014, the supreme court entered an order granting the Maddoxes' motion and dismissing the appeal.

         ¶22. On September 16, 2013, the Sullivans filed a motion to dismiss or alternatively for a continuance of the sanctions hearing. The next day, the chancellor held a hearing on the issue of attorney's fees and sanctions and on the Sullivans' motion to dismiss. The chancellor explained that as part of the sanctions against the Sullivans, he dismissed the complaint based on the Sullivans' failure to prosecute:

[T]here were no efforts to prosecute the case. This [c]ourt tried part of the [case] on May . . . 4, 2011. Never since May [4, 2011] ha[ve] [the Sullivans] asked to proceed with the case. When the [Maddoxes] asked that it be put on the docket and tried, the [Sullivans] objected. Instead of moving the case, doing anything with the case, it turned into well, let's get rid of the judge.

         ¶23. The chancellor also determined that the affidavits attached to the Sullivans' motion for recusal were false and not credible. The chancellor found that the motion itself was made "in bad faith and was for an improper purpose and it was frivolous and it's based on complete falsehoods." The chancellor stated that several of the affidavits referred to incidents that allegedly occurred before he took the bench in January 2011, and this information, as well as his campaign finance reports, was available in April 2011, when the Sullivans filed their first motions to recuse.

         ¶24. Regarding sanctions, the chancellor "order[ed] and impose[d]" upon Stubbs the payment of the Maddoxes' attorney's fees and expenses as a sanction to be paid by Stubbs. The chancellor specifically ordered Stubbs "to pay $19, 617.32 to Steve Maddox-or to the chancery clerk of Simpson County for payment to Steve Maddox and Samuel Maddox[-]as reimbursement for attorneys' fees and expenses." The chancellor acknowledged that the April 10, 2013 judgment stated that the court "would impose sanctions against Mr. Dempsey Sullivan and Billie Joyce Sullivan," but the chancellor determined that "these fees were made necessary." The chancellor explained that the pleadings Stubbs prepared "were of such a frivolous and incredible nature . . . . [that] the [c]ourt does not feel that it would be equitable to assess monetary sanctions against [Dempsey] and Ms. Billie Joyce Sullivan[, ] especially due to the fact that they've had their case dismissed because of the actions of counsel."

         ¶25. On October 8, 2013, the chancellor entered a judgment memorializing his rulings from the bench and denying the Sullivans' motion to dismiss or alternatively to continue the hearing to assess monetary sanctions "for the reasons stated in [the chancellor's September 17, 2013 bench ruling]." The chancellor awarded Maddox $19, 617.32 in attorney's fees.

         ¶26. On October 29, 2013, the Sullivans filed a notice of appeal from the October 8, 2013 judgment. The Maddoxes filed a motion to dismiss the appeal, asserting that the October 8, 2013 judgment was not a final, appealable judgment. On April 1, 2014, the supreme court entered an order dismissing the Sullivans' appeal.

         ¶27. The Sullivans also filed a petition for an extraordinary writ pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Appellate Procedure 21 and alternatively requested permission to file an interlocutory appeal pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Appellate Procedure 5(a) on October 29, 2013. On April 1, 2014, the supreme court entered an order denying the petition.

         ¶28. The chancellor held additional trial proceedings on the merits of Sullivan II on November 6, 2014. However, at the trial, the parties raised numerous issues concerning the admissibility of documents and status of the pleadings. As a result, the chancellor, on his own motion, recessed the hearing until all of the pretrial matters, including a scheduling order, were properly completed.

         ¶29. On November 21, 2014, the chancellor entered an order appointing a special master to the case pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 53. The chancellor explained that he had a full calendar for the remainder of 2014 and for the first three months of 2015. The chancellor stated that he would also be charged with the administrative responsibilities of organizing matters relating to a newly elected chancellor. The chancellor discussed the procedural history of Sullivan II, including the Sullivans' complaint and the Maddoxes' counterclaim, and found that "the above matters constitute exceptional conditions which require this [c]ourt to consider the use of a Special Master."[7]

         ¶30. On February 17, 2015, Judge Shoemake entered an order recusing himself from presiding over any case in which Stubbs served as the lead attorney. After this point, special master Judge William Barnett and Chancellor Gerald Martin presided over the proceedings.

         ¶31. On May 19, 2015, the Sullivans filed a motion to set the case for trial. A notice of hearing was entered, setting the trial for August 26, 2015, before special master Judge William Barnett.

         ¶32. At the trial held on August 26, 2015, the special master heard testimony from Sullivan and Bobby Hall, who owned property between the Sullivans' property and the Maddoxes' property. The special master entered his report on January 27, 2016. The special master stated that "the only issue to be determined is whether or not the [Maddoxes] have an easement over the lands of the [Sullivans] for ingress to their property." The special master found that the Maddoxes had no existing easement across the Sullivans' land. The special master stated that in making his ruling, he heard testimony and arguments from the parties, read transcripts from prior hearings, examined the exhibits, reviewed the authorities submitted by the parties, and conducted his own research.

         ¶33. In his report, the special master set forth that in 1981 Annie Collier was granted an easement from the public road to certain described land Collier owned. Collier's land did not front a public road. The easement constituted an easement appurtenant and set out in its body that it constituted "a covenant running with the land owned by the Grantee" and for the purpose of "ingress, egress and regress." The easement was to be unobstructed and the holder of the easement could maintain the easement as the holder elected. On April 27, 1987, the Sullivans purchased land from Collier which contained in full the land over which the easement was granted. Now the Sullivans owned all of Collier's land for which the 1981 easement was granted. Collier maintained ownership of a pie-shaped portion of land. The special master determined that Collier did not reserve an easement over the land she sold to the Sullivans for access to the pie-shaped portion of land she still owned. The special master found that "[w]ith the 1987 purchase, the Sullivans then became the owners of the easement since by the easement's very terms, the easement belonged to the land, not to . . . Collier personally."

         ¶34. By other conveyances over time, the Sullivans acquired the land through which the 1981 easement was given. The special master concluded that when the Sullivans "owned both the land on which the easement was given and the adjacent land for which the easement was given, the easement merged into the land on which the easement was given and, therefore, the 1981 easement no longer existed."

         ¶35. The special master found that in 1994, Collier transferred to the Maddoxes "certain lands[, ] including the remaining portion of Mrs. Collier's lands for which the 1981 easement was given and [she] purported to transfer the 1981 easement itself." However, the special master held that "Collier had no authority to transfer the easement to the Maddoxes as, by fact and law, she no longer owned the easement." The special master further stated that although the pie-shaped portion of land Collier transferred to the Maddoxes "is adjacent to other lands they own and lands the [Sullivans] own, it is not adjacent to the lands on which the 1981 easement was located. In fact, it is about 900 feet away." The special master also found that the Maddoxes purchased the pie-shaped portion from Collier after Collier sold the land between the pie-shaped portion and the land over which the easement ran. The special master found ...


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