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Ray v. O'Possum Ridge Farms and Lakeland Farms, LLC

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

December 3, 2019

OPHELIA RAY APPELLANT
v.
O'POSSUM RIDGE FARMS AND LAKELAND FARMS, LLC APPELLEES

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 10/20/2017

          WASHINGTON COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. MILLS E. BARBEE TRIAL JUDGE.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: RENETHA LATRICE FRIESON.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: ROBERT N. WARRINGTON ALEXANDRA HUTTON OGLESBY.

          BEFORE BARNES, C.J., GREENLEE AND LAWRENCE, JJ.

          GREENLEE, J.

         ¶1. This case arose from O'Possum Ridge Farms ("O'Possum Ridge") and Lakeland Farms LLC's ("Lakeland") complaint to confirm and quiet title, which sought to change the Washington County Chancery Court's 2003 order conveying property to Irvin I. Pogue's ("Irvin") wife, Billie Sanders Pogue ("Billie"), as his sole beneficiary. Because the collateral attack on Irvin's will was improper, we reverse and render the chancellor's judgment.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. On January 22, 2003, Irvin and O'Possum Ridge entered into a contract for the sale of approximately 295 acres of land in Washington County ("the subject property"). Under the contract, O'Possum Ridge agreed to pay $30, 000 at closing and to execute a promissory note in the amount of $278, 849.52 secured by a deed of trust on the subject property. The contract also provided that O'Possum Ridge would take possession of the property upon closing.[1]

         ¶3. Shortly thereafter, on February 8, 2003, Irvin died, and his will was probated in the Washington County Chancery Court. In a decree dated July 14, 2003, the court noted that no claims were probated against Irvin's estate, and the court granted the executrix, Billie, the authority to convey the subject property to herself as beneficiary of the will. The final order closing the estate was titled "Decree Approving Final Accounting And Discharge of Executor" in cause number 030208.

         ¶4. Subsequently, on August 20, 2003, O'Possum Ridge executed a promissory note to Billie, which was secured by a deed of trust on the subject property for its purchase. Billie was the beneficiary of the deed of trust. The promissory note was payable in fourteen annual installments of $30, 000. And on August 28, 2003, Billie "sold, conveyed, and warranted all rights, title, and interest" in the subject property to O'Possum Ridge.[2]

         ¶5. Approximately five years later, in December 2008, O'Possum Ridge conveyed part of the subject property to New Lakeland Farms. And in December 2012, New Lakeland Farms conveyed the land to Lakeland.

         ¶6. In June 2012, Billie died. According to her will, her estate was to pass to Harvey Tackett Jr. as trustee for The Anne Ramsey Pogue Trust for her benefit during her lifetime. Anne was Irvin and Billie's daughter. Billie's will further provided that upon Anne's death, the estate would pass to Ophelia Ray (Billie's maid) and James Harrell.[3] However, Anne predeceased Billie, so in January 2013, the chancery court entered a decree conveying the promissory note, deed of trust, and remaining payments due thereunder to Ray. The decree was entered in cause number 20120990. The chancellor noted that the beneficiaries of Billie's will were Ray and Harrell and explained that "[t]he beneficiaries have agreed that this asset shall become the property of Ophelia Ray."

         ¶7. O'Possum Ridge stated that, at some point, it had sought financing using part of the subject property as collateral and became concerned about a potential cloud on the property's title. According to O'Possum Ridge and Lakeland, Irvin's will from the 2003 probate action provided that Billie would receive any portion of his estate that exceeded the unified credit exemption.[4] Otherwise, the estate would pass to the Irvin I. Pogue Residuary Trust ("the Trust"). Anne was the initial beneficiary of the Trust, but upon her death, the assets of the Trust were to be distributed to the following residuary beneficiaries: Sarah Dees Marble (Irvin and Billie's niece), Avon United Methodist Church, March of Dimes Foundation, Mississippi State University, Woods Junior College, and French Camp Academy ("the residuary beneficiaries"). Because Irvin's estate did not exceed the unified credit exemption, O'Possum Ridge and Lakeland asserted that the subject property should not have been ordered to be conveyed to Billie. Rather, O'Possum Ridge and Lakeland asserted that the chancellor should have ordered that the property should pass to the residuary beneficiaries.

         ¶8. As a result, on February 4, 2015, O'Possum Ridge and Lakeland filed a "Complaint to Confirm and Quiet Title, for Declaratory Judgment, and for Other Relief" in cause number 20150111. The following persons and entities were named as defendants: J. Murray Akers (Billie's executor and trustee under the deed of trust), Ophelia Ray, Rebecca Gouvier (James Harrell's executrix and beneficiary), Sarah Dees Marble, Avon United Methodist Church, March of Dimes Foundation, Mississippi State University, French Camp Academy, and "any and all persons or parties having or claiming to have any legal or equitable interest in or to the property."[5]

         ¶9. In March 2015, Mississippi State University and March of Dimes filed notices of appearance. Sarah Dees Marble wrote a letter to the court. And in April 2015, Ray filed an answer and requested that the court dismiss the complaint.

         ¶10. On September 21, 2015, O'Possum Ridge and Lakeland filed a motion for summary judgment. They reasserted that the subject property should have passed to the residuary beneficiaries, and they requested that the court reform the promissory note and deed accordingly. O'Possum Ridge and Lakeland also asserted that they had acquired the subject property by adverse possession. In addition, they noted that the action was, in part, an interpleader action. O'Possum Ridge requested that the court order that the payment due under the promissory note be deposited into the registry of the court until it was determined to whom it should be paid. Finally, O'Possum Ridge requested attorney's fees and court costs. Rebecca Gouvier, Avon United Methodist Church, and French Camp Academy subsequently joined the motion.

         ¶11. In January 2016, Ray filed a response to the motion for summary judgment. Ray argued that there was not a cloud on the subject property's title. And she also argued that she had acquired the subject property by adverse possession.

         ¶12. After several hearings, the chancery court entered an order granting summary judgment in May 2017. The court found that there was a cloud on the subject property's title and that O'Possum Ridge and Lakeland had acquired the property by adverse possession. The court then reformed the promissory note and deed of trust to reflect that the subject property should have passed to the residuary beneficiaries. The court also acknowledged that the action was, in part, an interpleader action and ordered O'Possum Ridge to deposit the amount due under the promissory note into the registry of the court for disbursement to the residuary beneficiaries, provided that no appeal was perfected. Finally, the court directed O'Possum Ridge and Lakeland to file an application for attorney's fees.

         ¶13. Thereafter, Ray filed a motion for reconsideration or, in the alternative, a motion for recusal. In the motion, Ray asserted that the chancellor should have recused after he allegedly engaged in ex parte communications with opposing counsel. O'Possum Ridge and Lakeland filed a response in which they denied any improper ex parte ...


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