Appeal from the District Court of Albany County The Honorable Jeffrey A. Donnell, Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Burke, Justice.
Before VOIGT, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, KITE, and BURKE, JJ.
[¶1] Willard and Cynthia Woods filed suit in district court seeking to quiet their title to several small pieces of property located in the interior of their ranch property. Among the defendants were John Adamson and Philip and Kathleen White. The district court entered summary judgment against Mr. Adamson and the Whites. Their separate appeals have been consolidated before this Court. We will reverse, having concluded that the Woods did not establish the facts needed to support their motions for summary judgment.
[¶2] We consider these three issues:
1. Do genuine issues of material fact exist that preclude summary judgment?
2. Did the Woods have standing to challenge the tax deeds?
3. Are the Woods‟ claims barred by the applicable statutes of limitation?
[¶3] Ralph and Eva Kent owned a ranch in a remote and sparsely populated part of Albany County, Wyoming, encompassing nearly four thousand acres of deeded land and leased public land. On May 20, 1971, the Kents conveyed approximately 320 acres of their property to Glenco Development Company, Inc., a Missouri corporation. Less than a month later, Glenco filed and recorded with the Albany County Clerk the plat of a subdivision, called the Te-Ke-Ki Subdivision, covering 13.52 acres of the property they had acquired from the Kents.
[¶4] The Te-Ke-Ki Subdivision has a number of notable features. Because it is completely surrounded by the ranch property, there is no public access to the subdivision. There are eighty lots on 13.52 acres, making the average lot roughly 7,000 square feet in size. The lots are burdened by protective covenants that declare Glenco‟s intention "to maintain the said real property as a first class condominium complex development." Among many other restrictions, the covenants prohibit all construction until after Glenco establishes water and sewer systems for the subdivision. Glenco has not established these systems, so construction remains prohibited. Apparently, Glenco no longer exists, and the Woods hold title to almost all of the lots,*fn1 so the situation is unlikely to change.
[¶5] On July 21, 1971, approximately forty days after filing the subdivision plat, Glenco conveyed back to Mr. Kent all of the 320 acres Glenco had acquired from the Kents, including the 13.52 acres covered by the subdivision. That reconveyance was not filed with the Albany County Clerk until September 1, 1972. In the interim, and despite the reconveyance to Mr. Kent, Glenco sold several lots in the Te-Ke-Ki Subdivision to third parties. Among the transactions, on September 11, 1971, Glenco sold lot 80 to Jerry and Candace Maynard. On November 15, 1971, it sold lot 8 to Don and Margaret Holton. On February 15, 1972, it sold the west half of lot 66 to Delmar and Donna Miley. All of these deeds were filed and recorded on May 22, 1972, nearly three and a half months before Glenco‟s reconveyance to Mr. Kent was filed and recorded.
[¶6] The very next year, the Maynards, the Holtons, and the Mileys did not pay the property taxes due on their lots. On September 5, 1974, the properties were sold*fn2 by the Albany County Treasurer at a tax sale. Philip and Kathleen White, appellants in Case No. S-08-0078, purchased the west half of lot 66 with a bid of four dollars and forty-three cents. John Adamson, the appellant in Case No. S-08-0085, purchased Lots 8 and 80 for a total of ten dollars and twenty-five cents. Mr. Adamson and the Whites received certificates of purchase following the tax sale in 1974, and apparently continued to pay taxes on the lots in subsequent years. They applied for tax deeds to their respective lots in 1979, and received them from the County Treasurer on January 16, 1980.
[¶7] After the tax sale, but before Mr. Adamson and the Whites received their tax deeds, the Kents obtained judgment in a quiet title action involving these lots.*fn3 The Maynards, the Holtons, and the Mileys were among the seventy named defendants.
Mr. Adamson and the Whites were not. On April 3, 1975, the district court entered its judgment, ruling for some defendants and against others. It ruled in favor of the Maynards and Holtons (predecessors to Mr. Adamson), and quieted their respective titles to Lots 8 and 80. It ruled against the Mileys (predecessors to the Whites), and quieted title to the west half of Lot 66 in the Kents. The judgment was filed and recorded with the Albany County Clerk.
[¶8] The Woods acquired the ranch in 1992. On June 17, 2005, they filed an action in district court seeking to quiet their title to twenty of the lots in the subdivision. Among the nearly fifty defendants named were Mr. Adamson and the Whites. More than half of the defendants failed to respond to the complaint, and the district court entered default judgments against them. The Woods then moved for summary judgment against the remaining defendants. The Woods‟ primary argument was that they had acquired title through adverse possession.*fn4 The district court granted the Woods‟ summary judgment motions against five defendants, including Mr. Adamson and the Whites, not based on the adverse possession claim, but on the basis that these defendants‟ tax deeds were invalid because of failure to comply with various statutory requirements. Mr. Adamson and the Whites are the only ones who appealed the district court‟s decisions.
[¶9] As we have said many times:
Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. W.R.C.P. 56(c); Metz Beverage Co. v. Wyoming Beverages, Inc., 2002 WY 21, ¶ 9, 39 P.3d 1051, 1055 (Wyo. 2002). "A genuine issue of material fact exists when a disputed fact, if it were proven, would establish or refute an essential element of a cause of action or a defense that the parties have asserted." Id. Because summary judgment involves a purely legal determination, we undertake de novo review of a trial court‟s summary judgment decision. Glenn v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., 2008 WY 16, ¶ 6, 176 P.3d 640, 642 (Wyo. 2008).
Jacobs Ranch Coal Co. v. Thunder Basin Coal Co., LLC, 2008 WY 101, ¶ 8, 191 P.3d 125, 128-29 (Wyo. 2008).We review a summary judgment decision using the same materials and following the same standards as the district court. Mathisen v. Thunder Basin Coal Co., LLC, 2007 WY 161, ¶ 9, 169 P.3d 61, 64 (Wyo. 2007). We view the record from the vantage point most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, and give that party the benefit of all favorable inferences that may fairly be drawn from the record. Id.
Background: Tax deeds in Wyoming
[¶10] To understand the appeals under consideration here, it is useful to place them in context. The Wyoming statutory provisions for obtaining, protecting, and defending tax deeds are now mostly codified in Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 39-13-108 (LexisNexis 2007). There are many specific and detailed requirements applicable to tax sales and tax deeds. Of particular relevance here are requirements that, upon applying for a tax deed, notice must be provided in a specified manner to the person in whose name the taxes were assessed, to the person in actual possession or occupancy of the property, to the record owner, and to mortgagees. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 39-13-108(e)(v)(B). Further, after receiving a tax deed, the tax-sale purchaser must file the notices and proofs of service "to be recorded as other instruments affecting the conveyance of real property." Id. § 39-13-108(e)(v)(D).
[¶11] Over the years, Wyoming courts have required strict compliance with these statutory requirements, and have declared tax deeds invalid for relatively minor deviations from the requirements. Barrett v. Barrett, 46 Wyo. 84, 92-93, 23 P.2d 857, 860 (1933); Davis v. Minnesota Baptist Convention, 45 Wyo. 148, 156, 16 P.2d 48, 50 (1932). It has been observed that a "review of tax title litigation in Wyoming reveals a host of problems and uncertainties for those persons who have claimed land under tax deeds." Robert G. Berger, Comment, Marketable Title Legislation: Tax Deeds in Wyoming, XI Land & Water L. Rev. 2, 419 (1976). The problems facing tax deed purchasers are due, at least in part, to a strong policy of protecting the former owner‟s rights to redeem and recover his property. See, e.g., Barrett, 46 Wyo. at 97, 23 P.2d at 861 (Statutes "are to be regarded favorably and construed liberally in favor of the redemptioner."); Hackett v. Linch, 57 Wyo. 289, 297, 116 P.2d 868, 870 (1941).
[¶12] Tempering this policy of protecting former owners, the legislature enacted provisions in 1975 meant to promote more stability and better marketability for tax deeds. Codified as Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 34-2-131 through -134, this act expressly sets forth a policy of "confirming and clarifying [tax] titles of persons in possession," of providing "means of correcting procedural and jurisdictional defects," and of "rendering tax titles marketable and protecting purchasers thereof against remote claims." Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 34-2-134.
[¶13] These competing policies bear on the appeals before us now. Mr. Adamson and the Whites purchased their lots at a tax sale thirty-five years ago, and have, apparently, paid the property taxes on those lots every year since then. They obtained their tax deeds nearly thirty years ago. After this length of time, it may seem that their tax titles should be protected "against remote claims." On the other hand, as detailed below, Mr. Adamson and the Whites have never taken possession of their lots or put them to any practical use. Under the legislature‟s 1975 enactment, challenges to tax deeds can be cut off after only two years if the tax deed owner has been in possession for six months during that period. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 34-2-132. (See infra ...