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Bellis v. Kersey

October 26, 2010

JAMES E. BELLIS AND BETTE LU BELLIS, HUSBAND AND WIFE, APPELLANTS (DEFENDANTS/PLAINTIFFS),
v.
RONNY L. KERSEY AND PEGGY J. KERSEY, HUSBAND AND WIFE, APPELLEES (PLAINTIFFS), AND BENJAMIN H. HOWARD, JR., BENJAMIN H. HOWARD, IV, ROCKY MOUNTAIN TIMBERLANDS, INC., AND GENERAL EDUCATION FOUNDATION, INC., APPELLEES (DEFENDANTS).



Appeal from the District Court of Platte County, The Honorable John C. Brooks, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Voigt, Justice

Before KITE, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, VOIGT, and BURKE, JJ.

[¶1] The district court consolidated two civil actions involving ownership disputes among neighboring landowners in Platte County, Wyoming. After a bench trial, the district court concluded that the appellants had not proven ownership of the disputed land through adverse possession, ordered their ejectment from a portion thereof, to which portion title was also quieted in the record owners, and ordered the appellants to pay trespass damages and costs. This appeal followed. We conclude that the district court's findings of fact are not clearly erroneous on some issues, but are clearly erroneous on other issues, and we therefore affirm in part, and reverse in part.

PARTIES AND PLEADINGS

[¶2] So as better to present the detailed facts and the issues, we will briefly introduce the parties and identify their primary pleadings. The appellants are James E. Bellis and Bette Lu Bellis (the Bellises). They were the plaintiffs in a quiet title and declaratory judgment action filed on April 4, 2006, against Torey S. Hanks and Julie B. Hanks (the Hanks), Benjamin H. Howard, Jr. and Benjamin H. Howard IV (the Howards), and Rocky Mountain Timberlands, Inc. (RMT).*fn1 The Hanks, Howards, and RMT filed an Answer denying the Bellises' claims, but presented no counterclaims. Prior to the filing of that action, the Bellises were the defendants in an action filed by Ronny L. Kersey and Peggy J. Kersey (the Kerseys) alleging trespass and seeking quiet title, injunctive relief, and ejectment. In their counterclaim against the Kerseys, the Bellises asked that title be quieted in them. The district court consolidated the two cases because both disputes involved a contiguous area that had been under common ownership and the Bellises' claim of ownership to the disputed area of each parcel was based on the same evidence in regard to adverse possession. The following map shows the lands in question, with the shaded area in Sections 3 and 10 east of the Bellises' 1997 purchase and west of the fence being the disputed area.

2. Did the district court err in ordering the ejectment of the Bellises from the Kerseys' tract?

[¶3] 1. Did the district court err in ruling against the Bellises on their claim of adverse possession?

ISSUES*fn2

3. Did the district court err in denying the Bellises' quiet title claim, and in granting the Kerseys' quiet title claim?

4. Did the district court err in granting trespass damages to the Kerseys?

5. Did the district court err in granting costs to the Kerseys?

FACTS

[¶4]Because the primary claim presented to the district court was one of adverse possession, the trial transcript and appellate briefs present a detailed history of the ownership and use of the disputed lands. We will resolve this primary issue upon grounds somewhat different from those relied upon by the district court, so we will focus upon the facts that are relevant to that disposition.

[¶5] The disputed land and the surrounding area was developed as a ranch beginning with the arrival of Millard Coleman in 1888. As of April 30, 1987, Rowena Coleman owned the subject lands in Sections 3 and 10, while Charles and Jean Coleman owned the subject lands in Section 4. On that date, Charles and Jean Coleman sold to the Bellises a parcel of land that, for the purposes of this inquiry, had as its eastern boundary the section line between Sections 3 and 4. In other words, that deed conveyed nothing in Section 3 or in Section 10.

[¶6] James Bellis testified that, over the following years, the Bellises ran cattle, hunted upon, and leased out not just their land in Section 4, but also the land in Sections 3 and 10 west of the fence shown on the above map. Mr. Bellis further testified that Charles Coleman knew the fence was not on the property line, but recognized the Bellises' use of the now-disputed area under "the old fence law," meaning adverse possession.

[ΒΆ7] In 1997, the Bellises learned that the Colemans intended to sell their property in Sections 3 and 10. Mr. Bellis and Mr. Coleman discussed resolving the boundary issues in those sections, to enable the Colemans to sell the property. Not wanting to go to the expense of a formal survey, the two men agreed upon a straight diagonal line running northeasterly from the section corner (3, 4, 9, 10) as the boundary between their properties. That diagonal line, as described in the ensuing deed from the Colemans to the Bellises, is shown on the above map as the western edge of the disputed lands. The Bellises paid the Colemans $18,000 for the additional lands not described in their earlier deed. Significantly, Mr. Bellis ...


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