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McTiernan v. Jellis

Supreme Court of Wyoming

December 11, 2013

John C. McTIERNAN, Bear Claw Cattle Company, and Gail Sistrunk, Appellants (Defendants),
v.
James L. JELLIS, Appellee (Plaintiff).

Representing Appellants: Jeffrey J. Gonda and Amanda K. Roberts of Lonabaugh and

Page 1154

Riggs, LLP, Sheridan, Wyoming; and Bruce S. Asay and Gregory B. Asay of Associated Legal Group, LLC, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Gonda.

Representing Appellee: Kendal R. Hoopes of Yonkee & Toner, LLP, Sheridan, Wyoming.

Before KITE, C.J., and HILL, VOIGT, and BURKE, JJ, and Perry, D.J.

VOIGT, Justice.

[¶ 1] James Jellis is a rancher in Sheridan County, Wyoming, and owns a beefalo cattle herd. Pursuant to an oral agreement with John McTiernan, Jellis kept his herd on McTiernan's ranch near Dayton, Wyoming.[1] A dispute arose between the parties regarding their oral agreement, culminating in a lien being asserted by McTiernan and a legal action being filed by Jellis. The jury found, inter alia, McTiernan liable for conversion of Jellis' beefalo herd, but also found McTiernan entitled to a lien against the same pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 29-7-101 et seq. McTiernan filed a post-trial motion based on several theories, including that a new trial was warranted because of the inconsistent verdict. We find the verdict is contrary to law and cannot be reconciled; therefore, we must conclude the district court abused its discretion in denying McTiernan's motion for new trial. We remand for a new trial.

ISSUE

[¶ 2] The dispositive question in this matter is one that concerns whether a new trial is necessary because of an inconsistent verdict; for that reason, we restate the controlling issue as follows: [2]

[¶ 3] Is the jury's verdict finding McTiernan liable for conversion of a beefalo herd, while at the same time finding him entitled to a lien against the same pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 29-7-101 et seq. , contrary to law?

FACTS

[¶ 4] In January 2010, Jellis purchased a beefalo cattle herd from McTiernan who owned the Bear Claw Ranch near Dayton, Wyoming. The parties gathered the respective herd, Jellis took possession, and paid for the cattle in two installments. Thereafter, Jellis sought to graze his herd on McTiernan's ranch and the parties discussed such a possibility.

[¶ 5] McTiernan agreed to let Jellis keep his newly acquired beefalo herd on a designated pasture of the Bear Claw Ranch for a certain fee. The parties, unfortunately, never reduced their agreement to writing and a subsequent dispute arose as to the terms. Jellis claims the agreement was for an annual grazing lease for the sum of $7.00 per acre per year for rangeland and $17.50 per acre per year for dry land hay acreage. Under the grazing lease, Jellis would remain in possession of his herd and be responsible for their feed and care.

[¶ 6] McTiernan on the other hand contends the agreement was one for an agistment, with terms consisting of pasturing and hay for $20.00 per animal unit monthly (" AUM" ). " The particular kind of bailment under which a person, for a consideration, takes in cattle to graze and pasture on his or her land is technically termed an agistment ... [and] involves an actual transfer of possession and control over the animals in question." 4 Am.Jur.2d Animals § 57 (2007). However, a " landlord or lessor not having possession, control, or charge of the care or feeding of animals of the tenant or lessee generally is not entitled to claim a statutory [agister] lien." 4 Am.Jur.2d Animals § 58 (2007).

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[¶ 7] In June 2010, Jellis paid McTiernan an amount equal to the first half of the 2010 lease (February-July 2010) per the terms understood by Jellis. At the end of 2010, Jellis approached McTiernan about continuing to keep the herd on the Bear Claw Ranch in 2011, to which McTiernan agreed. In February 2011, Jellis then paid McTiernan for the second half of 2010.

[¶ 8] In the spring of 2011, the parties' neighborly business relationship deteriorated. On April 26, 2011, McTiernan lodged an unfounded complaint with the Wyoming Livestock Board alleging that Jellis' cattle " were not being fed." The next day, April 27, McTiernan locked the gates that provided Jellis access to his cattle. Jellis discovered the gates were locked the same day, when one of his employees went to feed the herd. Jellis contacted McTiernan and asked that he have access to his cattle, but McTiernan refused. On May 2, 2011, McTiernan filed a lien statement pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 29-7-101 et seq. for payments allegedly owed under their oral agreement, totaling $23,875.00. Because McTiernan denied Jellis access to the herd beginning on April 27, 2011, McTiernan provided care and feed to the cattle from that time on until their court-ordered release back to Jellis five months later.

[¶ 9] Jellis filed a complaint and petition for release of his cattle on June 8, 2011, and expedited proceedings were held before the district court regarding release of the lien. Jellis asserted the lien was knowingly false and groundless, requiring release pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 29-1-311(b). [3] As a consequence, Jellis argued that McTiernan wrongfully converted the beefalo herd. McTiernan countered, positing he had a valid agister's lien due to Jellis' failure to pay amounts due under their oral agreement.

[¶ 10] The district court concluded it could not resolve the lien's validity in the expedited proceeding and reserved its ruling for the lien foreclosure proceedings. However, the district court allowed the release of the cattle upon Jellis posting a security bond in the statutory amount required— $35,812.50— which was one and one-half times the amount of the asserted lien, $23,875.00. Jellis posted the requisite bond to satisfy the lien and a special master was appointed to sort and release the beefalo back to Jellis. Pursuant to the district court's order and supervision by the special master, on September 19, 2011, Jellis retrieved his cattle from the Bear Claw Ranch.

[¶ 11] Thereafter, the case proceeded to a jury trial. After four days of hearing evidence and argument, the jury returned a special verdict finding McTiernan liable for conversion of Jellis' cattle and awarded Jellis $18,700.00 in damages. However, the jury also found that McTiernan was entitled to the lien claimed for feed and pasturage from December 1, 2010 through May 2, 2011, and awarded McTiernan $1,900.00 for such services.[4]

[¶ 12] Before the jury was released, McTiernan objected to the verdict claiming it was inconsistent because he could not be liable for conversion of Jellis' beefalo herd if he was entitled to a lien against the same. The district court requested that the motion be made in writing to be heard at a later date and excused the jury. Thereafter, McTiernan filed post-trial motions for judgment as a matter of law, or alternatively, for a new trial— pursuant to W.R.C.P. 50 and 59— based on several theories, including a new trial was warranted because of the inconsistent verdict. The district court denied McTiernan's post-trial motions and entered a final judgment incorporating the jury's verdict. This appeal was timely perfected.

Page 1156

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶ 13] District courts " have broad discretion when ruling on a motion for new trial, and they will not be reversed absent an abuse of that discretion." Pauley v. Newman, 2004 WY 76, ¶ 17, 92 P.3d 819, 825 (Wyo.2004) (quoting Garnick v. Teton Cnty. Sch. Dist. No. 1, 2002 WY 18, ¶ 6, 39 P.3d 1034, 1038 (Wyo.2002)). This case, however, also requires interpretation of the relevant lien statute for personal property. Statutory interpretation is a question of law, which we review de novo. Hede v. Gilstrap, 2005 WY 24, ¶ 6, 107 P.3d 158, 162 (Wyo.2005).

DISCUSSION

[¶ 14] To resolve this matter, we must first determine whether the existence of a lien under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 29-7-101 et seq. depends on the lien claimant's possession of the tangible personal property. In doing so, we strive to give effect to the legislature's intent and begin by looking at the ordinary and obvious meaning of the words employed according to their arrangement and connection. We also recognize " [l]ien statutes create remedies in derogation of common law and must be strictly construed" and " [w]e will not extend the scope of statutory lien laws." Coones v. FDIC, 894 P.2d 613, 616 (Wyo.1995) (citations and some quotations omitted).

[¶ 15] Title 29 of the Wyoming Statutes establishes lien rights to persons performing work or providing services for certain kinds of property. Importantly, the requirements vary depending on the type of property at issue. For instance, Chapter 2 governs liens for work performed on real property. Chapter 3 controls liens concerning mineral interests. Chapter 4 deals with ditches, canals, and reservoirs. Chapter 5 is limited to owners and operators of harvesting machines. And Chapter 7 governs liens against personal property. Our discussion begins by examining the pertinent lien statute governing personal property, which grants lien rights to persons who perform work on tangible personal ...


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