ALFRED T. PICKETT, MARVIN
E. BAUGH, PARK R. DAVIDSON,
and DAVID G. BAUGH,
No. 05 CVS 4535
RALPH L. ROBERSON,
Smith Moore LLP, by Bruce P. Ashley, James G. Exum, Jr., and
Angela L. Little, for plaintiffs-appellees.
Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard, L.L.P., by Randall A. Underwood and Jennifer T. Harrod, and The Firm at Fisher Park, by Alan E. Ferguson, for defendant-appellant.
The doctrine of collateral estoppel precludes the subsequent adjudication of a previously determined issue, even if the subsequent action is based on an entirely different claim. (See footnote 1) Here, the defendant's predecessor-in-title did not challenge a judicial determination that the disputed property at issue was a part of property partitioned by sale and conveyed by Commissioner's Deed to the plaintiffs' predecessors-in-title. We therefore affirm thetrial court's judgment finding the defendant to be collaterally estopped to claim title and declaring the plaintiffs to be the owners of the disputed property.
On 2 March 2005, Plaintiffs Alfred T. Pickett, Marvin E. Baugh, Park R. Davidson, and David G. Baugh brought an action against Defendant Ralph L. Roberson seeking declaratory judgment as to the ownership of a strip of real property. Mr. Roberson answered on 28 April 2005, denying Plaintiffs' ownership of the disputed property and, in the alternative, asserting the affirmative defenses of adverse possession under color of title and adverse possession.
The disputed property is a sliver of land to the north of Alamance Church Road in Guilford County. In 2005, Plaintiffs purchased for development purposes a tract of approximately forty- three and one-half acres north of Alamance Church Road. Since 1974, Mr. Roberson has owned and farmed a tract of approximately twenty-eight acres to the south of Alamance Church Road. The disputed property lies along Alamance Church Road and consists of a small area of approximately one-third of an acre of overlap between the property claimed by Plaintiffs and by Mr. Roberson in their respective deeds; in other words, the property descriptions in both deeds cover the disputed land. In their complaint, Plaintiffs contended that the dispute over the ownership of the strip of land has interfered with their ability to develop their tract.
The two tracts of land owned by Plaintiffs and Mr. Robersonwere both once part of a single tract of land owned by Lewis Clapp. When Mr. Clapp died in 1912, the tract of land currently owned by Mr. Roberson passed to his daughter Martha Shoffner, after a life estate in his widow Martha Clapp, by a specific devise in Mr. Clapp's will naming only the McNairy land, but offering no metes and bounds description. The property comprising Plaintiffs' tract was not the subject of a specific devise in Mr. Clapp's will. However, in 1940, a piece of property with substantially the same description as Plaintiffs' tract was the subject of a deed delivered by Mrs. Clapp to Mrs. Shoffner, and then of a subsequent deed reconveying the land back to Mrs. Clapp from Mrs. Shoffner, stating that the property description was inserted by mutual mistake.
Because the property was not specifically devised, it passed to Mr. Clapp's heirs by operation of law, after a life estate in Mrs. Clapp. Those heirs, who included Martha Shoffner, initiated a special proceeding at the time of Mrs. Clapp's death to partition the property by sale . At the conclusion of that proceeding, property with the same description as Plaintiffs' tract was conveyed by Commissioner's Deed to Charles R. and Estelle Corsbie Suits, two of Plaintiffs' predecessors-in-interest. The description of the property conveyed by the Commissioner's Deed included the disputed sliver of land at issue in this case. That Commissioner's Deed, dated 12 June 1943, was the first conveyance by deed following Mr. Clapp's death of either Plaintiffs' tract or Mr. Roberson's tract. Plaintiffs' and Mr. Roberson's respectivechains of title from that point on were not at issue in the case; both parties stipulated to each of the conveyances of the two tracts from the time of Mr. Clapp's death until they each acquired their separate tracts.
A bench trial was conducted on 11 July 2005, and the trial court subsequently entered a series of orders appointing a land surveyor as the court's expert for the purpose of rendering an expert opinion regarding the location of the boundary of Plaintiffs' land. On 23 January 2006, the trial court held a hearing to allow the surveyor to present his opinion and be examined by the parties. During the course of the hearing, the trial court raised sua sponte the issue of whether Mr. Roberson was estopped to claim title to the disputed sliver of land as a result of the participation by Martha Shoffner, a predecessor in his chain of title, in the 1942 special proceeding. At the trial court's request, the parties submitted post-trial briefs on the issue. On 15 March 2006, the trial court entered judgment in favor of Plaintiffs, declaring them the owners of the disputed property and Mr. Roberson estopped to claim ownership.
Mr. Roberson now appeals, arguing that the trial court erred in holding that he is estopped to claim ownership of the disputed property because the 1943 Commissioner's Deed conveyed the disputed property, and that it is therefore owned by Plaintiffs. We disagree.
We note at the outset that the assignments of error Mr. Roberson argues to this Court contest only several of the trialcourt's conclusions of law, asserting that they are based on inadequate findings of fact or insufficient evidence, or are erroneous as a matter of law. In his brief on appeal, Mr. Roberson does not include any of his assignments of error as to the trial court's findings of fact; as such, those assignments of error are deemed abandoned. See N.C. R. App. P. 28 (a) (Questions raised by assignments of error in appeals from trial tribunals but then not presented and discussed in a party's brief are deemed abandoned.).
We are therefore bound by the trial court's findings of fact in this matter, and we review only whether the trial court's conclusions of law are supported by its findings. See Creech v. Ranmar Props., 146 N.C. App. 97, 100, 551 S.E.2d 224, 227 (2001) (Where no exceptions are taken to findings of fact, such findings are binding on appeal. What remains for us to determine is whether the trial court's conclusions of law are supported by its findings of fact. Conclusions of law are entirely reviewable on appeal. (internal citations omitted)), cert. denied, 356 N.C. 160, 568 S.E.2d 191 (2002).
According to our state Supreme Court, the doctrine of collateral estoppel ensures that the determination of an issue in a prior judicial . . . proceeding precludes the relitigation of that issue in a later action, provided the party against whom the estoppel is asserted enjoyed a full and fair opportunity to litigate that issue in the earlier proceeding. Whitacre P'ship v. Biosignia, Inc., 358 N.C. 1, 15, 591 S.E.2d 870, 880 (2004) (citations omitted). Thus, collateral estoppel precludes thesubsequent adjudication of a previously determined issue, even if the subsequent action is based on an entirely different claim. Id. Accordingly, the doctrine bars the prosecution of anything to the contrary of what has been established as truth in a previous judicial proceeding. Id. at 13, 591 S.E.2d at 879. Collateral estoppel thereby advances the twin policy goals of protecting litigants from the burden of relitigating previously decided matters and promoting judicial economy by preventing needless litigation. Id. at 16, 591 S.E.2d at 880 (internal citation and quotation omitted).
In the instant case, the trial court made the following relevant findings, binding on appeal:
14. The petitioners in the special proceeding alleged, inter alia, that they and the defendants named therein were the living devisees mentioned in Item Third (4) of [Clapp's] will, and all the heirs of said devisees, and the spouses of all married parties having an interest in the land above described; that they were tenants in common of such land; and that such land was the only land that Clapp had not specifically devised.
15. Martha L. Shoffner and her spouse, Z.M. Shoffner, were parties defendant in the special proceeding.
16. Martha L. Shoffner and her spouse were served with process in the special proceeding.
17. Martha L. Shoffner and her spouse did not answer or otherwise respond to the petition in the special proceeding.
18. The relief sought in the special proceeding was granted and the Plaintiffs' Tract was sold, title transferred to Estelle Corsbie and Charles R. Suits by deed of the commissioner appointed to conduct the sale,dated June 2, 1943, . . ., and the net proceeds were distributed to the persons entitled thereto, including Martha L. Shoffner.
19. The description of the parcel in the Commissioner's Deed is substantially identical to the Partition Description, and to the descriptions in the deeds described in Findings 10 and 11 [related to the 1940 exchange of deeds between Martha Clapp and Martha Shoffner].
. . .
22. Until the plaintiffs acquired the
Plaintiffs' Tract, the descriptions of the
tract in the plaintiffs' chain of title are
substantially identical to the Partition
23. The description in the plaintiffs' deed . . . describes the same parcel as the Partition Description.
The trial court's judgment and the record before us likewise indicate that the disputed sliver of land at issue here was included in the property descriptions of both the specific devise from Mr. Clapp to Mrs. Shoffner and the residual property that fell to Mr. Clapp's other heirs and was then the subject of the special proceeding.
Given that Mrs. Shoffner was a party to the special proceeding, was served with process in the special proceeding, and shared in the proceeds from the sale of the property at issue in the special proceeding, we conclude that she enjoyed a full and fair opportunity to litigate in that special proceeding the issue of whether she had sole ownership of the disputed sliver of land. See id. at 15, 591 S.E.2d at 880. Moreover, we observe that the trial court's findings as to Mrs. Shoffner's exchange of deeds withher mother, Mrs. Clapp, for property including the disputed sliver of land, suggest that she herself did not believe the disputed sliver was part of the McNairy land that was specifically devised to her. The property description determined in the special proceeding was necessary to the outcome of the partition by sale; as such, the boundaries of the property described and conveyed in the Commissioner's Deed, including the disputed sliver of land, were established as truth[.] Id. at 13, 591 S.E.2d at 879.
Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court's findings of fact were legally sufficient to support its conclusion that Mr. Roberson was estopped to claim title to the disputed sliver of land. We therefore affirm the trial court's judgment.
Judges TYSON and CALABRIA concur.
Report by Rule 30(e).
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