Session June 9, 2015
Direct Appeal from the Chancery Court for Tipton County No. 30009 Don R. Ash, Senior Judge
David Edward Owen, Covington, Tennessee, for the appellants, David Pouncey, Wilbur David Pouncey Living Trust, Willard Berford, Casey Berford, and Rodney Berford.
Thomas D. Forrester and Rachel Kathryn Gangaware, Covington, Tennessee, for the appellee, Haddad Family Partnership.
Brandon O. Gibson, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Arnold B. Goldin, J., joined.
BRANDON O. GIBSON, JUDGE
The case before us involves a disputed boundary line between two tracts of farmland in Tipton County, Tennessee. Haddad Family Partnership ("Haddad") owns 208 acres of farmland near the Mississippi River. The property lying directly to the north of the Haddad tract is owned by the Wilbur David Pouncey Living Trust ("Pouncey"). Pouncey owns approximately 430 acres. The Haddad family and the Pouncey family farmed on the adjacent properties for decades without a dispute as to the common boundary.
Franky Delashmit has been farming the Haddad property for the Haddad family since 1981. He also worked as a sharecropper for Pouncey in 2003 and 2004. Since at least 1981 when Mr. Delashmit began farming the property, the northern portion of the Haddad property has contained a "field road" or access road, which Haddad has used for traveling back and forth to its irrigation system, among other things. The field road is 15 feet wide and runs from east to west across the Haddad property. The Haddad family considers the field road itself to be located on their property but basically has treated the road as indicative of the boundary between the properties. Mr. Delashmit has always used the road as a marker, indicating the northern point at which he should stop planting for Haddad. Likewise, the farmers for Pouncey did not plant or harvest beyond the field road. When Mr. Delashmit planted and harvested crops for Pouncey in 2003 and 2004, he also planted and harvested Pouncey's crops just up to the field road.
The boundary line dispute arose sometime in the winter of 2009-2010. For at least 75 years, a single pecan tree has grown in the middle of these fields near the boundary line between the Pouncey and Haddad properties and near the field road. Toward the northeast corner of the Haddad property, a tree line runs from east to west. It was Mr. Pouncey's understanding that the common boundary is located a few feet south of the pecan tree and runs even with the tree line to the east, such that the pecan tree is located on the Pouncey property. According to Mr. Pouncey, Haddad's field road has historically been located south of the pecan tree, but it was gradually moved northward over the years to run north of the pecan tree, crossing over onto his property. Mr. Pouncey decided to make it clear to Mr. Delashmit and Haddad that the property line was actually located south of the placement of the existing field road, so he drove steel posts into the ground at a point south of the field road. He told Mr. Delashmit that the post represented the location of the Haddad-Pouncey boundary line and instructed Mr. Delashmit not to cross the line.
In response, Haddad requested a survey to be performed by Paul Erwin in order to locate and confirm the boundary line between the Haddad property and the Pouncey property. The April 2010 survey performed by Mr. Erwin found that the existing field road and the land south of it belong to Haddad. Mr. Erwin placed several stakes along the line that he determined to be the boundary, which was located north of the pecan tree.
At some point, Mr. Pouncey removed the stakes placed by Mr. Erwin in connection with his survey. Around May of 2010, Mr. Pouncey's farmers planted soybeans over the existing field road on the disputed portion of land. When Mr. Delashmit went to plant soybeans for Haddad, he noticed that Mr. Pouncey had already planted on four to five acres of land that Haddad had planted in the past. Mr. Delashmit simply planted Haddad's soybeans over the soybeans planted by Mr. Pouncey, up to the edge of the field road. In the fall of 2010, Mr. Pouncey's farmers harvested the soybeans on the disputed portion of land, over and south of the field road, including the soybeans planted by Haddad.
The next year, in the spring of 2011, Mr. Delashmit planted Haddad's soybeans up to the field road before Mr. Pouncey's farmers planted. In August 2011, Haddad hired Mr. Erwin to reshoot the boundary line and replace the missing stakes. Because Mr. Pouncey had threatened to remove any additional stakes, Haddad had fence posts set in concrete to mark the boundary. In the fall of 2011, Mr. Pouncey's farmers harvested the soybeans to a point even farther south than the year before, on an area of five to six acres. This included the Haddad crops planted by Mr. Delashmit on the disputed land, past the pecan tree and the line of posts placed by Haddad's surveyor.
The following winter, Mr. Delashmit informed Mr. Pouncey of his intention to plant corn on the disputed area the following year. Mr. Pouncey admittedly threatened to destroy the corn crop if Mr. Delashmit planted it on the disputed property. Nonetheless, that spring, Mr. Delashmit planted corn on the disputed property up to the field road. Mr. Pouncey's farmers subsequently sprayed and killed the corn crop and then planted soybeans over it and the field road. As a result, Haddad was unable to harvest any of the corn it planted.
On September 7, 2012, Haddad filed suit in the chancery court of Tipton County. By way of an amended complaint, the named defendants included the Wilbur David Pouncey Living Trust, David Pouncey and his wife, and three farmers he employed --Willard Berford, Casey Berford and Rodney Berford. Haddad alleged that the Pouncey defendants crossed the common boundary line between the tracts of farmland and harvested or destroyed its crops during 2010, 2011, and 2012, causing Haddad to lose the use and economic benefit of its property. Haddad also alleged that the Pouncey defendants trespassed, converted, and caused damages to its crops, surveying stakes, and monuments.
Mr. Pouncey hired Van Boals in the spring of 2013 to conduct a survey in order to determine the correct boundary line between the properties. Mr. Boals' survey placed the boundary line 42.8 feet south of the line established by Mr. Erwin's survey and in line with the boundary proposed by Mr. Pouncey.
During a two-day bench trial, the court heard testimony concerning the disputed property and the two competing surveys. Paul Erwin testified in regards to the survey he conducted for Haddad. Mr. Erwin noted that Haddad never informed him of its opinion regarding the location of the disputed boundary. Mr. Erwin began by examining the deeds of the Haddad property and the adjoining properties to create a computer-generated title map based on the properties' legal descriptions. In creating the title map, he discovered that the latest Haddad deed was "an incomplete instrument, " in that it included a specific bearing and distance for only three of the four sides of the Haddad tract. Mr. Erwin found a complete description of the fourth side (the western boundary) in a deed from 1927. However, when he used all of the information regarding the four sides to verify the mathematical correctness of the legal description of the property, he found that the Haddad deed contained an "error of closure" of 622 feet, which Mr. Erwin considered to be "a whole lot." Despite this error of closure, however, Mr. Erwin found that each of the deeds from 1910 to the current deed consistently called for the north line of the Haddad property to be common with the south line of the Dunlap Estate, which was the predecessor to the Pouncey property.
After gathering a complete legal description from his review of the Haddad deeds and the deeds of the adjoining properties, Mr. Erwin visited the property to attempt to find any markers for the Haddad property boundaries or the boundaries of adjoining properties. The Haddad property is intersected near its western side by Coon Valley Road, which is a gravel road running from north to south through the Haddad and Pouncey properties. Mr. Erwin located two iron stakes on the west side of the road several hundred feet apart. The deed from the adjoining property to the west called for one of these iron stakes to be the northwest corner of the Haddad property. The westernmost stake marked the southwest corner of the Pouncey property.
After discovering these initial points, Mr. Erwin continued east across Coon Valley Road toward the tree line in the northeast corner of the Haddad tract to attempt to find more markers. Around the tree line, he found "very scant evidence" of fence and wire in some trees and one or two old wooden posts. Going south, Mr. Erwin discovered a steel post on the bank of a large ditch, which he determined was likely to be the southeast corner of the Haddad property. However, when comparing the physical monumentation with the legal descriptions in the deeds, Mr. Erwin found that they did not "match up." Because Mr. Erwin knew that the Haddad deed was incomplete and also contained the error of closure, he decided to survey the ...