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Thomas v. Thomas

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

April 17, 2017

STEVEN J. THOMAS, ET AL.
v.
JEFFREY M. THOMAS, ET AL.
v.
DELMUS L. THOMAS, ET AL.

          April 4, 2017 Session [1]

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Crockett County No. C-9383 George R. Ellis, Chancellor

         This appeal concerns the proper ownership of a piece of farm property in which the deed recites ownership as one-half to parents and one-fourth each to their two sons. The trial court eventually ruled that the property in dispute was solely owned by parents based on the complaining son's nonpayment of taxes and awarded full ownership of the property to the parents under the theories of title by prescription and unjust enrichment. We reverse and remand.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court is Reversed and Remanded\

          Donnie W. Knott, Milan, Tennessee, for the appellant, Steven J. Thomas.

          Phillip G. Hollis, Camden, Tennessee, for the appellees, Delmus L. Thomas, and Emily Faye Thomas.

          J. Steven Stafford, P. J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Brandon O. Gibson, J. and W. Michael Maloan, SP.J., joined.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [2]

          J. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE.

         Background

         On June 23, 2010, Plaintiff/Appellant Steven J. Thomas ("Steven")[3] and his wife filed a petition in the Crockett County Chancery Court for a partition by sale of four farms jointly owned with his younger brother, Defendant Jeffrey M. Thomas ("Jeffrey, " together with Steven, "Sons")[4] and Jeffrey's wife.[5] On August 10, 2010, Jeffrey filed an answer, counter-claim, and third-party complaint, seeking the partition of eight additional farms and therefore bringing into the case as third party defendants Sons' parents, Defendants/Appellees Delmus L. Thomas ("Father") and Emily Faye Thomas ("Mother, " or, together with Father, "Parents"). Only one of the eight farms, referred to as the "McLemoresville farm, " ("the property") is directly at issue on this appeal. The deed to this property reflects that Parents own a one-half interest, Steven owns a one-fourth interest, and Jeffrey owns a one-fourth interest in the property.[6] On October 20, 2010, Parents filed a pro se response alleging that the property was conveyed to the Sons solely for inheritance tax purposes and denying that Parents should be forced to sell their property.

         Over four years later, on December 5, 2014, [7] Parents, through counsel, filed an answer and counter-complaint, alleging several causes of action. Parents sought exclusive ownership of the property either through a declaration of resulting trust, constructive trust, or reformation of the deed. Parents also argued that they are presumed to be the sole legal owners of the property based on their payment of property taxes for more than twenty years before the action was filed in 2010 pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated sections 28-2-109 and 28-2-110. On December 30, 2014, Steven filed a response, denying the material allegations contained in Parents' pleading, and a motion for a more definite statement. Several contentious filings followed, but ultimately, on January 11, 2016, a consent order was entered, with the parties agreeing to the following stipulated facts:

The [property] was deeded to Delmus Lee Thomas and wife, Emily Faye Thomas and Steven Joe Thomas in December 1976. This original deed by its acceptance had the buyers assume an existing debt to Federal Land Bank, but none of the buyers signed any separate assumption document. A loan was obtained from PCA and secured by the [property] and another piece of land owned by [Parents]. The deed of trust to PCA was signed by all three owners of record. This deed was prepared in accordance with the instructions of [Parents].
That at the time of purchase of the [property], both [Sons] were residing in the home with their Parents and being supported by them.
At or about the time that Jeff[rey] . . . became an adult, [Parents] and Steven executed a Warranty deed [on January 19, 1979] that stated [Parents] would own a one-half (1/2) interest as tenants by the entirety and [Sons] would each own a one-fourth (1/4) interest in the property.
In 1980, the loans were refinanced with Federal LandBank. All four (4) owners of record signed the deed of trust, but only Mr. and Mrs. Thomas signed the note to FLB. The refinance paid off the assumed FLB debt and the PCA debt done at the time of purchase.
In 1992 and in 2000, small pieces of the [property] were sold to the State of Tennessee-Department of Transportation. All four (4) parties signed both deeds.
The parties all farmed together in a harmonious relationship the properties owned by them from 1980 until 1998 when [Parents] retired from active farming. After the retirement of [Father], [Sons] farmed together and while they farmed together, [t]hey paid [Parents] rent based on a share of the crop proceeds. Since 2006, Jeffrey has farmed the [property] and paid rent to [Parents] in the same way. The rent he paid in 2014 was $25, 000.00.
Since the property was first acquired, [Parents] have paid all taxes, expenses and costs and have received and kept all revenues and monies from the [property]. [Sons] never paid any of the property taxes on the [property]. No party, or combination of parties, had ever commenced a court proceeding as to any matter or issue until the filing of this partition case in Crockett Chancery Court.
The first mention or talk that [Sons] did not own any interest in the [property] came in 2010 at or about the time that Jeff[rey] . . . filed his Petition for Partition asking for the Partition of the [property]. [Parents] have stated that they would have never thought that [Sons'] name[s] would have needed to come off of the deed to the [property] until 2010 when the Partition suit was filed.
[Parents] had a quitclaim deed prepared in 2010 to have [Sons] convey all interest they had in the [property] to [Parents]. Jeff[rey] . . . has signed his interest over to [Parents] but the deed has never been delivered or recorded.
All deeds, deeds of trust and other documents of record in the Register's Office of Carroll County, Tennessee are agreed to as being the same as if certified copies were filed.

         Parents and Steven also filed trial briefs, and the case was submitted to the trial court for adjudication based on the record. Steven's trial brief, in particular, anticipatorily objected to any theories of ownership that Parents may raise in their trial brief that were not previously raised in the pleadings, such as title by prescription and unjust enrichment.[8] Parents later filed their trial brief, indeed raising these anticipated theories.

         On June 17, 2016, the trial court entered an order finding that Parents are the sole owners of the property based on prescription and unjust enrichment because they paid for all of the costs associated with ownership of the property for over two decades. On October 18, 2016, the trial court entered an amended order, [9] which also: (1) ruled on the disposition of the other seven farms in the original petition for partition, stating that because partition in kind was not feasible, the farms should be sold at an auction with the net proceeds divided among the parties; (2) clarified that the dispute involved ownership of the property and that all other claims had been withdrawn by voluntary dismissal; and (3) stayed the sale of the other seven farms until the ownership of the property is finally resolved. Steven appeals.[10]

         Issues

         Steven raises the following issues for our review, which we have taken from his brief ...


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