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Butler v. Pitts

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

August 10, 2017


          Session June 29, 2017

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Haywood County No. 2014-CH-46 George R. Ellis, Chancellor

         This is the second appeal of this easement case. Appellants, the servient land owners, appeal the trial court's award of a monetary judgment in favor of Appellees, the owners of the dominant estate. On remand, the parties agreed to have the trial court determine the precise location of the easement, but the trial court refused to hear the issue, and also refused to allow Appellants to make an offer of proof. We vacate the damage award due to the trial court's failure to make sufficient findings. We also conclude that the trial court erred by refusing to determine the location of the easement. Vacated and remanded.

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

          James S. Haywood, Jr., Brownsville, Tennessee, and Christopher N. Davis, Alamo, Tennessee, for the appellants, Malvin Carvin Pitts, Jr., Malvin Carvin Pitts, III, and Marcia Lee Pitts.

          Pat H. Mann and Joshua B. Shearon, Brownsville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Stephen Leath and Billy Butler.

          Kenny Armstrong, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Brandon O. Gibson, J., joined.



         I. Factual and Procedural History

         This is the second appeal of this case. Members of the James family, parties in the previous appeal, owned several tracts of farmland in rural Haywood County. Butler v. Pitts, No. W2015-01124-COA-R3-CV, 2016 WL 561078, at *1 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 12, 2016) ("Butler I"). The Appellees, in the current appeal, are members of a group of hunters who leased a portion of the James' land for hunting purposes. In 2004, the hunters purchased the land they had been leasing from the James family. In addition to conveying forty-three acres to the hunters, the James family granted the hunters a thirty-foot easement for ingress and egress over an adjacent tract of land they owned. This easement was recorded on March 1, 2004, in the office of the Haywood County Register of Deeds; it provides:

For good and valuable consideration, receipt of which, is hereby acknowledged, we, William James and Ewell James do hereby grant unto Billy Butler, Stephen Leath, Kenneth McBride and Cecil Clint Dixon a thirty (30) foot easement for ingress and egress to a 43-acre tract known in the property assessor's office of Haywood County, Tennessee as Map 20, Parcel 38 over and across presently existing roadway as shown in a yellow ink on the map attached hereto.

         In 2013, approximately nine years after the easement was recorded, Malvin Carvin Pitts, Jr., Marcia Lee Pitts, and Malvin Carvin Pitts, III, (together, "Appellants") purchased, from the James family, the property that was subject to the hunters' easement. Prior to their purchase, Appellants had leased and actively farmed the same land for a number of years. Appellants hired a closing attorney to perform a title examination and to draft the deed. Although, as noted above, the hunters' easement was recorded, Appellants' closing attorney did not reference the recorded easement in the warranty deed conveying the land to Appellants. Appellants' deed, recorded on January 29, 2014, contains the following language:

We covenant with the said Malvin Carvin Pitts, Jr., Marcia Lee Pitts and Malvin Carvin Pitts, III, that we are lawfully seized and possessed of said real estate; that we have a good and lawful right to sell and convey the same; that the same is unencumbered; and that we will forever warrant and defend the title thereto against the lawful claims of all persons whomsoever.

         Some months after their purchase, Appellants made substantive changes to the existing easement, blocking the hunters' ingress and egress to their property. Consequently, on July 8, 2014, the hunters filed a complaint against the Appellants, alleging that the Appellants "intentionally removed the culvert at the end of the easement where it adjoined the county road, plowed up the road and planted soybeans on the roadway easement." The hunters further alleged that Appellants' actions had denied them use of the easement. The hunters asked the trial court to order the Appellants to reopen the easement and to restore it to its original condition. Additionally, they asked for damages, both compensatory and punitive, ...

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