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Robinson v. Pulte Homestennessee Limited Partnership

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

January 5, 2018

JAMES M. ROBINSON, ET AL.
v.
PULTE HOMESTENNESSEE LIMITED PARTNERSHIP

          Session November 9, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Wilson County No. 2013-CV-54 John D. Wootten, Jr., Judge.

         Purchasers of an unimproved parcel of real property filed suit against their grantor's seller, claiming that the seller violated the warranty of title that it issued to the purchasers' grantor. This action was filed several years after a related class action lawsuit was concluded in which the trial court ruled that the class plaintiffs' units were properly classified as condominiums rather than fee simple estates. The trial court in the instant action dismissed the complaint on grounds of res judicata and estoppel by deed, among other grounds. The purchasers appeal, and we affirm the trial court's judgment.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed

          Dan E. Huffstutter, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellants, James M. Robinson and Martha P. Robinson.

          Russell B. Morgan and Frankie Neil Spero, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Pulte Homes Tennessee Limited Partnership.

          Andy D. Bennett, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Richard H. Dinkins and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          ANDY D. BENNETT, JUDGE.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         James M. Robinson and Martha P. Robinson purchased an interest in an unimproved parcel of real property from Howard W. Lipman in June 2005. Mr. Lipman had acquired his interest in the property described as "Lot 3" or as "Unit 3" from Pulte Homes Tennessee Limited Partnership ("Pulte Homes") in July 2000. The warranty deed from Pulte Homes to Mr. Lipman stated that Pulte Homes was transferring and conveying to Mr. Lipman:

LAND in Wilson County, Tennessee, being UNIT No. 3, on the plan of Beacon Hill Village, Phase 3, according to the Master Deed of record in Book 411, page 92, as amended in Book 413, page 476; Book 419, page 391; and Book 421, page 473, in the Register's Office of Wilson County, Tennessee, and more particularly described in Plat Book 23, page 134, in the Register's Office of Wilson County, Tennessee, to which plat reference is hereby made for a more particular description.
BEING a portion of the property conveyed to Pulte Homes Tennessee Limited Partnership, by Deed of Record in Book 461, page 935, Register's Office of Wilson County, Tennessee. . . .

         The warranty deed from Mr. Lipman to the Robinsons included essentially the same description of Unit No. 3 and described it as "the same property conveyed to Howard W. Lipman by deed dated July 28, 2000, " that was recorded in the Wilson County Register's Office. The Master Deed referenced in Pulte Homes' deed to Mr. Lipman was dated August 31, 1988, and it established the Beacon Hill Village Condominium ("the Condominium"). In the definitions section, the Master Deed defined "Unit" as:

the fee simple estate within a Building, as such area is identified, located and described on the Plat and as hereinafter set forth.
(1) The boundaries of each Unit shall be as follows:
(i) The upper boundary shall be its highest ceiling,
(ii) The lower boundary shall be the upper unfinished surface of its floor (i.e. that surface directly beneath the carpeting, hardwood floors or other floor covering),
(iii) The vertical boundaries (measuring the horizontal area of a Unit) shall be the perimeter walls.

         The Master Deed provided that Beacon Hill Village Condominium Association, Inc. ("the Association" or "the Condominium Association") would be in charge of the Condominium's operation. Paragraph 3 of the Master Deed provided that:

(d) In the event of expansion, the definitions used in this Master Deed automatically shall be extended to encompass and refer to the Condominium as so expanded. All conveyances of Units after expansion shall be deemed effective to transfer rights in the Condominium as so expanded.
(e) All Additional Land, Units, Common Elements and Limited Common Elements hereafter added shall be subject to the terms, conditions and restrictions and entitled to the rights, benefits and privileges of this Master Deed and Plat and of all Supplements or Amendments respectively thereto, and the Condominium, as expanded from time to time, shall, at all times constitute one and only one Condominium under this Master Deed and the [Horizontal Property] Act.[1]

         Included within the "Additional Land" of Beacon Hill Village was a section of real property referred to as "Phase III of Beacon Hill Village, " which encompassed the property at issue, Unit 3. Pulte Homes acquired title to the Additional Land in February 1999. Pulte Homes and the Association entered into an agreement whereby Pulte Homes was to develop and construct forty attached and ten detached condominium units and incorporate them within the Master Deed. Lot 3 is one of the detached units that Pulte Homes sold to Mr. Lipman in July 2000.

         The Robinsons knew before they purchased Unit 3 that it was part of Phase III of Beacon Hill Village, which was governed by the Condominium Association. They knew they would be required to pay fees, assessments, and dues to the Association and that the architectural review committee would have to approve the design of the house they planned to construct. Mr. Robinson testified as follows:

Q: So when you closed on the property, it was your understanding that Lot 3 was part of the Beacon Hill Condominium Association; is that right?
A: Yes. It was my understanding that we bought a lot that was in the condominium association, that I had found the best of both worlds, that I was buying a lot on which I could build a house for my retirement house. And by being a part of the condominium association, somebody else would cut my grass. And I got to pay for that as a part of my dues, but somebody else would cut the grass, garbage pickup would be included, the tennis courts across the street and down would be [avail]able for my use.

         However, the Robinsons also believed that they were purchasing a fee simple interest in the land and house they were planning to build rather than merely in the interior space of their future house.

         The Stillwell Class Action

         In October 2011, Alex and Kathryn Stillwell, who were the owners of Unit 2, filed a class action against the Association, Pulte Homes, and the Wilson County Planning Commission asserting claims for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief on behalf of themselves and the other owners of the nine detached units in Phase III. The Robinsons were members of the class. In the Stillwell action, the plaintiffs alleged that they were fee simple owners of the detached units of Phase III and asked the ...


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