Session: April 19, 2018
from the Chancery Court for Claiborne County No. 18340
Elizabeth C. Asbury, Chancellor
appeal arises from an action where the plaintiff sought to
reform a deed that did not transfer a disputed acre of
property to him. The plaintiff alleged that a mutual mistake
had occurred and that both plaintiff and defendants had
intended for the disputed acre to be sold. The trial court
held that the mutual mistake existed and that the error was
clear and convincing enough to allow for reformation of the
deed. The defendants appeal. We affirm the decision of the
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery
Court Affirmed; Case Remanded
Phillip L. Boyd, Rogersville, Tennessee, for the appellant,
Mike Robbins. Treva Robbins, New Tazewell, Tennessee, pro se
Brennan M. Wingerter, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Lee Dan Stone
III, Tazewell, Tennessee, for the appellee, Gillis Elliott.
W. McClarty, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which
D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Thomas R. Frierson, II, J.,
W. MCCLARTY, JUDGE
Robbins ("Mr. Robbins") and Treva Robbins
("Ms. Robbins") jointly owned 32.7 acres of real
estate at 179 Hatfield Lane in Tazewell, Tennessee (the
"Property") from September 18, 1996, to May 23,
2013. Mr. Robbins and Ms. Robbins (collectively
"Sellers") purchased the Property from Tilmon and
Kathleen D. Hatfield in two separate transactions on
September 18, 1996. The initial 31.7 acres were purchased for
$8, 828, and a separate acre was bought for $46, 172. Both
pieces of land were separately deeded to Sellers and
originally considered distinct properties by the Claiborne
County Assessor of Property. The couple built a new residence
on the 31.7 acres, while a well and a mobile home unsuitable
for living remained on the single acre. A Claiborne County
tax map included both plats of land as a single, combined
tract. In a 2007 application to reduce their tax burden,
Sellers stated their Property as a combined 32.7 acres. After
a fire destroyed the couple's new home. Mr. Robbins and
Ms. Robbins did not rebuild on the Property and later lived
elsewhere. Mr. Robbins filed a complaint for divorce against
Ms. Robbins in November 2012. The divorce complaint stated
that they owned "33 acres" together and did not
distinguish the two pieces of land. Ms. Robbins admitted the
"33 acres" statement was true in her answer to the
divorce proceedings continued, Sellers sought to sell the
Property. Their son had been jailed on a charge of statutory
rape, and the sale of the Property would fund his $50, 000
bond and pay out additional judgment liens and delinquent
taxes. Mr. Robbins asked his neighbor Boyd Mason ("Mr.
Mason") about finding someone who would buy the
Property. Mr. Mason told Mr. Robbins that Gillis Elliott
("Mr. Elliott") once said that he wanted to buy the
Property if it ever became available. After Mr. Robbins and
Mr. Mason went to Mr. Elliott's home to inform him that
the Property was available to purchase, the three men then
drove to the Property and examined it. Mr. Robbins and Mr.
Elliott went to the highest point of the Property so Mr.
Robbins could show Mr. Elliott its boundaries. Mr. Elliott
asked where the septic tank and well were located, to which
Mr. Robbins replied that the septic tank was at the front of
the house and the well was near the old trailer at the bottom
of the hill. As Mr. Robbins described the Property to Mr.
Elliott, it ran from "from the road to the river, "
beginning along Harbor Road in Claiborne County and widening
as it moved north with its wooded border along the Powell
River. Mr. Elliott learned that a 10-foot right of way
existed that connected to a neighbor's property and that
the Property line was fenced along the Powell River. Mr.
Mason testified that he heard Mr. Robbins tell Mr. Elliott
that the Property ran mostly "from the road to the
river." No mention was made of a separate acre or an
offset during the conversation between Mr. Robbins and Mr.
Elliott, even when they discussed the well located on the
disputed acre. A fence surrounded by overgrown plants was in
place near the disputed acre, but the fence covered more than
the entire acre and could not be clearly seen by Mr. Elliott
as he examined the Property. Mr. Elliott showed interest in
buying the Property, which he believed included the 32.7
acres on both plats.
Robbins testified at trial that he was willing to sell if Mr.
Elliott would deed him some of the wooded acres in the back
of the Property once his son's legal troubles ended in
the future. However, Mr. Robbins' claim was denied by Mr.
Elliott, not referenced in the trial court's ruling, and
not argued by any party on appeal. No written agreement was
drafted to memorialize the parties' discussion, which Mr.
Elliott said was not unusual for him and the way he had
previously purchased real estate. Subsequent to the
discussions, Mr. Elliott posted as bond a separate home that
he owned in order to gain the release of Mr. Robbins's
son from jail.
the sale was closed, Mr. Elliott began work to improve the
Property. Mr. Elliott hired two of Mr. Robbins's sons to
help him with the improvements, some of which occurred on the
disputed acre. Mr. Robbins's sons did not discuss the
status of the disputed acre with Mr. Elliott at that time.
During this period, Mr. Elliott also asked James Estep III,
the attorney handling the sale, to conduct a title search of
the Property. A title opinion dated May 22, 2013, related
that the land consisted of 31.7 acres. The Property was not
formally surveyed before closing, and Mr. Elliott did not
examine prior surveys before the sale. On May 23, 2013, Mr.
Elliott purchased the Property from Sellers for $60, 000. The
land deeded to Mr. Elliott included the 31.7 acres that
Sellers received from the Hatfields in September 18, 1996.
The deed did not include the separate, disputed acre
purchased separately by Sellers. Mr. Elliott said that he did
not know the exact acreage of the Property when he purchased
it and did not read the deed before or during the closing.
When describing the Property, the deed referenced both the
original deed of 31.7 acres and the tax map that stated the
Property was 32.7 acres. Three months later, Sellers
completed their divorce agreement. The agreement did not
reference or distribute the disputed acre to either party.
new owner, Mr. Elliott continued work on the disputed acre,
which included building a well house, clearing the land, and
graveling the road on the disputed acre. Mr. Elliott also
built a new residence using the basement of the house that
was destroyed by the fire. Two of Mr. Robbins's sons
continued to help Mr. Elliott with his work. Mr. Elliott
believed that the 32.7 acres belonged entirely to him until
he learned about Mr. Robbins's claim. Mr. Elliott
confirmed through tax records that a second deed existed for
the disputed acre. Sellers later claimed that they had
reserved the disputed acre as their son's inheritance.
Sometime after this development, Mr. Robbins, his son, and a
distant relative returned to the Property and erected a fence
around the disputed acre using posts and white rope. Mr.
Elliott later tore the fence down and continued to build on
the disputed acre. Upon learning about the second deed, Mr.
Elliott went to Ms. Robbins's residence and offered to
pay her $2, 000 to sign a quitclaim ...