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Elliott v. Robbins

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

June 21, 2018


          Session: April 19, 2018

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Claiborne County No. 18340 Elizabeth C. Asbury, Chancellor

         This 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 trial court.

         Tenn. 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 appellant.

          Brennan M. Wingerter, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Lee Dan Stone III, Tazewell, Tennessee, for the appellee, Gillis Elliott.

          John W. McClarty, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., joined.



         I. BACKGROUND

         Mike 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 complaint.

         As 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.

         Mr. 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.

         Before 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.

         As the 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 ...

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