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Harber v. Dixon

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 12, 2019


          Session October 17, 2019

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Anderson County No. 14CH6451 M. Nichole Cantrell, Chancellor

         This appeal arises from an acrimonious dispute between former friends over real property. William M. Pruitt and his wife Shirley J. Pruitt ("the Pruitts," or "Mr. Pruitt" and "Mrs. Pruitt") live in a house next to three parcels of land once owned variously by Mr. Pruitt's stepfather and mother, both of whom died intestate. J. Philip Harber ("Mr. Harber"), former attorney for the Pruitts, paid Mr. Pruitt's fellow heirs for quitclaim deeds with the aim of acquiring their interests in the subject parcels. Mr. Harber then filed a petition in the Chancery Court for Anderson County ("the Trial Court") to determine the interests of the parties and sell the three parcels. The Trial Court found in favor of Mr. Harber and ordered a partition by sale for division. The Pruitts appealed to this Court. On appeal, the Pruitts rely on several theories to argue that Mr. Harber never acquired an interest in the land. The Pruitts argue further that, even if Mr. Harber acquired an interest, the Trial Court should have applied the doctrine of unclean hands to deny him his requested relief because he sued them out of spite. We find and hold, inter alia, that Mr. Pruitt is but one of many heirs to his deceased parents' land; that the other heirs never lost their interests in the land; and, that the other heirs were at liberty to sell their interests in the land to Mr. Harber, which they did. Although there is considerable evidence that Mr. Harber was motivated by spite in bringing this action, that alone does not compel application of the unclean hands doctrine, particularly as fraud is not alleged. Finding no reversible error, we affirm the judgment of the Trial Court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed; Case Remanded

          Gerald L. Gulley, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, William M. Pruitt.

          Philip R. Crye, Jr., Clinton, Tennessee, for the appellant, Shirley J. Pruitt.

          Mark N. Foster, Madisonville, Kentucky, for the appellants.

          J. Philip Harber, pro se appellee.

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




         Mr. Harber and the Pruitts, formerly friends for many years, are neighbors with a long and tangled history. Mr. Pruitt is a mechanic and tow truck driver. Mr. Harber, a lawyer and businessman, represented the Pruitts in various legal matters over the years. The parties' friendship collapsed in 2007. In the feud that followed, three parcels of land historically belonging to Mr. Pruitt's family came to the forefront. While the Pruitts contend that they own the subject parcels solely, the controversy over who else may have an interest in the land-and thus a right to sell that interest-is at the center of this appeal. A review of the parcels is necessary.

         The Pruitts live in Clinton, Tennessee. The properties at issue are parcels 24, 26, and 36. The Pruitts' home is located on parcel 24.01, a small lot that once was a part of parcel 24. Parcel 36 was owned solely by J.R. Harris, Mr. Pruitt's stepfather. Parcels 24 and 26 were owned by both J.R. Harris and his wife Juanita Harris, Mr. Pruitt's mother. J.R. Harris died in 1992, and Juanita Harris in 2003. Both died intestate. The last recorded deeds for the parcels are as follows: (1) Parcel 26: a quitclaim deed dated September 11, 1980 from Baby Boy Harris to J.R. and Juanita Harris; (2) Parcel 24: a quitclaim deed dated December 15, 1982 from Joe E. Magill and Elizabeth Ann Magill to J.R. and Juanita Harris; and, (3) Parcel 36: a warranty deed dated July 27, 1960 from John and Laura Young to J.R. Harris. Parcel 24.01 was conveyed to the Pruitts from J.R. and Juanita Harris by warranty deed dated November 11, 1983. Mr. Pruitt purportedly purchased parcel 24 for $3, 000 in 1983. In 1999, Mr. Pruitt borrowed $61, 200 secured by his home on parcel 24.01 and used some of the money, again purportedly, to pay his mother $10, 000 apiece for parcels 36 and 26. No deeds were exchanged in these transactions, however. Parcel 26 was the site of an old house once occupied by J.R. and Juanita Harris. The Pruitts used parcel 36 as a garden. In 1984, Mr. Pruitt moved his mother to his house on parcel 24.01. The old house on parcel 26 remained standing but empty for 15 years until Mr. Pruitt demolished it in 1999.

         Upon J.R. Harris's death in 1992, title to parcel 36 vested in his heirs, including Juanita Harris but also his four children, Donna Leigh Harris Sanders, John Robert Harris, Beulah Harris Pannell, and Eugene Rod Harris. Title to parcels 24 and 26 vested solely in Juanita Harris as surviving tenant by the entirety. Juanita Harris had nine children, six of whom were living at the time of the proceedings below. In addition to Mr. Pruitt himself, these living children of Juanita Harris included Mary Ann Pruitt, Babe Ruth Pruitt, Donna Lee Harris Sanders, John Robert Harris, and Beulah Harris Pannell. Three of Juanita Harris's children are deceased. They are Charles William Washington, who died before his mother; Bobby Washington, who died before his mother; and, Eugene Rod Harris, who died after his mother. Charles William Washington had the following children: (1) Rodney Lee Washington, (2) Joseph Franklin Washington, (3) Charlotte Denise Washington, (4) Charles William Washington, Jr., (5) Anna Marie Bunn, (6) Robert Anthony Washington, (7) Samantha Jo Washington, and (8) Charles Adrian Washington. Bobby Washington had the following six children: (1) Marguerita Annette Dixon, (2) Bobbie Yvonne Washington Rowe, (3) Shenea Washington, (4) Gail Washington, (5) Kristie Leavette Washington, and (6) Mable Jeanette Washington Moore. Gail Washington is deceased. Eugene Rod Harris was married to Patty Harris when he died. Eugene Rod Harris had one child, Patrick Harris.

         In the early years of the 21st century, the Pruitts were experiencing tax problems. In 2004, parcels 24, 26, and 36 were sold because of delinquent taxes. Mr. Pruitt later paid to redeem the parcels. The order of redemption for parcel 36 stated: "the property shall be considered redeemed by William M. Pruitt, heir to J.R. Harris, and title is thereby restored to him as of the date of this order [November 8, 2005]." In turn, the order of redemption for parcel 24 stated: "The property shall be considered redeemed by J.R. Harris and Juanita Harris, and title is thereby restored to them as of the date of this order [November 1, 2005]." Finally, the order of redemption for parcel 26 stated: "the property shall be considered redeemed by J.R. Harris and Juanita Harris, and title is thereby restored to them as of the date of this order [November 1, 2005]." At one point, the Pruitts' home was foreclosed on. In 2006, Mr. Pruitt consulted with his then-friend and attorney, Mr. Harber, regarding parcels 24, 26 and 36. When they were temporarily evicted from their home on parcel 24.01, the Pruitts built a small house on parcel 26 to live in. Mr. Pruitt later repurchased his property, parcel 24.01, and moved back home.

         In 2007, Mr. Harber's friendship with the Pruitts fell apart completely. While the incident causing the split was not explored in depth at trial, as the Trial Court deemed it irrelevant, it involved Mr. Harber's dog getting killed. Mr. Harber blamed Mr. Pruitt. The next day, Mr. Harber left Mr. Pruitt a package containing his case files with a note stating: "Bill: I will NOT represent you again-EVER. Don't come on my property or call me again-EVER! You're on your own." Tensions continued to escalate as time passed. Mr. Harber allegedly made some defamatory statements about Mr. Pruitt's business practices. In 2012, Mr. Pruitt filed a civil warrant for defamation against Mr. Harber in general sessions court. In January 2013, the defamation case was dismissed, and no appeal was taken.

         After the defamation case, the feud escalated further still. Beginning in February 2013, Mr. Harber obtained 14 quitclaim deeds from people he believed were members of Mr. Pruitt's family and heirs of Juanita Harris. The deeds describe parcels 24, 26, and 36. Mr. Harber paid cash to each signer. Mr. Harber traveled around as far as southwest Virginia to obtain these quitclaim deeds. In June 2014, Mr. Harber filed a petition in the Trial Court against the Pruitts, and anyone else he believed had an interest in the land, seeking the appointment of a special master to determine the respective interests of the parties in the three parcels and to sell the parcels. Mr. Pruitt filed an answer asserting that Mr. Harber failed to acquire an interest in the land through the quitclaim deeds. Mr. Pruitt also raised the affirmative defense of unclean hands. Mrs. Pruitt filed her own separate answer, as well as a counterclaim. Mrs. Pruitt relied upon the statute of limitations found at Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-2-101, et seq. to contend that the quitclaim deeds were champertous and void pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-4-201, et seq. In her counterclaim, Mrs. Pruitt asserted that the quitclaim deeds were void and should be stricken on grounds of adverse possession and ouster.

         The matter was bifurcated. First, in November 2016, a hearing was held on the Pruitts' affirmative defense of unclean hands. Mr. Harber testified that he undertook his quest for the quitclaim deeds because he wanted to prevent development on a vacant lot near his home. The Pruitts pressed Mr. Harber further on his motivations in filing the lawsuit. Mr. Harber was asked why, in February 2013, he posted copies of the deeds on Mrs. Pruitt's Facebook page and wrote: "What are these? Are you moving?" Mr. Harber testified:

Q. Why did you write in the Facebook message to Shirley Pruitt; are you moving?
A. Because I just did. I just did. I don't have a reason.
Q. That is your honest answer sitting here that you had no reason, your fingers just tripped over those letters on the keyboard?
A. That is your characterization.
Q. I mean, the answer is you have no excusable reason for having done it but you were angry, is that right?
A. Sure, I was angry at them.

         A number of Mr. Pruitt's family members testified to the interactions they had with Mr. Harber. Mr. Harber had approached them and offered them money for quitclaim deeds, which they signed. The thrust of the relatives' testimony, at this hearing and subsequent ones, was that they did not know or believe they had any interest in the subject parcels. They just went along with the transaction.

          Mr. Pruitt also was a witness, and he testified as to his 2006 discussions with Mr. Harber regarding the subject parcels:

Q. But during your discussion with Mr. Harber, what did he say about your brothers and sisters' interest in the property?
A. That's when he was telling me about the legal claim and claim. He said, they can claim it but they got to have a legal claim which they do not have. He said, did they offer to pay you your money back. I said, no. He said, did you make them aware. I said, yes, I called my sister and I told her, I said, look, we lost our property, I said, even though I lost it as well. If you all want to claim interest in it, you all can reimburse me my money and we can all have a legal claim in it again.
Q. That money you paid after the tax sale; was that your money or everybody's money?
A. My money.

         The Trial Court ruled in favor of Mr. Harber and declined to apply the unclean hands doctrine. In its November 2016 order, the Trial Court stated, in part:

The Court notes that no one is alleging that Petitioner's transactions with other heirs were fraudulent in nature. Many of the persons testifying at the hearing in this matter where those who had participated in the transactions for the purchase of their interest in the real property by Mr. Harber. None of these heirs have stepped forward to declare that these transactions needed to be set aside because they were fraudulent in nature. The Court concludes that there has been no proof offered to show that Petitioner committed any fraud or wrongdoing in the present litigation before the Court related to the transactions by which he obtained in lots #24, #26 and #36.
The Court concludes that the Respondents are not entitled to the application of doctrine of unclean hands as an affirmative defense in the action. The Court finds that there has been no fraudulent action or misconduct on the part of the Petitioner that rises to the level to warrant the application of the maxim of unclean hands. The anger that exists between the parties is simply not sufficient proof of unclean hands. Any other alleged misconduct by the Petitioner is not related to the cause of action that is currently before the court. The Court also concludes there has been no proof of damages by the Respondents. Therefore, the Court concludes that the Respondents are not entitled to relief based on their defense of unclean hands.

         The next phase of trial was conducted in July of 2017 and it concerned the Pruitts' theories of title by prescription, adverse possession based on color of title for at least seven years, common law adverse possession of twenty years, and champerty. Mr. Pruitt took the stand and testified that his relatives knew the land was his. In 1999, he discussed the issue with his sisters Mary Ann and Donna and his brother Rod. Mr. Pruitt stated that he had paid the taxes on the subject parcels since 1992. Mr. Pruitt testified that around the time he faced foreclosure, he consulted with Mr. Harber about ownership of the property, especially parcel 26. According to Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Harber asked him if any family members had helped pay taxes on the parcels. Mr. Pruitt told Mr. Harber they had not. Mr. Pruitt testified that Mr. Harber then stated: "well, technically it's yours." When Mr. Harber came to the stand, he testified: "I never discussed the title of-[Mr. Pruitt's] chain of title to his property. I never looked at the title to any of these properties until 2013-or late 2012, I guess." After overruling a motion by the Pruitts for a directed verdict, the Trial Court ruled that because evidence of a previously unknown heir had emerged and the Guardian ad Litem was not present, the hearing would have to be continued to a later date.

         In April 2018, the hearing resumed. Mrs. Pruitt took the stand. Mrs. Pruitt, age 59, testified that she had lived at her home near the disputed land with her husband for approximately 40 years. Since Juanita Harris died, no one else lived there other than the Pruitts and their children and grandchildren. Mrs. Pruitt testified that in the 40 years she has lived there, no family member has ever challenged her or her husband's right to the property. Mrs. Pruitt stated that neither she nor her husband ever sought permission from any family member to build anything on the subject parcels.

         Another potential heir, Quenelle T. Frazier ("Mr. Frazier"), testified. Mr. Frazier, age 29, was unsure exactly how he was related to Mr. Pruitt, but he had been served with an amended petition. Mr. Harber had asked him to sign a quitclaim deed but he refused to do so. Mr. Frazier did not claim any of the land, which he had last seen when he was much younger.

         Mr. Pruitt testified. Mr. Pruitt stated that he had lived on the property since 1958. In 2005, Mr. Pruitt learned that the subject parcels had been sold at a tax sale because of delinquent taxes. Mr. Pruitt paid to redeem the parcels. On cross-examination, Mr. Pruitt was asked about the level of contact he had with his family over the years, and whether he had held out that he owned the land exclusively:

Q. Do you recall saying in your deposition that you-all lost it? Not "you" lost the property; "you-all" lost the property? You told Mary Ann, "Look here, we all lost the property. If you want to claim an interest in it, I'm trying to get it back."
A. Well, let me clarify that. Based on the way it was sold in my mother and them's name, yes, that would show there. But in reality I owned it. I just didn't get it taken out of my parents' name.
Q. Okay. Did you have a written contract with your parents to purchase this property?
A. A written contract?
Q. Written contract?
A. Why should ...

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