King v. Jackson , 2015 Ark. App. 588 ( 2015 )


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  •                                  Cite as 
    2015 Ark. App. 588
    
                     ARKANSAS COURT OF APPEALS
                                            DIVISION II
                                           No. CV-15-129
    
    
    IDA KING and KENNETH CALDWELL                     Opinion Delivered   October 21, 2015
                        APPELLANTS
                                                      APPEAL FROM THE PULASKI
                                                      COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, FIFTH
    V.                                                DIVISION [NO. 60CV-2011-192]
    
                                                      HONORABLE WENDELL GRIFFEN,
    LESLIE JACKSON and KAREN                          JUDGE
    JACKSON
                           APPELLEES                  REVERSED AND REMANDED
                                                      WITH INSTRUCTIONS
    
    
    
                               PHILLIP T. WHITEAKER, Judge
    
           Appellants Ida King and Kenneth Caldwell (“King and Caldwell”) appeal a Pulaski
    
    County Circuit Court order dismissing their complaint for ejectment against appellees Leslie
    
    Jackson and Karen Jackson.1 Because it cannot be determined whether the trial court found
    
    that King and Caldwell failed in their burden of proving a prima facie case for ejectment or
    
    whether the trial court improperly failed to shift the burden of proof to the Jacksons upon a
    
    showing of prima facie evidence by King and Caldwell, we reverse and remand.
    
    
    
    
           1
              This is the third time this case has been before us. The first two times, the appeal
    was dismissed for lack of a final order. King v. Jackson, 
    2014 Ark. App. 488
     (failure to dispose
    of outstanding claim for trespass); King v. Jackson, 
    2013 Ark. App. 264
     (voluntary dismissal
    of trespass claim without prejudice not sufficient). After the second appeal was dismissed for
    lack of a final order, King and Caldwell entered a voluntary dismissal of their trespass claim
    with prejudice and stated in their notice of appeal that they were abandoning any pending
    and unresolved claims. The order is now final and appealable.
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    2015 Ark. App. 588
    
           This appeal involves a dispute over entitlement to possession of real estate. The real
    
    estate in question was purchased by Elbert Caldwell and his wife in 1958 by warranty deed.2
    
    The deed more particularly described the property as follows:
    
           All of Tract 4 and all of Tract 3, Except that part of Said Tract 3 which lies North of
           Upper Hot Springs Highway, in MARION ACRES ADDITION to Little Rock,
           Arkansas, subject to an easement 20 ft in width along the East side thereof for road
           right-of-way.[3]
    
           In 1995, Elbert Caldwell entered into some form of a land transaction with the
    
    Jacksons. The nature of the transaction is at the heart of the current dispute. King and
    
    Caldwell contend that the transaction was a lease. The Jacksons contend that the transaction
    
    was a sale of approximately three acres. It is undisputed that the Jacksons took possession of
    
    approximately three of the six acres purportedly conveyed to Elbert Caldwell in 1958. They
    
    placed a manufactured home on the property. When the manufactured home burned down
    
    in 1997, the Jacksons constructed a 1400-square-foot home on the property over the next ten
    
    to twelve years.
    
           In 2008, King and Caldwell obtained two deeds to the property in question. The first
    
    was a warranty deed dated May 5, 2008, filed of record in the office of the Recorder of
    
    Pulaski County, Arkansas, as Instrument No. 2008030575.4 The second was a correction
    
    
           2
               Elbert Caldwell is the father of the appellants, King and Caldwell.
           3
            The description of the property in the warranty deed gives no indication as to the
    amount of property being conveyed. The testimony before the court was that it consisted of
    approximately six acres.
           4
             This warranty deed was referenced in the correction deed but was never introduced
    as evidence.
    
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    deed dated August 6, 2008. This correction deed purportedly corrects some error in the May
    
    5, 2008 warranty deed.
    
           Elbert Caldwell died in 2009. In October 2010, King and Caldwell sent the Jacksons
    
    a letter to vacate the property. The Jacksons did not respond to the letter or vacate the
    
    property.
    
           In January 2011, King and Caldwell filed a complaint against the Jacksons for trespass
    
    and ejectment in the Pulaski County Circuit Court. In their complaint, they alleged
    
    ownership of the subject property pursuant to the correction deed. King and Caldwell then
    
    alleged in their complaint that the Jacksons had entered into a verbal ten-year lease agreement
    
    with Elbert Caldwell and that the agreement contained an option to buy the property for
    
    $6,000. King and Caldwell claimed that the lease expired in 2006 without the Jacksons
    
    renewing the lease or paying any sums toward the lease. They further alleged that the
    
    Jacksons built a permanent dwelling on the property without Elbert Caldwell’s written
    
    permission. Finally, they alleged that they had rescinded any permissive use of the property
    
    by virtue of an October 21, 2010 letter and that the Jacksons had refused to vacate the
    
    property.
    
           The Jacksons answered the complaint, denying that they had entered into a ten-year
    
    lease with Elbert Caldwell. Instead, they asserted that they had entered into an agreement to
    
    purchase the land “described in the complaint” for $6,000 and that they completed the
    
    purchase of the property on November 8, 1996, when they paid Elbert Caldwell the balance
    
    owed on the property of $4,550. The Jacksons claimed that Elbert Caldwell never provided
    
    
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    them with a deed to the land because he could not afford to have a survey conducted. The
    
    Jacksons admitted building a home on the property after the manufactured home had burned,
    
    but asserted that Elbert Caldwell was well aware of the construction and had visited the site
    
    to observe the progress. The Jacksons stated that they began to pay the taxes on the property
    
    in 1996, but they paid Elbert Caldwell rather than the Pulaski County Treasurer because the
    
    entire six-acre parcel was still in Elbert Caldwell’s name. Finally, they claimed that Elbert
    
    Caldwell deeded the property to King and Caldwell because he was afraid the property would
    
    get caught up in a potential lawsuit, but that Elbert Caldwell assured them that King and
    
    Caldwell would have the property surveyed and would convey clear title to them.
    
           The dispute between the parties proceeded to a bench trial. At the trial, both King and
    
    Caldwell testified and presented evidence to the court. They both claimed obtaining
    
    ownership to the property from their parents pursuant to the correction deed. King and
    
    Caldwell claimed that they had paid the property taxes since obtaining title. Both denied that
    
    the Jacksons had ever paid any property taxes or that they had received any rent from the
    
    Jacksons. They admitted that the Jacksons had been in possession of some of the property,
    
    approximately three acres, but contended that this possession was because of a ten-year lease
    
    that had since expired. They demanded that the Jacksons be ejected.
    
           In response, both Leslie and Karen Jackson testified and presented evidence. They both
    
    testified that they had purchased approximately three acres from Elbert Caldwell and had
    
    been in possession of the property since 1995. They admitted that they did not have a deed
    
    to the property, but introduced a handwritten receipt purportedly signed by Elbert Caldwell
    
    
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    as proof of payment. The receipt noted the date of the transaction, the address of the property
    
    “20427 Col. Glenn Road, Little Rock, Ar 72210,” and the payment made of $4,550 received
    
    from “Leslie and Karen Jackson” for “Balance on land – 3 acres.” The Jacksons contended
    
    that this payment was the final installment of the purchase price of $6,000.5 In addition to
    
    paying the purchase price, the Jacksons presented evidence that they paid the property taxes
    
    directly to Elbert Caldwell because he still had the deed for the entire 6-acre tract, and that
    
    they built their 1400-square-foot house on the property after the fire had destroyed their
    
    initial manufactured home. They both reported that Elbert Caldwell was well aware of the
    
    home construction and voiced no objections.
    
           After hearing the evidence, the trial court issued its final written order, concluding that
    
    King and Caldwell “failed to show that they are entitled to have the [Jacksons] ejected from
    
    the property” and dismissing their complaint for ejectment. King and Caldwell appeal this
    
    order, arguing (1) that the trial court failed to shift the burden of proof to the Jacksons once
    
    a prima facie showing of entitlement to possession was presented and (2) that there was
    
    insufficient evidence presented by the Jacksons to overcome their title to the property.
    
           In order to sustain an action in ejectment, the plaintiff must establish that he is legally
    
    entitled to possession of the property. Ark. Code Ann. § 18-60-201 (Repl. 2003). The
    
    plaintiff may show entitlement to possession by proving that he has title thereto or the right
    
    of possession thereof, and that the defendant is in possession. Ark. Code Ann. § 18-60-206
    
    
           5
              They claim to have made two payments on the property. The receipt produced at
    trial showed the final payment on the property, and the first receipt was destroyed in the
    manufactured-home fire.
    
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    (Repl. 2003). Where a plaintiff makes a prima facie showing that he is entitled to possession
    
    of the property, either by holding title or holding a right of possession, the burden then shifts
    
    to the defendant to defeat the legal title. See Buckhannan v. Nash, 
    216 F. Supp. 843
    , 846 (E.D.
    
    Ark. 1963) (citing Foster v. Elledge, 
    106 Ark. 342
    , 
    153 S.W. 819
     (1913) and Weaver v. Rush,
    
    
    62 Ark. 51
    , 
    34 S.W. 256
     (1896)). However, a plaintiff must succeed, if at all, on the strength
    
    of his own title and cannot depend on the weakness of the defendant’s title. Dorey v. McCoy,
    
    
    246 Ark. 1244
    , 1248, 
    442 S.W.2d 202
    , 204 (1969); Knight v. Rogers, 
    202 Ark. 590
    , 
    151 S.W.2d 669
     (1941); Bunch v. Johnson, 
    138 Ark. 396
    , 
    211 S.W. 551
     (1919).
    
           Here, it is unclear on what basis the trial court premised its dismissal—want of prima
    
    facie evidence of title, want of prima facie evidence of possession, or proof by the Jacksons of
    
    a superior right of possession or title. The written order simply concludes that King and
    
    Caldwell failed to prove they were entitled to have the Jacksons ejected from the property
    
    without specification. When a written order does not specify the basis for the trial court’s
    
    conclusion, the appellate court may utilize the oral pronouncement of the trial court to
    
    determine the intent behind its written orders. See Ward v. Ark. Dep’t of Human Servs., 
    2014 Ark. App. 491
    . However, looking at the oral pronouncement of the trial court does not
    
    make the basis for the written order any clearer. King and Caldwell had the burden of
    
    proving, at a minimum, a prima facie entitlement to ejectment by either title or right of
    
    possession. They presented evidence of title by introduction of the correction deed. In its oral
    
    pronouncement, the court noted that the correction deed did not indicate an aggregate total
    
    acreage. However, it is not clear whether the court was actually making a ruling concerning
    
    
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    prima facie proof of title. What the court did say was that King and Caldwell had failed to
    
    prove their right to possess the three acres that was the subject of the ejectment action,
    
    expressing doubts that the property was the subject of a lease agreement as opposed to having
    
    been sold. However, again, it is not clear if this was a ruling concerning the prima facie proof
    
    of title or an improper failure to shift the burden of proof to the Jacksons as King and
    
    Caldwell allege. Therefore, we reverse and remand for a determination of whether King and
    
    Caldwell presented a prima facie showing of entitlement to possession of the property and,
    
    if so, whether the Jacksons presented sufficient evidence to defeat legal title.
    
           Reversed and remanded with instructions.
    
           GLADWIN, C.J., and HOOFMAN, J., agree.
    
           Johnson & Vines, PLLC, by: James “Chris” McNeal and J. Andrew Vines, for appellants.
    
           Jeffrey Weber, for appellees.
    
    
    
    
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Document Info

DocketNumber: CV-15-129

Citation Numbers: 2015 Ark. App. 588

Judges: Phillip T. Whiteaker

Filed Date: 10/21/2015

Precedential Status: Precedential

Modified Date: 10/21/2015