High Court to hear Randolph Co. case - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

High Court to hear Randolph Co. case

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ATLANTA, GA (WALB) -

The Supreme Court of Georgia will hear a land dispute case from Randolph County next week.

This is a summary of the case provided by the court:

A family is appealing a Randolph County court order in a land dispute in southwest Georgia, claiming that the family and its predecessors have had title to 126 acres of property since 1934.

            FACTS: The Mathews family members are heirs to the estate of T. R. Mathews; the Cloud family members are heirs to the estate of Marion and W. O. Cloud. The parties do not agree on the facts of the case, but the dispute is over more than 240 acres of land located in Cuthbert, GA, in rural Randolph County. At the center of the property is the "mill pond."

According to the Mathews, they own the 126 acres south of the pond with the actual property line running right through the middle of the pond. The heirs claim a Title Expert traced their connection to the property back to a "common grantor's" deed in 1883. "Common grantor" is a doctrine used in land subdivision situations which suggests that the way land is actually used is more indicative of ownership than recorded documents between the original full parcel owner (the grantor) and the subdivided parcel purchaser (the grantee).

Thomas Richard Mathews, Jr., testified at trial that a fence marking the boundary line used to run through the pond. He said that when he was a little boy (he was about 79 years old when he testified), that he and other family members swam in the pond up to the fence but did not cross over the line. He said they fished on their side of the pond and hunted the property south of the "Mathews Claimed Line."

He testified that he and his father ran cattle on their portion of "Land Lot 253" and that his father kept the trees trimmed. He said his nephews had deer stands and had hunted on the property every year since the 1970s. His nephews also maintained the roads with tractors and bulldozers in the area south of the Mathews Claimed Line. According to the Mathews' title expert, T. R. Mathews bought the 126 acres in the south part of Land Lot 253 in 1934 from J. E. Ware through a properly recorded deed.

 A 1956 deed, however, is of the sale by Albert L. Sealy to Marion Cloud of the property not only north of the line, but also south of the line, encompassing all of Land Lot 253. However, an earlier deed shows that Sealy only owned the 125 acres north, east and west of the mill pond. No one produced evidence to explain how Sealy sold all the land to Marion Cloud in the 1956 deed when he only owned the northern 125 acres.

According to the Clouds, they own all of the land in Land Lot 253. In 1956, Marion Cloud purchased Land Lot 253, as well as 251 and 252, in the 9th District of Randolph County under a Warranty Deed issued by Albert Sealy that is recorded in the Public Records of Randolph County. The Warranty Deed relied upon, and cited, a plat prepared for T. R. Mathews in 1946 by a registered surveyor. For 50 years, there was no dispute between the families over the boundary line. In 2010, however, after heirs to T. R. Mathews, including Gay Sheffield Mathews, began to encroach on their property, heirs to Marion Cloud, including Loring Cloud, sued, seeking an award of title to all of Land Lot 253.

 According to the Clouds, the 1934 deed was vague and lacked sufficient description. After they purchased the land, the Clouds moved in and began living there in 1961. They continuously used the land and pond that the Mathews claim is partially theirs. They constructed and maintained roads, cultivated food plots on the land south of the pond, hunted and walked the land south of the pond, planted pines, mowed and tended the land.

Following a three-day trial in November 2012, the jury ruled for the Clouds on all disputed property issues. The Mathews now appeal to the state Supreme Court.

ARGUMENTS: The Mathews' attorney argues the trial court erred in denying the Mathews' motion for a "directed verdict" by the judge in their favor at the close of the Clouds' presentation of their case. The Mathews had superior title due to the common grantor deed, and the Clouds offered no evidence that the title they claimed could be traced to a common grantor. Furthermore, they could not explain how Albert Sealy purchased only the north part of the land but later purportedly sold all of it, including the south part.

By denying the Mathews' motion, the judge left the jury unnecessarily confused. The trial court also erred in not granting a Motion for New Trial when the final judgment was contrary to the evidence and contrary to justice because the Mathews proved they had a superior record title.

"Since [the Mathews] proved that they had superior title from the common grantor in and to that 126 acre tract, and that [the Clouds'] title therein was defective, [the Mathews] should prevail as to record title," the attorney argues in briefs. Furthermore, there was no evidence to support that the Clouds had actual possession of the south part of the property that is in dispute or could claim it through "adverse possession" – which allows people to claim land they have continuously used for a set period of time.

"While [the Clouds] offered copious words to describe their use of property in Land Lot 253, none of that testimony amounted to actual possession of the portion of Land Lot 253 in dispute, but rather related almost entirely only to the portion of Land Lot 253 not claimed by [the Mathews]," the attorney argues. Finally, in issuing its judgment, the trial court erred by making a substantial change to the verdict by arbitrarily establishing a boundary line that was in favor of the Clouds when the jury drew no such line.

The Clouds' attorney argues that under a 1953 Georgia statute, a major change occurred in the rules of evidence for lawsuits regarding title to land. Specifically, the statute allowed plaintiffs like the Clouds to prove they had title if they could show they had good record title for a period of 40 years. The Mathews tried to insinuate that the Clouds still needed to trace back title to a "common grantor."

 But the "reason the statute was enacted was to relieve that necessity," the attorney argues. The 1956 deed, showing good record title back 54 years by the time of the trial establishes a "prima facie case" that the Clouds owned all of Land Lot 253. The jury has already ruled in the Clouds' favor and the Mathews do not cite any legal authority for overturning the jury verdict. "One of the most basic rules of appellate review is that, if there is any evidence to support the jury's verdict and court's judgment, the judgment will not be disturbed on appeal," the attorney argues.

There was also plenty of evidence to support the Clouds' ownership through adverse possession. The Mathews "constantly try to minimize the fact that the [Clouds] actually lived on the tract of land of which a portion is the subject of this dispute." And testimony at trial showed nearly daily use by the Clouds or their tenants of the land. The judge did not make a change to the verdict, as the Mathews argue, but rather drafted the final order to coincide with the verdict – awarding all the land in Land Lot 253 to the Clouds as the jury indicated on the jury form. The Mathews' motion for a new trial was therefore properly denied.

Attorney for Appellants (Mathews): James Friese

Attorney for Appellees (Clouds): John Durham

 

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