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Strait v. Savannah Court Partnership

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

May 16, 2019

Lester J. Strait; Kenneth Taylor and Shannon Taylor, individually and as Assignees of Lester J. Strait, Appellants
v.
Savannah Court Partnership; PSJ Properties, LTD.; V. Patrick Gray Custom Homes, Inc.; Home Creek, L.L.C.; JMJ Torian Properties L.L.C.; Cheatham Partners; Michael P. and Sarah Neustadt; James D. and Vivian S. Collier; Hatwater, L.L.C.; Gazim Idoski; Atwood Custom Homes, Inc.; Laura Hill, in her Official Capacity as Mayor of the City of Southlake; Shana Yelverton, in her Official Capacity as City Manager of the City of Southlake; Sean Ruckel; Lena Ruckel; Tinku Abraham; Asha Abraham; First National Bank; Providence Bank; and PlainsCapital Bank, Appellees

          On Appeal from the 342nd District Court Tarrant County, Texas Trial Court No. 342-281936-15

          Before Sudderth, C.J.; Gabriel and Pittman, JJ.

          OPINION

          Bonnie Sudderth, Chief Justice.

         I. Introduction

         This case concerns a dispute over a strip of land abutting the western boundary of Appellants Kenneth and Shannon Taylor's property. The Taylors argue that by applying common law presumptions to their chain of title, they own in fee simple a portion of land up to the centerline of a larger 60-foot wide strip of land (the Torian Lane Strip) that abuts their property (Abutting 30' Strip). They additionally argue that pursuant to their chain of title, they own a private easement over all of the Torian Lane Strip and that there has been no merger of the separate estates. Finally, the Taylors claim that the City of Southlake improperly filed for record a plat (Torian Place Plat) that did not reflect the Taylors' ownership interest in the Abutting 30' Strip or their easement rights across the Torian Lane Strip and that a residential real estate developer has now paved part of the Torian Lane Strip, ending the paved part in a cul-de-sac and cutting off access to the Torian Lane Strip and adjoining Dove Road from the Taylors' property.[1]

         Both New and Original Defendants filed motions for summary judgment, and the Taylors filed a motion for partial summary judgment. In its summary judgment ruling, the trial court found that the Taylors did not own the Abutting 30' Strip; that Appellee JMJ Properties owned Lot 6, Block 2 in the Torian Place Plat, which includes the Abutting 30' Strip; and that the Taylors have an undefined right of passageway over the land referred to as Torian Lane. Additionally, the trial court awarded New Defendants $29, 784.33 in attorney's fees. Original Defendants proceeded to a jury trial on the sole issue of their attorney's fees, and the jury awarded them $274, 926.50 in attorney's fees. The trial court incorporated its summary judgment rulings and the jury verdict into a final judgment.

         We reverse and remand.

         II. Background

         A. The Taylors' Chain of Title to the North Half of Lot 15 of Meadowmere Acres Beginning with the Common Source of James Torian

         It is undisputed that the Taylors own a .5-acre lot in Southlake, Texas-also known as the "North ½ of Lot 15, Meadowmere Acres, [an] unrecorded [plat]" (the Property). The dispute centers on whether the Property includes with it the Abutting 30' Strip and whether the Taylors have a private easement over the entire Torian Lane Strip. The Property is shown in the shaded area below, with the Abutting 30' Strip darkened and the Torian Lane Strip marked with a checkerboard pattern:

         (Image Omitted)

         The Taylors trace their chain of title in the Property and Abutting 30' Strip and their easement claim over all of the Torian Lane Strip as follows:

• In 1949, James Torian acquired by deed from Leona Tanner a 78.2 acre-tract of land in the F. Throop Survey (Torian Deed).
• In 1963, Torian executed a deed in favor of Cecil Marshall Yates (Yates Deed), conveying twelve tracts of his land, with six contiguous tracts on one side of a strip of land and six contiguous tracts on the other side of a strip of land.[2] Each of the twelve tracts was described by metes and bounds and included a description of being either on the east or west side of "Torian Lane (unrecorded plat)." Each tract was also identified as a numbered lot, and Lot 14's description refers to the unrecorded plat as being "dated August 18, 1953, prepared by O.H. McKlyn, Dallas, Texas[.]" The Torian Lane Strip lies in between these two sets of six tracts. The Taylors assert, and Appellees do not appear to dispute, that based on the property description, the Torian Lane Strip is 60 feet wide for its entire length. A document purported to be the unrecorded plat is part of the summary judgment record and shows the Torian Lane Strip marked as "Torian Lane."
• In 1969, Yates executed a deed in favor of June Ely, Paula Jane Masten, and Hubert Chase, doing business as Torian Lane Properties (TLP Deed), conveying lots 6-11 and 14-17.
• In 1970, Ely, Masten, and Chase, doing business as Torian Lane Properties, executed a deed (Ely Deed) conveying the northern half of Lot 15 to Ely, including "all . . . appurtenances thereto." The Ely Deed referred to Torian Lane as a "public road" and described the western boundary of the Property as running along Torian Lane for 120 feet.
• In 1977, Ely executed a deed conveying the northern half of Lot 15 and "all . . . appurtenances thereto" to George C. Harbaugh and Teresita B. Harbaugh (Harbaugh Deed). The Harbaugh Deed also referred to Torian Lane as a "public road" and described the western boundary of the Property as running along Torian Lane for 120 feet. However, the Harbaugh Deed included the language, "SAVE & EXCEPT any portion lying in [a] road or roadway, public or private."
• In 1983, the Harbaughs executed a deed conveying two tracts of land, including the northern half of Lot 15 and all appurtenances thereto to Lester and Stacy Strait (Strait Deed). The Strait Deed contained the same references to Torian Lane as a public road, the western boundary as 120 feet along Torian Lane, and the "save and except" language.
• In 2016, Strait executed a deed conveying two tracts of land, including the northern half of Lot 15 and all appurtenances thereto, in favor of Shannon Louise Taylor and Kenneth L. Taylor, III (Taylor Deed). The Taylor Deed contained the same references to Torian Lane as a public road, the western boundary as 120 feet along Torian Lane, and the "save and except" language.

         From this chain of title beginning with the 1963 Yates Deed as the alleged common source, the Taylors contend that they own not only the Property but also the Abutting 30' Strip in fee simple and that they own a defined private easement over the entire Torian Lane Strip. Appellees argue these same conveyances demonstrate that none of the Torian Lane Strip was ever conveyed in the Taylors' chain of title and was instead retained by Torian in the Yates Deed. JMJ Properties, the party that according to Original Defendants now owns the Abutting 30' Strip, traces its title from two 2016 quitclaim deeds from Torian's heirs.[3]

         B. Savannah Court Partnership Develops the Torian Place Subdivision

         In the early 2000s, Savannah Court began exploring the development of a residential subdivision to be known as "Torian Place." After acquiring some of the lots abutting the Torian Lane Strip, Savannah Court approached Strait to obtain his approval to complete Torian Lane[4] as part of the development, but he opposed the development. Savannah Court asserts that it presented offers to pave Torian Lane all the way to the Property or to turn the abutting Torian Lane into a hiking trail but that Strait rejected both offers.

         Proceeding without Strait's approval, Savannah Court submitted several development proposals to the City of Southlake before eventually submitting a final plat proposal that accounted for the entire Torian Lane Strip. In 2015, Southlake approved the development, and in 2016 Mayor Laura Hill signed a revised plat-i.e., the Torian Place Plat. The Torian Place Plat provided for Torian Lane to be a 40-foot wide paved road with 10-foot sidewalk easements on each side of the road, beginning at Dove Road but ending in a cul-de-sac before reaching the Property's western boundary. The Torian Place Plat also designated the portion of the Torian Lane Strip abutting the west side of the Property as part of Lot 6, Block 2, a lot directly adjacent to the west side of the Torian Lane Strip.[5] The revised plat is depicted below with the Property, the Abutting 30' Strip, and the Torian Lane Strip darkened and the location of the cul-de-sac and paved part of Torian Lane shown:

         (Images Omitted)

         The Torian Place Plat was filed for record but Strait did not sign or acknowledge it.

         C. Strait Files the Underlying Lawsuit After Construction of the Cul-de-sac Cut Off Vehicular Access to the Property from Torian Lane

         In the summer of 2015, JMJ Properties, Savannah Court, PSJ, V. Patrick Gray Custom Homes, Home Creek, and Cheatham Partners began construction on Torian Place. As provided in the Torian Place Plat, Torian Lane was paved, ending in a cul-de-sac and effectively cutting off vehicular access to Torian Lane from the Property. Strait responded by filing the underlying lawsuit against Original Defendants. Strait asserted claims for trespass to try title regarding the Abutting 30' Strip, suit to quiet title, injunctive relief, and a request for declaratory judgment that he had a valid easement over all of the Torian Lane Strip for the purpose of accessing his Property. He amended his petition twice, adding claims for trespass and conspiracy and a request for declaratory judgment that the Torian Place Plat was void.

         Shortly after filing suit, Strait filed for record a notice of lis pendens in which his counsel represented that "[t]he case involves an action involving title or establishment of an interest in real property" and that Strait was "seeking reformation of a deed concerning interest conveyed in the Property which affects the titles held, if any, by the Defendants." In response, Original Defendants filed a motion to expunge the lis pendens and argued, in part, that the lis pendens was overbroad because it affected properties wholly unrelated to the title dispute in the Abutting 30' Strip and instead related only to Strait's claim of a private easement over the Torian Lane Strip. After substantial briefing and a hearing, the trial court signed an order granting the motion to expunge the lis pendens as to all of the affected properties except for Lot 6, Block 2, the lot owned by JMJ Properties.

         Strait then executed a deed conveying the Property to the Taylors and an assignment of his claims to them as well. The Taylors filed a petition in intervention asserting the same causes of action against Original Defendants, but also adding New Defendants. Several months later, Strait filed a notice of nonsuit.

         D. Trial Court Grants All Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment, Denies Intervenors' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, and Renders Final Judgment in Accordance with the Jury's Award of Attorney's Fees

         The parties filed competing motions for summary judgment. The trial court denied the Taylors' motion for partial summary judgment and granted Defendants' motions for summary judgment. In the order granting summary judgment, the trial court awarded New Defendants (excluding the Southlake officials) $29, 784.33 in attorney's fees from the Taylors but reserved the issue of Original Defendants' attorney's fees as the sole issue to be decided at a jury trial. At trial, the jury awarded Original Defendants $126, 000 against Strait individually, $31, 000 against the Taylors, and $118, 000 against Strait and the Taylors jointly and severally.

         The trial court rendered a final judgment incorporating the prior summary judgments and the jury verdict. The final judgment, excerpted below, included findings that JMJ Properties and not the Taylors owned the Abutting 30' Strip but that the Taylors did have an undefined right of passageway over all of the Torian Lane Strip by virtue of the Yates Deed:

A revised plat of Torian Place, an addition to the City of Southlake, Texas, was filed as Document D2 I 6007588, Official Public Records of Tarrant ...

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