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Newfound Management Corp. v. Lewis

November 12, 1997





(D.C. Civ. No. 91-cv-00315)

Before: BECKER, ROTH and WEIS, Circuit Judges

WEIS, Circuit Judge.

Filed November 12, 1997

Argued April 9, 1997


In these consolidated cases of quiet title and trespass, a crucial issue is the location of certain boundary lines. Under the unique circumstances presented here, we conclude that the district court properly established the property lines in a bench trial before submission of the other issues to a jury. We also determine that the court did not err in its evaluation of the evidence and application of survey law. Accordingly, we will affirm the district court's order as certified under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b).

This litigation arises out of a long-standing dispute over ownership and boundaries of property located on the eastern end of the Island of St. John, United States Virgin Islands. After severing common issues from an action to quiet title and consolidating them with a trespass action, the district court in a bench trial resolved most of those points against defendants (various heirs and devisees) and entered judgment in favor of plaintiff Newfound Management Corporation. Newfound Mgmt. Corp. v. Sewer, 885 F.Supp. 727 (D.V.I. 1995). On stipulation of the parties, the order was certified as final within the terms of Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(b).

The facts and disputes presented in this case are complex and multifarious. Indeed, the district court remarked in a pre-trial ruling: "As with all land disputes in the Virgin Islands, this one involves a large cast of characters, hard feelings, and an often incomprehensible genealogy." To avoid complicating matters unnecessarily, we will recite only those facts essential to deciding the issues on appeal.

Although litigation over the realty had taken place in earlier years, the matter before us began in 1980 as a probate action brought by persons claiming ownership of certain tracts of land as rightful heirs of the 19th-century owners. At stake were the title to and boundaries of parcels located in the Hansen Bay and Newfound Bay Estates in the East End Quarter of St. John. *fn1 Included in the relief requested was the appointment of Eric Christian as Administrator of the Estate of James George Sewer, who would then bring an action to quiet title to the parcels.

Christian filed the quiet title action on December 15, 1987. Defendant Cedrick Lewis, as Administrator of the Estate of Bernard Williams, filed an answer in February 1988. Newfound intervened as a defendant in December 1988.

On the eve of trial in December 1993, the parties agreed in general terms to a settlement. Seven months later, the court entered a detailed consent judgment in the quiet title action that resolved most issues, but left others for future determination. Over the objections of Newfound, the court directed that the adverse claims of Newfound, the Estate of Bernard Williams as represented by Lewis, and the heirs of Martin Sewer to parcels designated 6-P Hansen Bay and 7-A Hansen Bay would be severed and consolidated for trial with the pending injunction/trespass action brought by Newfound on August 16, 1991.

In that suit, Newfound had asked for an injunction, alleging that several individuals had repeatedly blocked access to the land under development by Newfound and stopped construction work underway. Named as defendants were Lewis, the Sewer heirs, and unknown persons who had attempted to prevent development of the land. In addition to obstruction, which apparently occurred on parcel 6-O-1, Newfound charged defendants with vandalism, as well as threats of violence, trespass, slander of title, and interference with business relations.

In his answer to Newfound's trespass action, Lewis disputed the boundary lines of parcel 6-P and neighboring parcels, including parcel 6-O-1, as drawn by Newfound's surveyor, H. Marvin Berning. *fn2 The answer contained a jury demand and a request for affirmative relief in the nature of a judicial determination of the property's rightful owners. In addition, Lewis asked for damages. Two weeks later, in September 1991, the parties stipulated to the entry of a preliminary injunction.

On June 14, 1994 (two weeks after entry of the consent judgment in the quiet title action), the district court approved a final pretrial order for the two cases. Noting that Newfound had objected to severance of its claims to parcels 6-P and 7-A for consolidation with the trespass action, the order stated that "the quiet title portion of the action will be tried as a jury-waived action."

The pretrial order set out the contentions of ownership of the various parcels. The parties stipulated that Newfound held record title to parcels 6-O, 6-O-1, 6-O-2, 6-Y, and 6-Z, and that none of the defendants had record title to those parcels. Essentially, Newfound claimed that parcels 6-O, 6-O-1, and 6-O-2 were located as shown on the Berning survey to the north of 6-P.

The defendants' claim to parcel 6-P was based on the consent judgment. Lewis and the Sewer heirs asserted that 6-P was incorrectly shown on that survey and, instead, was located partially within the area that Newfound designated as 6-O, 6-O-1, and 6-O-2.

The pretrial order also described Newfound's claim for damages based on the blocking of construction, and listed as exhibits newspaper articles containing the defendants' claims of ownership of the land. The order noted that Lewis was standing "by his demand for a jury trial on all questions of fact." Newfound, however, continued to assert that "the resolution of issues relating to the title and boundaries of the Property are questions for the trial judge to resolve," and that after these determinations, the plaintiffs' damages could be tried to the jury.

On August 19, 1994, two months after approving the pretrial order, the district court struck some of the defendants' counterclaims and affirmative defenses. In their proposed amended answer, the Sewer heirs had asserted that they held undivided equitable interests in parcels 6-O, 6-O-1, and 6-O-2. Similarly, Lewis had claimed an undivided interest in Longbay # 1 and sought to defend the trespass claim on that ground. *fn3 See Restatement (Second) of Torts Section(s) 185 (1965) (title of defendant is a defense to trespass).

Assessing the defendants' claims, the district court pointed out that in the Virgin Islands an action to determine "any right or claim to or interest in" real property will be time-barred "unless it shall appear that the plaintiff, his ancestor, predecessor, or grantor was seized or possessed of the property in question within twenty years before the commencement of the action." V.I. Code Ann. tit. 5, Section(s) 32, 31(1)(A) (1967). As the court noted, "defendants have failed to plead an essential element of their case -- that they or their predecessors in interest possessed the land within twenty years of their commencing this action." Accordingly, the affirmative defenses based on the defendants' claims of ownership to Longbay #1 were stricken. The order did not discuss the defendants' title to parcel 6-P, nor did it prevent them from arguing that the allegedly tortious conduct occurred within that parcel's boundaries.

The case came on for jury selection and trial on October 3, 1994. Acknowledging that the proceeding was "essentially to determine whether or not an injunction should be issued," counsel for the Sewer heirs argued that there was no immediate harm and that Newfound had an adequate remedy at law. In addition, counsel contended that the jury should determine whether Newfound owned the land and whether defendants had trespassed. The court responded: "The jury will determine the trespass. The only issue I'm determining is whether or not the plaintiff owns the land on which the trespass allegedly occurred. .. . The Court now only has to decide the issue of permanency and that's what it will do."

On March 27, 1995, the court issued an exhaustive and comprehensive opinion reviewing the extensive documentary evidence and testimony presented at the twoday trial. 885 F.Supp. 727 (D.V.I. 1995). The court determined title to all disputed properties except parcel 10 and expressly located the boundaries of most of the other parcels.

Rather than proceeding to the jury trial as originally planned, on October 3, 1996 the parties stipulated to the entry of a partial final judgment under Rule 54(b). The following paraphrased provisions, inter alia, appeared in the Order Certifying Final Judgment:

- Defendants have title to parcel 6-P;

- By locating parcels 6-O, 6-O-1, 6-O-2, 6-F, 6-Y, and 6-Z, the court implicitly held that 6-P was not located on any of those parcels;

- Defendants assert that the alleged trespass occurred on parcel 6-P, which should have been plotted where the court plotted 6-O, 6-O-1, 6-O-2, 6-F, 6-Y, and 6-Z;

- If the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment, "plaintiff would withdraw its tort claims against the defendants and the defendants would relinquish to the plaintiff ...

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