Georgia Supreme Court Blog

February 19, 2010

Court Decides Heirs Dispute over Former Governor’s Land

Filed under: Harris Hines, property law — bce30064 @ 2:33 pm

The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously upheld a White County court’s decision in a dispute over mineral rights among cousins who are descendants of a Georgia governor.

Lamartine G. Hardman, a physician, served as Georgia’s governor from 1927 to 1931. He was known as one of the wealthiest people in North Georgia and at one point owned land in seven counties, according to briefs filed in the case. The father of four, Hardman left various farms to his children. This case involves a tract of land he left to his daughter, Emma Hardman Thomson, and the one-half interest in mineral rights on her property acquired in 1939 by his son, Lamartine G. (“L.G.”) Hardman, Jr. After L.G., Jr. died in 1978, his wife – and eventually his children and grandchildren – inherited his one-half interest in the mineral rights. After Emma died in January 2007, her heirs inherited the other one-half interest along with the land.

In February 2008, Emma’s descendants, including Caroline Wilson, sued Shell Hardman Knox and other heirs of L.G., Jr., claiming that under state law, they had acquired L.G.’s portion of the mineral rights. Under Official Official Code of Georgia § 44-5-168, a property owner may gain title to another person’s mineral rights if the owner of those rights doesn’t conduct any mining activity or pay taxes on the rights for a period of seven years. In March 2009, the court granted “summary judgment” to Emma’s heirs, finding there was no need for a trial because the law was on their side.

In their appeal to the state Supreme Court, lawyers for L.G., Jr.’s descendants argued the trial court misinterpreted the statute and ignored the doctrine that prevents a party from taking advantage of another when that other party has been led to rely on certain behavior. For 37 years, they argued in briefs, “all went smoothly” between Emma, L.G., Jr. and his heirs until she died in 2007. Until then, L.G., Jr. and his heirs always respected Emma’s control over the property by agreeing to leave the initiation of mining activities on it to Emma. In return, they trusted her to turn over to him and his heirs their one-half interest of any proceeds she received from mining activity. Over the years, the land had been mined for gold, gravel and sand.

In a decision written by Justice P. Harris Hines (data), the Supreme Court pointed out that according to Knox, Emma used to deliver “vials of gold” to L.G., Jr.’s wife, even after his death. The evidence shows “recognition on Emma Thomson’s part to respect that ownership,” the opinion says. But it is undisputed that L.G., Jr. and his descendants never paid taxes on their mineral interest, and there is no evidence they tried to work the mineral rights in the seven years prior to the filing of the lawsuit. Furthermore, “there is no evidence of an agreement by which Emma Thomson undertook to relieve L.G. Hardman, Jr., and later his heirs, of the obligation to comply with the requirements of OCGA § 44-5-168,” the opinion says, “and there is no evidence that Emma Thomson ever made any promise or commitment intended to influence the holders of the one-half mineral interest to neglect their obligations under OCGA § 44-5-168.”

More Information
Georgia Supreme Court Opinions Database: KNOX ET AL. V. WILSON ET AL. (S09A1490)
Georgia Real Estate Law Reference Page

Attorneys for Appellants (L.G., Jr. heirs): Robert Marcovitch, Dennis Cathey
Attorneys for Appellees (Emma heirs): Samuel Oliver, Jason Dean

December 30, 2009

Special Master Needed to Quiet Title to 2,000 Acres of Land in Will Dispute

Filed under: property law, special masters, wills — bce30064 @ 9:49 pm


The Georgia Supreme Court is sending back to a lower court a case involving a dispute over who owns certain land in Troup County – the Georgia Sheriffs Youth Homes, a charitable organization, or the heirs of a man who used the property for years.

According to the evidence, the disputed property was owned by Joe Young, who died in 1986. In his will, he left the bulk of his estate to the Sheriffs Youth Homes with instructions that it would pass to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to be used as a park or wildlife refuge if the charitable organization quit using it. In 1987, the executor of the estate deeded over 2,000 acres to the youth homes, and the organization has enjoyed uninterrupted possession and title to the property ever since. Meanwhile, since 1982, James Nelson, who worked for Young for years, lived on and farmed about 158 acres of the land. Nelson died in 2004, and in 2006, his widow and remaining heirs filed a petition seeking title to the 158 acres and claiming ownership. They said that in 1982, Young had given a “parol” gift of the land – one made orally but not in writing – to Nelson in consideration of his years of service, friendship and assistance. Furthermore, they are entitled as Nelson’s heirs to gain title based on the law of “adverse possession” because Nelson used the land with Young’s blessing from 1982 until his death in 2004.

The trial court ruled against Nelson’s hiers, granting “summary judgment” to the Georgia Sheriffs organization, meaning it ruled in its favor without a trial because based on the facts, the law was on its side. In dealing with disputes over title claims, the Quiet Title Act requires a trial court to appoint a special master – usually an attorney appointed by the court to carry out some sort of action on its behalf. In disputed title claims, the law requires the special master cases to make a report of its findings for the court. But here, the trial court made a decision without getting a report from the special master.

In a unanimous decision written by Justice Robert Benham (data), the state Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court with instructions to include the special master’s report or write up a report of its own findings. “The statutory requirement that a special master make a report to the trial court of the special master‟s findings is important to both the trial court’s entry of judgment and the appellate court’s review,” says today’s opinion. “In light of the trial court’s summary adjudication without findings of fact and the absence of a report of the special master’s findings in this case which involves a myriad of issues, we are left at a distinct disadvantage because we do not know the basis of the trial court’s judgment.” “Accordingly, the case is remanded to the trial court for the inclusion of findings of fact made by either the special master or the trial court upon which the judgment is made.”

More Information: Georgia Supreme Court Database: Nelson et al. v. Georgia Sheriffs Youth Homes, Inc. et al. (S09A0609) : Full Text and Visual Summary

Attorney for Appellant (Nelson): Carol Clark
Attorneys for Appellee (Sheriffs): Daniel Lee, Thurbert Baker, Attorney General, Keilani Parker, Asst. A.G.

References:

  • Online Bibliographies on Perfecting Title via Quia Timet in Georgia from Georgia State Law School Library

  • Sample Quia Timet Case Files from Cobb Superior Court

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