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Lejeune v. Driggers

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

March 28, 2018



          John F. Craton Barousse & Craton, LLC COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE: Neil LeJeune.

          Jacque B. Pucheu, Jr. Pucheu, Pucheu & Robinson COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT: Rodney Driggers.

          Court composed of Marc T. Amy, Shannon J. Gremillion, and Candyce G. Perret, Judges.

          MARC T. AMY, JUDGE

         By this boundary action, the plaintiff sought a declaration of ownership by acquisitive prescription of adjoining tracts of property in Evangeline Parish. The defendant alleged ownership by record title. Following trial, the trial court found merit in the plaintiff's claim of acquisitive prescription and additionally rejected the defendant's claim of record title of one of the subject tracts. The defendant appeals. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Neil Lejeune filed this boundary action in March 2011 asserting ownership by acquisitive prescription of three tracts of adjoining property in Evangeline Parish. The record reflects that the three tracts were, at one time, part of the operations of the Rock Island, Arkansas and Louisiana Railroad. The plaintiff asserts that, after the railroad ceased operations in the 1970s, he, along with his ancestors in title, Errol and Dwight Young, incorporated the railroad property into the existing farming operations on either side of the disputed tracts. The plaintiff asserted that they possessed the property in excess of thirty years by "maintaining the vegetation, storing equipment on said land, and maintaining a fence on said land." The plaintiff sought establishment of the boundary to the extent of his possession.

         The plaintiff named Rodney Driggers as a defendant in the litigation, noting that Mr. Driggers "[r]ecently . . . placed a chain across a gate in an attempt to lock the fence wherein plaintiff herein has had continuous possession of this land for more than thirty (30) years." The plaintiff denied that the defendant physically possessed or controlled the property.

         In turn, the defendant asserted that he was the title owner of the property, having purchased certain property in Evangeline Parish from the railroad in 1985 as purportedly represented by quitclaim deed. By that deed he acquired all "of Grantor's right, title and interest, estate, claim and demand" of:

A strip of land of varying widths constituting the former line of railroad and associated station grounds, yards, depots, stock pens, coaling and watering sites and borrow pits as same are evidenced, monumented and located through the following described areas . . . .

         The deed thereafter describes with particularity the property conveyed.[1]

         The matter proceeded to a March 2017 bench trial, where the parties stipulated to various issues before the court. By reference to a corresponding survey entered into evidence as Joint Exhibit 1, [2] the parties identified the three tracts originally contested: Tract 4 (identified "as the west half of the railroad right of way"); Tract 5 (identified as "the [e]ast half of the railroad right of way"); and Tract 6 (identified as "the deed property"). In reciting the parties' stipulation as to Tract 6, the trial court noted that it was comprised of "two tracts . . . sold to the railroad originally." Importantly, the parties stipulated that Tract 4 was no longer in dispute, representing that "the ownership of Tract No. 4 is stipulated to be that of the plaintiff, Mr. and Mrs. Neil Lejeune."

         Following two days of testimony, the trial court declared the plaintiff and his wife to be the owners[3] of "Tracts #5 and #6, along with Tract #4, as stipulated by the parties, all located in Evangeline Parish in full ownership against all others." The trial court specifically found that the defendant failed to prove title to Tract 6. Rather, the trial court referenced "other public records and documentary evidence[, ]" including parish parcel listings, oil and gas leases, and tax notices favored the plaintiff. On this latter point, the trial court pointed to the plaintiff's payment of property taxes on Tracts 5 and 6.

         Regarding the plaintiff's claim, the trial court further explained:

[T]hat even hypothetically should this court have found that Driggers had proven having a valid/good title to both Tract #5 and #6, which the court did not, the court finds, as a finding of fact, that the plaintiff, Lejeune, has proven by a preponderance and overwhelming evidence showing and providing proof that Mr. Young, as plaintiff's ancestor in title, and Lejeune, by tacking, have had actual corporeal possession of these two tracts in dispute, and the court further finds that Lejeune has carried his burden of proof and proven his claim of acquisitive prescription of these two tracts in dispute, all pursuant Lejeune and his ancestors in title, Young's continuous, peaceful uninterrupted actual and public possession of said two tracts of land in dispute, and all pursuant to Lejeune and his ancestor in title, Young, maintaining their continuous daily farming operations, along with the many other activities of possession, as to said tracts/land in dispute, specifically Tracts #5 & #6 for over 30 plus years, and specifically from 1980 until the Driggers' 2011 disturbance and this resulting litigation filed herein.[4]

         The resulting judgment reflected the declaration of the ownership as discussed in the reasons for ruling, describing with particularity each of the three tracts at issue in the boundary action. See La.Civ.Code art. 792;[5] La.Civ.Code art. 794.[6] See also La.Code Civ.P. art. 3693.[7]

         The defendant appeals, asserting that the trial court erred in: 1) finding that he failed to demonstrate that he held title to Tract 6; 2) not admitting impeachment documentation as to the plaintiff's testimony (subject of Proffer No.1); 3) finding that the plaintiff and his ancestors in title acquired Tract 5 by corporeal possession of thirty years; 4) failing to find tacit acknowledgement of his ownership; and in 5) finding that the plaintiff's ancestors in title possessed the disputed tracts within visible bounds and, in turn, that he "tacked" that possession.


         Proffered Testimony

         Taking the defendant's assignments of error out of turn for discussion, we first consider the only procedural issue presented. During trial, the plaintiff testified regarding his presence at an August 11, 1989 meeting conducted at the law office of J. Nilas Young. Both parties advanced their description of the meeting in support of their respective positions as to whether possession was interrupted or whether the defendant's ownership was acknowledged by the plaintiff's ancestors in title. The plaintiff testified that he attended the 1989 meeting at the request of Errol Young. However, during the defendant's testimony, he denied the plaintiff's presence at the meeting. For the stated purpose of corroborating his own testimony, the defendant attempted to introduce the attorney's bill from the date of the meeting. He asserted that the billing record reflected the meeting's attendees. However, the trial court rejected the introduction of that evidence, permitting a proffer instead.

         Here, the defendant challenges that ruling and argues that the evidence was admissible as relevant. He suggests that the document provided objective evidence of his version of events at the August 1989 meeting and, in turn, his testimony regarding that meeting constituted acknowledgment by the Youngs of his ownership so as to interrupt prescription.

         Following review, we leave the trial court's ruling undisturbed. While the defendant suggests that the billing record, issued to Errol and Dwight Young, was relevant as to the meeting's attendees, the trial court rejected that argument stating:

This is not a bill to Mr. Driggers. It is a bill and it speaks for itself, attorney's fees for services rendered and cost incurred in reference to a…a bed…railroad bed dispute with Rodney L. Driggers, May 4, 1988 thru September 15, 1989 and it says on there, Mr. Errol Young and Mr. Dwight Young. That's their bill. They're not parties to this litigation…uh…but as far as it being written verification as you're offering it that's gonna be for the Judge to decide but that…that…it does not present to the Court written…anything written confirming that…that who was there and who's not there.… A billing of it…of itself being offered as evidence of who was at the meeting will not be allowed[.]

         Louisiana Code of Evidence Article 402 provides that "[a]ll relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of Louisiana, this Code of Evidence, or other legislation." Conversely, "[e]vidence which is not relevant is not admissible." Id. While Mr. Driggers advances the evidence as relevant, the trial court rejected the argument that the document related to the proposition for which it was advanced, as seen above. On this point, La.Code Evid. art. 401 defines "relevant evidence" as that "having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." Absent an abuse of discretion, a trial court's ruling as to relevance will not be disturbed on appeal. Quibodeaux v. Med. Ctr. of Sw. La., 97-204 (La.App. 3 Cir. 3/6/98), 707 So.2d 1380, writ denied, 98-0926 (La. 5/15/98), 719 So.2d 465.

         Given the trial court's observations and the nature of the proffered billing document, we find no abuse of discretion in the trial court's determination and leave its ruling undisturbed. Both parties offered differing accounts of the August 1989 meeting, with the defendant denying the plaintiff's presence at that meeting. While the defendant suggests that the document corroborates his version of events, reference to the document does not dictate such a finding. The multi-entry document instead supports the trial court's conclusion that it did not evidence "written confirmation" of the meeting's attendees and was instead, a bill issued to the attorney's clients.

         This assignment of error lacks merit.

         Acquisitive Prescription of ...

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