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Dupont v. State

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

May 30, 2018

CYNTHIA HILL DUPONT, BRIDGETTE C. MARCOTTE & JOHN HILL
v.
THE STATE OF LOUISIANA, DEPARTMENT OF ADMINISTRATION, OFFICE OF STATE LANDS, THROUGH THE OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL

          APPEAL FROM THE TWELFTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF AVOYELLES, NO. 2016-2687-A HONORABLE KERRY L. SPRUILL, DISTRICT JUDGE

          Michael J. Uter COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFFS/APPELLEES: John Hill, Cynthia Hill Dupont, Bridgette C. Marcotte

          Harry J. Vorhoff, Ryan M. Seidemann, Assistant Attorneys General COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANTS/APPELLANTS: The State of Louisiana, Division of Adminstration, Office of State Lands, Through the Office of the Attorney General

          Jenny Donaghey-Beckham Riddle & Donaghey, LLC COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLEE: Stephen Mayeux

          Court composed of Marc T. Amy, Elizabeth A. Pickett, Billy Howard Ezell, D. Kent Savoie, and Van H. Kyzar, Judges.

          D. KENT SAVOIE JUDGE

         Plaintiffs Cynthia Hill Dupont, Bridgette C. Marcotte, and John Hill claim ownership of a certain tract of land over which the State of Louisiana also claims ownership. After a trial, the trial court ultimately found ownership and superior title belonged to the plaintiffs. The State now appeals. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Upon learning that a tract of immovable property over which the family claims ownership was scheduled for a Sheriff's Sale, the plaintiffs filed a Petition for Temporary Restraining Order, Preliminary Injunction, Permanent Injunction, and for Declaratory Judgment against the State of Louisiana, Department of Administration, Office of State Lands.[1] The plaintiffs asserted that they own the land in question with the first link in their title tracing back to an 1833 patent from the United States to Francis M. Henderson. The plaintiffs presented certified documents from the Avoyelles Parish Clerk of Court, which they explained demonstrate the various transactions by which title to the property has changed hands since 1833 and by which the plaintiffs acquired the property. The plaintiffs further explained that they "have been in continuous actual, open, and peaceable possession of [the property] as owners since they obtained it" and provided a certified tax certificate to demonstrate that they paid the State and Parish taxes assessed on the property for the preceding three years.

         In response to the petition, the trial court granted a temporary restraining order. Thereafter, the parties entered a consent judgment, which granted a preliminary injunction on the same grounds as the existing temporary restraining order pending resolution of the issue of a permanent injunction at trial. Subsequently, Stephen Mayeux petitioned to intervene "as a property owner, adjoining property of plaintiffs, whose interest in said property hs [sic] been affected by the same demands made by the State of Louisiana unto plaintiffs . . . in mover's property described as a certain 3 acre, more or less, tract or parcel of land[.]" The trial court permitted Mr. Mayeux to intervene as a party plaintiff, and the matter was ultimately set for a bench trial. The State filed an answer, which stated in part that the Petition "erroneously claims title to the subject property." In the answer, the State prayed for a judgment dismissing the plaintiffs' claims and declaring title and ownership of the land in favor of the State.

         In their pre-trial brief, the plaintiffs and the intervenor (hereinafter referred to collectively as the "plaintiffs") reiterated their claim that their chain of title dates back to an 1833 patent issued from the United States to Francis M. Henderson. In support, their exhibits included excerpts from the record book "General Government 2 Parish of Avoyelles[.]" In particular, the plaintiffs explain that "[t]he first transaction of record is from the United States of America to Frances [sic] M. Henderson dated November 19, 1833,, [sic] bearing Certificate No. 687, conveying to him the NW4 of the NW4 of Section 36, T3N, R5E, Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, containing 38.42 acres."[2] The plaintiffs again described and provided documentation for the various transactions that led to their acquisition of the property.

         In its pre-trial brief, the State first disputed the plaintiffs' ownership and chain of title by providing a copy of excerpts from the United States Tract Book. The State asserted that "the alleged conveyance to Francis M. Henderson was posted in error" because it is accompanied by the notation "Posted in Error see T3NR5W, Vol 56, page 148[.]" The State suggested that "[t]he error appears to have emanated from a mistake between two persons with the same surname, Henderson." The State continued that "[a] review of that latterly-referenced page shows that the NW4 of the NW4 of Section 36 of T3N, R5W was conveyed to Robert M. Henderson."[3] Like the Avoyelles Parish tract book presented by the plaintiffs, the entry bears a "Date of Sale" of November 19, 1833, and similarly shows "687" as the "Number of Receipt and Certificate of Purchase[.]" In their reply brief, the plaintiffs explained that the "Posted in Error" notation was done "without making the record owners of the property party to the process" and questioned the "due process owed to" them.

         The State further presented a certified copy of Patent Number 1238658, in which the United States conveyed the subject tract of land[4] to the State of Louisiana on August 31, 1965. Regarding the patent introduced by the State, the plaintiffs asserted in their pre-trial brief that, when there is "a conflict of two entities or persons being granted patents on the exact same piece of property, . . . the first patent would have to prevail over the second, regardless of who [sic] the second patent was made to." However, as noted by the State, the plaintiffs did not provide the purported patent from the United States of America to Francis M. Henderson upon which they base their claim.

         At trial, each party stipulated to the authenticity of the other party's evidence. The trial court concluded that the plaintiffs are the owners of the subject property and have a claim of title superior to that of the State. In oral reasons for judgment, the trial court explained:

I would be very remiss if I said . . . 1965 patent supreme and that ends my inquiry. I have to look to the entire facts of this case.
. . . .
What is of great concern for this court is that . . . all of these years starting in 1833 through present this track [sic] that's in dispute drew revenue for the State of Louisiana in the form of taxes . . . I just think that under the circumstances equity requires this court to exercise it's [sic] authority and to find that equitable title and superior title exists in the plaintiff's [sic] title in the chain that they've presented to this court. I find them to be in good faith, present possession, and ownership of a title that they possessed which reflects in this Court's eye as being from patent through a Mr. Henderson starting in 1833. I find that the issue done by the state is done without due process of law, without any notice to the plaintiff [sic], those who were in possession who have, where I consider to be very valid claim to the property[.]

         Additionally, the trial court cited case law for the proposition that "if the thing granted was not in the grantor no right has the grantee" and for the proposition that "cancellation without notice to the owner of the land . . . was without due process and was invalid."

         The State appeals, asserting as error that:

1. The district court erred in finding that the Appellees proved better title to the disputed property than the State.
a. The district court erred in not finding the State's U.S. patent to be the superior and conclusive evidence of legal title.
b. The district court erred in not accepting the contents of the U.S. tract book for the facts stated therein given the absence of any ...

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