ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER MULLIGAN
We were all about “do-overs” yesterday. And we’re still doing Thanksgiving Day over, and over and over until the leftovers are either eaten or spoil. As Yogi Berra might have said, today’s case and tonight’s dinner will both be déjà vu all over again.
It seems there was trouble in Randolph County, Alabama, up near the Georgia line. The Ledfords had purchased a nice vacation home on a lake, next to a place owned by the Youngs. While the Youngs appreciated the natural setting, the Ledfords were more concerned that nature’s bounty – specifically one large pine tree on the boundary between the Ledford’s land and the Young property – was going to fall on their house. They wanted the tree cut down. The Youngs refused. The matter ended up in court.
Of course, regular treeandneighborlawblog readers know how that should have turned out: if the tree really sits on the boundary line, both landowners have to agree before it can be cut down. The trial court reasoned otherwise. Under the Massachusetts Rule, a landowner can trim parts of a tree that overhang or grow under his or her property, all the way from the center of the earth to the sky. So that meant the Ledfords could cut out half of the tree, the court mused. That would kill the tree, but the court interpreted the Massachusetts Rule to mean that since you’re allowed to hack at the roots and branches of a tree without regard to the damage you cause, then you can take down the whole boundary tree if you like. The trial court gave the Ledfords the go-ahead to take down the tree.
The Youngs appealed, and common sense prevailed. The Court of Appeals explained the proper boundary tree rule, and reversed the trial court’s errant ruling. But in so doing, a few judges on the appeal panel wondered aloud (or at least, in the written opinion) why the Ledfords hadn’t argued that they had the right to cut down the pine tree because it was a nuisance. Remember Fancher v. Fagella? One judge went so far as to say that if the record held evidence of nuisance, he would have upheld the trial court, wrong though its reasoning was.
Well, the Ledfords could take a hint. When the case went back to the trial court “for proceedings consistent with this opinion,” as the court of appeals decisions like to say, they asked for a do-over, a second hearing, this one on nuisance. ‘Hold the phone!’ the Youngs cried. ‘The Court of Appeals said the Ledfords lost. The tree stays standing. Game over.’
The trial court gave the Ledfords their mulligan. It ordered a second hearing, and afterwards found the pine tree to be a nuisance. The Ledfords were told they could cut it down. Again.
The Youngs went back the court of appeals for a writ of mandamus, essentially a request that the court of appeals issue an order telling the trial court it couldn’t hold the second hearing. The court of appeals refused to do so. Applying an obscure rule called the “law of the case” doctrine, the appellate court held that while the trial court was required to apply the ruling the court of appeals had issued, that ruling was just that the Ledfords could not cut down a boundary tree without the agreement of their neighbors. The court of appeals did not say the tree had to remain – just that if it was to be cut down, it couldn’t be on the basis originally articulated by the trial court.
The lessons here? The Ledfords’ attorney should have argued nuisance to begin with. It should have been clear that arguing that his clients could cut down a boundary tree was a loser. Besides, in civil litigation, you argue as many alternative theories as possible to get your clients where they want to end up. Who knows which one will be a winner?
Of course, the Ledfords ended up winning, and the pine tree lost. But as an old judge once cautioned us, you should never dig up more snakes than you can kill. Why buy a second trip to the court of appeals by leaving out an argument, and asking for a mulligan later?
Ex parte Young, 79 So.3d 656 (Ala.Civ.App. 2011): The Ledfords owned a vacation house with a pine tree located slightly over 10 feet from Ledford’s house, on the boundary between their property and that of the Youngs. Fearing that [a] strong wind against the tree could cause it to fall on the home and could cause damage to the [house] as well as serious injury to any occupants,’ the Ledfords wanted a court order that they could cut it down.
The Youngs argued that the pine tree was ‘a true boundary line tree’ and contended that it could not cut down by either property owner without permission of the other. After a hearing in which the Ledfords, the Youngs, and a forester hired by the Youngs all gave testimony, the trial court held that Ledford and her husband could remove the tree at their convenience, taking steps to minimize damage to the Youngs’ lot. The trial court held that because Alabama law let a landowner remove any trees on his or her property up to the property line, and this right extended to the center of the earth and into the sky, the Ledfords were free to hack into the pine tree up to the property line and then cut from that point to the center of the earth and into the sky. The Court said that “[s]ince [the Ledfords] unquestionably has the right to remove any portion of the tree that is located on [their] side of the property line and since doing so would likely kill the tree, the Court is of the opinion that [they] should be allowed to completely remove the tree to ensure” that the property and the health of anyone there are protected.
When the case got to the Court of Appeals the first time, it was promptly reversed. Rejecting the trial court’s tortured “center of the earth to the sky” analysis, the appellate court ruled that “[i]n the special case of a boundary-line tree, … each adjacent landowner has ownership rights that cannot be trumped by the other’s desires in the manner suggested by the trial court’s judgment” and that the Ledfords – contrary to the trial court’s judgment – could not properly “‘cut into the tree to the property line and then cut from that point to the center of the earth and into the sky'” without incurring liability to the Youngs.
But the appellate court went a little further. In a concurring opinion, two of the judges on the appellate panel observed that the action had been argued on the basis of the Ledfords’ contention that they were entitled to remove the boundary-line tree at issue merely because its trunk was located in part on their property. The judges noted that whether the “boundary-line tree at issue in this case constituted a nuisance for which an exception to the general rule set forth in the main opinion might apply” had not been litigated. A third judge on the panel said that had the record contained evidence indicating that the tree at issue posed a danger to the Ledfords’ house,” he would have voted to affirm the judgment instead of reverse it.
After the appellate judgment issued, the Ledfords asked the trial court for another hearing to consider whether the pine tree was a nuisance. The Youngs argued that the appeals court had decided in their favor, and the case should be closed. But the trial court had another hearing, and afterwards decided that the tree was a nuisance, and that the Ledfords could remove it on that basis.
The Youngs filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, asking the appeals court to order the trial court to enter judgment for them, and end the hearing.
Held: The Ledfords could cut down the tree. A court will issue a writ of mandamus only when the petitioner has a clear legal right to the order sought; the respondent has an imperative duty to perform, accompanied by a refusal to do so; there is no other adequate remedy at law; and the court has jurisdiction of the court.
Here, the Court of Appeals said, the only real question was whether the trial court had the right to hold a second trial in this matter. The Youngs contended that the prior appellate court’s decision was final as to all matters before it and that the trial court, after that initial appeal, was not allowed to hold another hearing and take additional testimony without permission of the appellate court to do so. The court of appeals agreed with that statement of the law, but said that only the particular issue that had formed the basis of the trial court’s judgment – whether Ledfords could unilaterally remove the boundary-line tree simply because the majority of it was located on their side of the common boundary – was addressed. Based upon that conclusion, the court of appeals had reversed the trial court’s judgment letting the Ledfords unilaterally remove the tree,” and remanded the cause “for further proceedings consistent with [that] opinion.”
Because of the limited scope of the trial court’s previous judgment, no one had ruled on whether the boundary-line tree posed a danger to Ledford’s home or amounted to a nuisance. While the prior decision was the “law of the case,” nothing in the prior opinion limited the trial court from ruling on the nuisance question, which the court of appeals admitted remained open for decision. Deciding to examine the nuisance question did not put the trial court in the position of doing something contrary to what the court of appeals had ordered.
– Tom Root