SKIN OF HER TEETH
I’ve seen several mutual acquiescence cases recently, for no apparent reason. “Mutual acquiescence” is the term for a mistake agreed to by the affected parties: a driveway wanders over a property line, a fence gets built a few feet over from where it should be, the parties agree that a couple trees mark the boundary line when they really don’t, but it’s more convenient than looking for buried iron rods or PK nails. Over the years, memories fade… and what usually began as a mistake or a matter of convenience — such as when two parties build a fence that’s not right on the proper boundary line, but decide to let it go — becomes the de facto boundary line.
In today’s case, Ms. Shoemake (she seems to be missing an “r”, doesn’t she?) established that a broken-down fence had become her property’s boundary by mutual acquiescence, but only by the skin of her teeth. The evidence that one of the former neighbors had agreed to the fence as the boundary was remembered only by Ms. Shoemake. The former neighbor remembered the conversation, but not the crucial concession.
The Court of Appeals wasn’t all that sure, but under the relaxed standard of review that appellate courts give the fact-finding by trial courts, it decided by a 2-1 margin that Mrs. Shoemake had shown then fence line to be a boundary by acquiescence. But a plaintiff shouldn’t try too many times to win on such a tissue-thin showing.
There’s always the chance that someone else might remember it differently. And then, the trial devolves into a “swearing contest.”
Boyster v. Shoemake, 272 S.W.3d 139, 101 Ark.App. 148 (Ark.App. 2008). Teresa Shoemake owned land next to James Boyster. A boundary-line dispute arose in summer 2005 when several of Teresa’s hunting dogs went missing on her property. When she went to the disputed area on her four-wheeler to find the dogs, Ms. Shoemake saw that an old fence that had stood there for about 65 years had been cut, rocks had been picked up, and trees had been cut down.
Mrs. Boyster told Teresa that the Boysters had surveyed the property and discovered that the fence line was not on the boundary. Shoemake described the fence as an old, rusty structure that had grown into the trees. She said the fence had been on the property her entire life. Her grandmother acquired the property in 1942.
Ms. Shoemake recalled visiting the property often, and she said that in the 1960s, the property on the other side of the fence was used as pasture land. She never saw anyone other than her family use the property south of the fence. Her family’s side of the fence contained trees, which had not been used for anything other than Christmas trees and recreation.
Ms. Shoemake said that Bryan Tatum, the Boysters’ immediate predecessor in interest, acknowledged the fence line as the boundary line in a conversation with her, and asked if he could dig across her property and install a water line. Others testified that they had always believed the fence line was the boundary. The trial court found that Ms. Shoemake established a boundary line by acquiescence and quieted title to the disputed tract in her name. Boyster appealed.
Held: Ms. Shoemake had proven that the fence line was a boundary by mutual acquiescence. The Court said that mere existence of a fence or some other line, without evidence of mutual recognition, cannot sustain a finding of boundary by acquiescence. However, silent acquiescence is sufficient, as the boundary line is usually inferred from the parties’ conduct over so many years. A boundary by acquiescence may be established without the necessity of a prior dispute or adverse use up to the line. For a party to prove that a boundary line has been established by acquiescence, that party must show that both parties at least tacitly accepted the non-surveyed line as the true boundary line. The mere subjective belief that a fence is the boundary line is insufficient to establish a boundary between two properties.
Here, Boyster complained that Shoemake failed to present any evidence that Boyster or any of his predecessors in interest considered the fence line to be the boundary. But the Court observed that Shoemake said that Tatum acknowledged the fence as the boundary line. While this was rather “self-serving” testimony, it was within the province of the trial court to find whether Teresa’s evidence was credible. Besides, other testimony from Shoemake and her witnesses established that no one north of the fence used the property south of the fence and that property north of the fence was pasture, while property south of the fence was woods. The Court concluded that Ms. Shoemake had presented sufficient evidence – just barely enough –to establish that Boyster and his predecessors in interest recognized the fence line as the boundary between the two properties.