The Walls never imagined that when they bought the overgrown half-acre next to the old church that they were buying boundary trouble. But as soon as Mr. Wall started clearing the trees and brush, the parishioners next door at the Springfield Missionary Baptist Church started complaining that he was trespassing against them.
Being a careful kind of guy, Mr. Wall stopped until he could have an expert check it out. It turned out he wasn’t on the Church’s land, so he kept clearing the land. The Church was unwilling to forgive him his trespasses. It sued, arguing that while maybe it was the Walls’ land (which would mean he was not trespassing), the Church had acquired it over the years by adverse possession (which meant that he was).
The Walls moved for summary judgment, arguing that there was no way the Church’s claim could bear fruit, and asking the trial court to throw the case into the proverbial fire. There were simply no facts, Mr. Wall claimed, supporting the congregants’ claims. Part of the Walls’ claim was that the area was so overgrown – sort of a micro-wilderness – it would have been impossible for the faithful to have wandered in it enough to possess the disputed land within the meaning of adverse possession law.
When a party files for summary judgment, it is incumbent on the other side to show with affidavits and other documentary evidence that genuine questions of fact exist. Here, the Church opposed the Walls’ motion with three affidavits of long-time members that seemed to be pretty much “cookie-cutter” claims that the Church had openly, continuously and hostilely possessed the disputed land for years.
The trial court wasn’t impressed: it threw out the affidavits because the witnesses didn’t adequately describe a boundary fence on the disputed property or even claim that they were familiar with the boundaries. The Court of Appeals, however, reversed – it found that the affidavits were detailed enough to show that a real question existed whether the Church had possessed some of the Walls’ property.
But then on rehearing, the Court reversed its own reversal, concluding that the affidavits permitted two equally reasonable inferences as to whether the fence was located on the neighboring landowners’ property. That being the case, the Court said, the affidavits did not create a genuine issue of material fact warranting submission of the case to the jury. Someone could only speculate or guess whether the fence was located on the neighboring landowners’ property or on the church property, and the court would not let the Church continue to assault Mr. Wall’s title to the property over such tottering facts.
The moral to the story: it’s never a good idea to file conclusory affidavits. Detail is good, and the more facts you can aver, the better. Here, the Church’s lawyer wrote some mirror-image affidavits that were short enough on fact and long enough on conclusion (and confusion) that the Church got its case tossed.
Springfield Missionary Baptist Church v. Wall, 993 So.2d 469 (Ala.Civ.App. 2008). Springfield Missionary Baptist Church owned land next to a half-acre parcel owned by Robert and Melissa Wall. Robert began clearing the land when the Church contacted him, contending that he had torn down a boundary-line fence and some trees on Church property. Concerned about the allegation, he double-checked the boundary line and determined that he had not crossed it. He then continued with his clearing.
The Church sued the Walls to quiet title to a portion of the Walls’ property. The Walls moved for a summary judgment, arguing that the Church’s deed did not give it title to the disputed strip of land, as the Church had alleged in its complaint, and that, even if the Church was arguing that the fence it claimed had since been destroyed once encroached onto the Walls’ property such that it could claim adverse possession of a portion of the Walls’ property up to that fence, neither of the surveyors who had surveyed the properties and determined the boundary line had indicated an encroachment of any kind on either survey.
The Walls also argued that their property had been “overgrown” and heavily wooded at the time it was purchased in November 2005 and that, because it was in such a condition, no part of it had been susceptible to being used in a manner that could establish adverse possession of any part of the property. The Church countered that the fence that the Walls had destroyed had served as a boundary line between the two properties. It said it had used the property up to the fence as a parking lot and that it had used the area up to the fence for more than 60 years, thus establishing adverse possession of the disputed “strip.”
The Church submitted the affidavits of three long-time church members. In nearly identical affidavits, two of them said they had been parishioners since 1928 and 1934, respectively. Both said that the Church has claimed ownership of the property encompassed by the legal description set out in the 1995 survey, and the Church had in continuous, actual, open, notorious, and peaceful possession of said land from at least the year 1928 to the present time. Regarding the fence, they both said it had been located on the property for as long as they could remember. A second affidavit executed in opposition to the Walls’ motion for a summary judgment said the Church had been in its present location for over 20 years and that she has been a member of the church for over 20 years. The third member’s affidavit said the old fence that was removed by [the Walls] had been in place as long as [I] can remember and served as the boundary line.” According to her, “the church parking lot went all the way to the fence line,” and that she had walked the boundary line marked by the fence many times.
The trial court struck the affidavits submitted by the Church on the grounds that the affidavits only stated conclusions regarding adverse possession instead of making statements of fact that would support a conclusion that the Church had adversely possessed the disputed property. It held that the affidavits failed to adequately describe the fence and because the affiants failed to testify that they were familiar with the legal boundary line of the property. The trial court’s judgment, in addition to striking the affidavits, determined that the church had failed to provide substantial evidence of an encroachment on the Walls’ property.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Walls.
The Church appealed, arguing that it presented substantial evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact and thus presented sufficient evidence to preclude the entry of the summary judgment.
Held: The Court of Civil Appeals reversed the trial court in a decision in September 2007, but then, in January 2008, reversed its reversal, upholding the trial court. The Court of Appeals ultimately held that the summary judgment affidavits submitted by church members did not present solely conclusory statements so as to warrant striking the affidavits in their entirety. However, the affidavits didn’t create a controversy that required the case to go to the jury. The affidavits permitted two equally reasonable inferences as to whether the fence was located on the neighboring landowners’ property, leaving a fact finder to only speculate or guess whether the fence was located on the neighboring landowners’ property.
The Court observed that it was only where evidence points equally to inferences both favorable and unfavorable to the party moving for summary judgment that it lacks probative value, and its use to support one inference more than another, when in fact it will support both with equal plausibility, becomes mere conjecture and speculation.
– Tom Root