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Carroll v. Rodriques

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Newport

September 22, 2017

KAREN F. CARROLL Plaintiff
v.
LISA RODRIQUES, MICHAEL RODRIQUES, PRICILLA N. ESTES, in her capacity as Co-Trustee of the Testamentary Trust established under the Will of John G. Nelson, and MARK W. ESTES, in his capacity as Co-Trustee of the Testamentary Trust established under the Will of John G. Nelson Defendants

          For Plaintiff: Christopher A. Anderson, Esq.

          For Defendant: Evan S. Leviss, Esq.

          DECISION

          VAN COUYGHEN, J.

         This case is before the Court for decision following a nonjury trial on a Complaint by Karen F. Carroll (Plaintiff) against Lisa and Michael Rodriques-individually- and Pricilla N. and Mark W. Estes-in their capacities as co-trustees of the testamentary trust of John G. Nelson (collectively, Defendants). Plaintiff seeks to quiet title to certain property in Little Compton via adverse possession pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 34-7-1. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 8-2-14. For the reasons set forth herein, judgment shall enter for Plaintiff.

         I

         Standard of Review

         In a nonjury trial, the "trial justice sits as a trier of fact as well as of law." Hood v. Hawkins, 478 A.2d 181, 184 (R.I. 1984). "Consequently, [the trial justice] weighs and considers the evidence, passes upon the credibility of the witnesses, and draws proper inferences." Id.

         Rule 52(a) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure states that "[i]n all actions tried upon the facts without a jury . . . the court shall find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law . . ." Super. R. Civ. P. 52(a). At times, parties will stipulate to certain facts and execute an agreed statement of facts. When certain facts are stipulated to, "the [ ] court does not play a fact-finding role, but is limited to 'applying the law to the agreed-upon facts.'" Delbonis Sand & Gravel Co. v. Town of Richmond, 909 A.2d 922, 925 (R.I. 2006) (quoting Hagenberg v. Avedisian, 879 A.2d 436, 441 (R.I. 2005)). Facts in dispute are decided by the Court, and the law is applied accordingly.

         In accordance with the appropriate standard, this Court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.

         II

         Facts

         A. Background

         The Town of Little Compton is a quiet, rural community that sits at the Southeastern tip of Rhode Island. At some point prior to November 1986, Francis Carroll-Plaintiff's late husband-began searching the Little Compton Land Evidence Records and Tax Rolls for properties that were not on the tax rolls or were otherwise unaccounted for.[1] After identifying a property that was not on the tax rolls and had no apparent owner of record, Mr. Carroll would deed the property from himself, to himself and his wife, as tenants by the entirety. Mr. Carroll would then record the deed. Subsequently, the tax assessor would be notified of the newly recorded deed and begin assessing taxes to the property. The Carrolls would then proceed to pay the property taxes as assessed and treat the property as their own.[2]

         Mr. Carroll's interest in the area surrounding Amy Hart Path in Little Compton began at a time after his parents' divorce when he received a lot of his own in the same area.[3] While researching his lot, Mr. Carroll discovered that certain other lots in the nearby area were missing from the tax rolls. In other words, the Lots were not being assessed property taxes. Two of the lots Mr. Carroll identified as being absent from the tax rolls, and for which he could not locate record owners, were lots 103 and 105 of the Little Compton Tax Assessor's Plat Map 41. These are the lots at issue in the instant lawsuit.

         Historically, the lots in question as well as real estate in the surrounding area were used as woodlots and were otherwise undeveloped and forested.[4] Up to and until 2009, the year this lawsuit was filed, the record owners of the lots in question were unknown to both the Town of Little Compton and the record owners themselves.

         B. Lots 103 and 105 (The disputed land)

         Lots 103 and 105 are located to the east and to the west of Amy Hart Path, respectively, and directly abut Defendants' properties to the north. The lots are between six and seven acres apiece and, to date, remain mostly undeveloped and wooded. Upon identifying lots 103 and 105 as not being on the tax rolls, Mr. Carroll had his attorney at the time prepare a quitclaim deed conveying the lots from himself, to himself and Plaintiff, as tenants by the entirety. On November 19, 1986, Mr. Carroll recorded the deed in the Little Compton Land Evidence Records in Book 67 at Page 674. The properties were subsequently assigned lot numbers 103 and 105, and taxes were assessed by the Little Compton Tax Assessor. Plaintiff testified at trial that the couple originally planned to subdivide lots 103 and 105 and sell the lots as house-lots. In furtherance of this goal, they took certain actions in an effort to prepare the lots for sale.

         Shortly after recording the 1986 deed, around the spring of 1987, the couple cleared the land around the lots' boundary lines by cutting away brush and trimming trees. Plaintiff testified that she and her husband also had the lots surveyed in order to identify the exact boundaries. The Carrolls directed the surveyor to place granite boundary markers-six in total-around the properties and to also place metal rods in the middle of Amy Hart Path. The lots extended into, and met in the middle of, Amy Hart Path. After having the lots surveyed and the perimeter marked, the Carrolls applied to the Town of Little Compton to subdivide the lots.

         Plaintiff testified that the town council[5] approved the application to subdivide the lots; however, the approval was conditioned upon several factors. First, the Carrolls had to widen Amy Hart Path between the boundary lines of lots 103 and 105 to a width of twenty feet, with an additional ten foot setback on each side. To accomplish this, the Carrolls hired an engineer. Plaintiff testified that gravel and stone were brought in to improve the path's structural integrity, and drainage pipes were installed. Additionally, the Town of Little Compton required the Carrolls to get the land resurveyed as the perimeter surveys they provided were insufficient. On February 9, 1989, a deed memorializing the subdivision was recorded in the Little Compton Land Evidence Records in Book 74 at Page 416. The lots in question are now reflected in Little Compton Tax Assessor's Plat Map 41 as lots 103-1 and 103-2 and lots 105-1 and 105-2 (collectively, the Lots). On August 20, 1989, Mr. Carroll passed away.

         In addition to subdividing the Lots, Plaintiff brought suit in Newport County Superior Court in 1995 in order to have Amy Hart Path declared a public road. The lawsuit was necessitated because certain property owners, who are not parties to the instant action, would not allow Plaintiff to use Amy Hart Path. The defendants in that case were asserting that Amy Hart Path was a private road and thus denied access to the Lots in question, which prevented Plaintiff from bringing utilities to them.

         On May 7, 1996, judgment entered in Plaintiff's favor. The court declared Amy Hart Path a public highway and permanently restrained and enjoined the defendants from, inter alia, "impeding, interfering with or otherwise denying [Ms. Carroll]'s right to utilize the Amy Hart Path for the purpose of bringing utility services to her land." Pl.'s Trial Ex. H, 2-3[6]. Subsequently, Plaintiff brought utilities to the Lots, which required installing utility poles to carry the necessary cables.

         Plaintiff testified that she posted no trespassing signs around the properties in an effort to notify the public that the land was private property. Plaintiff also hired engineers to conduct perc tests[7] throughout the Lots in order to assess their ability to properly drain water. In addition, Plaintiff engaged a realtor, Rosemary Bowen of Spinnaker Realtors, to market the Lots for sale. Ms. Bowen was successful in her endeavors, and Plaintiff entered into Purchase and Sales Agreements for all four lots, ultimately obtaining security deposits on each. The individual who executed a Purchase and Sales Agreement for lot 105-2, Christian LeBlanc, testified that he cleared an acre of the lot, installed a driveway, and burnt brush; however, construction has since been halted as a result of this lawsuit.[8]

         The parties do not dispute that Defendants are the record owners of the subject properties. The Rodriques Defendants are the record owners of lots 103-1 and 103-2, and the Estes Defendants are the record owners of lots 105-1 and 105-2. Neither the Rodriques Defendants nor the Estes Defendants have ever occupied the subject properties, nor have they paid any real estate taxes on the subject properties. Additional facts will be provided as needed.

         III

         Travel

         On March 16, 2009, Plaintiff filed suit in Newport County Superior Court seeking to quiet title to the Lots via adverse possession. Plaintiff claims that in accordance with § 34-7-1, she had occupied the Lots under a claim of right and had been in open, notorious, adverse, exclusive, and uninterrupted possession and enjoyment for the statutory period. On June 27, 2016, the case was reached for trial and heard before another justice of this Court without the intervention of a jury. At the conclusion of the one-day trial, the trial justice reserved decision.

         On December 15, 2016, another justice of this Court ordered a mistrial due to the illness of the original justice, and a new trial date was scheduled. On May 4, 2017, the two-day, nonjury trial concluded before this Court. At the close of Plaintiff's case, Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff's claim pursuant to Super. R. Civ. P. 41. The motion should have been made pursuant to Super. ...


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