Face Challenges Confidently

201 Ruiz v. Stewart Mineral Corp.

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Richard F. Brown

The following is not a legal opinion. You should consult your attorney if the case may be of significance to you.

Ruiz v. Stewart Mineral Corp. , 202 S.W.3d 242, (Tex. App.—Tyler 2006, pet. denied) discusses the applicability of a declaratory judgment action to establish title by adverse possession and deed construction. B. S. and Daisy Wettermark owned an undivided one-half mineral interest in certain land, and they executed a power of attorney in favor of Witherspoon. B. S. Wettermark died in 1935, and in 1938, after his death, Witherspoon executed a deed by which he purported to convey, as attorney-in-fact, the one half undivided interest owned by both B.S. and Daisy to grantees.

Grantees continuously developed the undivided one half mineral interest from 1949-2003. In their original petition, grantees sought only a declaratory judgment that they owned the undivided one-half interest formerly owned by the Wettermarks. They claimed the 1938 deed by Witherspoon as attorney-in-fact was valid to convey the mineral interest of Daisy Wettermark, but regardless of the validity of the deed, grantees claimed they were the rightful owners of Daisy’s interest and B. S. Wettermark’s interest by adverse possession under the five-and ten-year adverse possession statutes.

The successors to the Wettermarks (“Defendants”) claimed that a trespass to try title action is the statutory form of action required and the exclusive remedy for determination of title. A trespass to try title action is a procedure by which rival claims to title or right of possession may be adjudicated. In a trespass to try title action, the plaintiff may recover by proving a regular chain of conveyances from the sovereign, by proving a superior title out of a common source, by proving title by limitations, or by proving prior possession and that the possession has not been abandoned. Adverse possession is defined as “an actual and visible appropriation of real property, commenced and continued from a claim of right that is inconsistent with and is hostile to the claim of another person. The Court held that, based on the pleadings and the evidence, this was an adverse possession case, and as such, the claim could only be resolved in a statutory trespass to try title action. 8

This is also the holding in the leading case of Martin v. Amerman, which the grantees attempted to distinguish because Martin V. Amerman was a boundary case. The court refused to make that distinction. The court also declined to follow other appellate decisions rendered prior to Martin v. Amerman holding that title could be resolved on an adverse possession claim in a suit to quiet title. Because the court held that a declaratory judgment action was not the appropriate vehicle for resolving adverse possession claims, the trial court’s summary judgment on those grounds was reversed.

The parties agreed that Witherspoon could not act on behalf of B. S. Wettermark after his death in 1935, but grantees also sought a declaration that the 1938 deed was effective to convey Daisy’s 1/4 of the minerals. Because Defendants challenged the validity of the acknowledgment, the court reviewed the document in which Witherspoon was given the authority to act as attorney-in-fact. The court found it was properly acknowledged by a notary public, and therefore an effective deed as to Daisy’s interest.

The Declaratory Judgments Act provides that:

[a] person  interested  under  a  deed,  will,  written  contract,  or  other  writings constituting a contract or whose rights, status, or other legal relations are affected by a statute, municipal ordinance, contract, or franchise may have determined any question of construction or validity arising under the instrument, statute, ordinance, contract, or franchise and obtain a declaration of rights, status, or other legal relations thereunder.

Therefore, the trial court’s summary judgment as to Daisy’s 1/4 of the minerals was affirmed, because the judgment properly declared that her interest passed to the grantees under the 1938 deed.

The trial court had awarded over $57,000 in attorney’s fees. The court held that attorney’s fees in this case could not have been awarded on the adverse possession claim, and although attorney’s fees could be awarded under the Declaratory Judgments Act, the fees as to each claim would have to be segregated. “An award of attorney’s fees erroneously based upon evidence of unsegregated fees requires a remand.”