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Estate of Zimmerman v. Blatter

Court of Appeals of Maryland

April 20, 2018

ESTATE OF CHARLES HOWARD ZIMMERMAN, ROBERT CLAYTON STEVENS, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE
v.
ERICH E. BLATTER, ET UX.

          Argued: March 1, 2018

          Circuit Court for Frederick County Case No. 10-C-14-001668

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.

          OPINION

          WATTS, J.

         This case concerns a dispute over title to a six-acre parcel of real property ("the Disputed Property") located along the boundary of two farm properties in the Liberty Election District in Frederick County, Maryland. Specifically, to the east of the Disputed Property lies a farm that was formerly owned by the Estate of Charles Howard Zimmerman ("the Estate"), Petitioner, which consists of three tracts of land at 8260 Dollyhyde Road in Mount Airy, Maryland ("the Zimmerman Farm"). By a deed dated January 1, 2013, Robert Clayton Stevens, the Estate's personal representative, on the Estate's behalf, conveyed the Zimmerman Farm to George C. Stevens ("George") and himself in his individual capacity. To the west of the Disputed Property lies a farm that is known as the Laughlin Farm, which is currently owned by Erich E. Blatter and Dr. Susan V. M. Maharaj, Respondents, located at 7977 Timmons Road in Union Bridge, Maryland ("the Laughlin Farm"). Neither the Estate nor Respondents is the record owner of the Disputed Property. Indeed, apparently, the record owner of the Disputed Property is an individual who has been deceased for more than 100 years, with no known personal representative.

         On June 4, 2014, on the Estate's behalf, Stevens filed in the Circuit Court for Frederick County a complaint against Respondents seeking to quiet title to the Disputed Property, alleging that the Estate owned the Disputed Property through adverse possession.[1] Respondents also claimed ownership of the Disputed Property, and filed a counterclaim against the Estate for trespass. No record owner of the Disputed Property was made a party to the action to quiet title. Following a two-day bench trial, the circuit court denied the counterclaim and ruled that, as between the parties, the Estate had the right to possess and use the Disputed Property by adverse possession. The circuit court noted that it could not rule that the Estate had "absolute ownership" of the Disputed Property because no record owner had been made a party to the action. On November 2, 2015, the circuit court issued an order consistent with its oral ruling, denying the counterclaim and determining that, "as between the parties[, ]" the Estate had the right to possession and use of the Disputed Property by way of adverse possession. In other words, the circuit court's ruling would not be effective against the record owner of the Disputed Property or any other person with an interest in the Disputed Property, and the circuit court did not determine ownership of the Disputed Property.

         Respondents appealed. On June 26, 2017, in an unreported opinion, the Court of Special Appeals vacated the circuit court's judgment and remanded this case to the circuit court with instructions to dismiss this case. The Court of Special Appeals determined that, although the circuit court correctly observed that the action to quiet title lacked a necessary party, i.e., the record owner of the Disputed Property, the circuit court erred in proceeding with "trial to determine which party to the action had a superior right to possess the Disputed" Property. Thereafter, the Estate filed a motion for reconsideration, which the Court of Special Appeals denied. On September 19, 2017, the Estate filed in this Court a petition for a writ of certiorari, which this Court granted. See Estate of Zimmerman v. Blatter, 456 Md. 251, 173 A.3d 153 (2017).

         In the meantime, while this case was pending in the Court of Special Appeals, but before that Court issued its unreported opinion, effective October 1, 2016, the General Assembly amended the statute governing actions to quiet title, Md. Code Ann., Real Prop. (1974, 2015 Repl. Vol.) ("RP (2015)") § 14-108, and added a new subtitle governing actions to quiet title, Md. Code Ann., Real Prop. (1974, 2015 Repl. Vol., 2016 Supp.) ("RP") §§ 14-601 to 14-621. See 2016 Md. Laws 5703-04, 5711 (Vol. VII, Ch. 396, H.B. 920). And, effective April 1, 2017, this Court adopted a new chapter in the Maryland Rules, Maryland Rules 12-801 to 12-811, governing actions to quiet title. See Court of Appeals of Maryland, Rules Order at 2-3, 154-69 (Dec. 13, 2016), available at https:// mdcourts.gov/sites/default/files/rules/order/191ro.pdf [https://perma.cc/6UA5-JZJP].

         Both before and after October 1, 2016, RP § 14-108(b) has provided that "[a]ny person who appears of record, or claims to have a hostile outstanding right, shall be made a defendant in the proceedings." In other words, a record owner of a property is required to be joined as a defendant in an action to quiet title. Importantly, however, the new subtitle and Maryland Rules governing actions to quiet title provide specific procedures by which a plaintiff may proceed with an action to quiet title even where there exists a person required to be joined as a defendant, e.g., a record owner, who is deceased with no known personal representative. Stated otherwise, although a record owner of a property may be deceased with no known personal representative, as of October 1, 2016, Maryland law provides a mechanism by which a plaintiff may nevertheless proceed with seeking to quiet title to the property. Under those circumstances, RP § 14-610(b) provides:

(1) If a person required to be named as a defendant is dead, or is believed by the plaintiff to be dead, and the plaintiff knows of no personal representative, the plaintiff shall state those facts in an affidavit filed with the complaint.
(2) If the plaintiff states in an affidavit under paragraph (1) of this subsection that a person is dead, the plaintiff may join as defendants "the testate and intestate successors of (naming the deceased person), deceased, and all persons claiming by, through, or under the decedent".
(3) If the plaintiff states in an affidavit under paragraph (1) of this subsection that a person is believed to be dead, the plaintiff may join the person as a defendant, and may also join "the testate and intestate successors of ___(naming the person), believed to be deceased, and all persons claiming by, through, or under the person believed to be deceased".

         Consistently, Maryland Rule 12-805(b)(2) provides: "If a person required to be named as defendant . . . is dead, or is believed by the plaintiff to be dead, and the plaintiff knows of no personal representative, the plaintiff shall state those facts in an affidavit filed with the court." And, Maryland Rule 12-805(b)(3) provides that, where a plaintiff avers in an affidavit that a person is dead or believed to be dead, then the plaintiff "may join as defendants" the person's "testate and intestate successors" and all persons who would claim "by, through or under" the person.

         Against this backdrop, we decide whether RP §§ 14-601 to 14-621 and Maryland Rules 12-801 to 12-811, all of which became effective while this case was pending in the Court of Special Appeals, apply to this case-i.e., whether the new statutes and Maryland Rules apply retroactively-and, if so, whether, under the circumstances of this case, dismissal for nonjoinder of a deceased record owner who has no known personal representative is required. We hold that RP §§ 14-601 to 14-621 and Maryland Rules 12-801 to 12-811 apply retroactively to all cases that were pending when the statutes and Maryland Rules became effective, including this case, which was pending in the Court of Special Appeals. Specifically, we conclude that the new statutes and Maryland Rules apply retroactively because they govern procedures that are related to actions to quiet title and are remedial in nature, they do not impair any substantive or vested rights, and neither the General Assembly nor this Court, in enacting the new statutes and adopting the new Maryland Rules, respectively, has shown an intent to the contrary. With respect to RP §§ 14-601 to 14-621, the General Assembly did not express any intent whatsoever to limit the applicability of the statutes to actions to quiet title that were initiated after October 1, 2016. And, with respect to Maryland Rules 12-801 to 12-811, this Court's Rules Order explicitly provided for retroactive application to all pending actions, "insofar as practicable[.]" Rules Order at 3.

         Additionally, we hold that, when applied to this case, the new statutes and Maryland Rules do not require dismissal for failure to join a deceased record owner who has no known personal representative. To be sure, under RP § 14-108(b), a record owner is required to be made a defendant to an action to quiet title. Automatic dismissal, however, is not required under the circumstances of this case, as the Court of Special Appeals concluded. Rather, we determine that the proper course of action is to reverse the Court of Special Appeals's judgment and remand this case to that Court with instructions to vacate the circuit court's judgment and remand this case to the circuit court for further proceedings, so that the Estate can follow the procedures that are outlined in the new statutes and Maryland Rules concerning joinder of a defendant who is a deceased record owner with no known personal representative. In other words, on remand, the Estate would be permitted to file an amended complaint that is accompanied by the necessary affidavit that is described by RP § 14-610(b) and Maryland Rule 12-805(b).

         Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals and remand this case to that Court with instructions to vacate the circuit court's judgment and remand this case to the circuit court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion, namely, the filing of an amended complaint to quiet title with the appropriate affidavit in accordance with the new statutes and Maryland Rules governing actions to quiet title. For purposes of the remand, we determine that there is no issue preclusion on the merits of complaint or counterclaim, and we express no opinion as to the merits of either party's claim to the Disputed Property or as to Respondents' counterclaim for trespass.[2]

         BACKGROUND

         On June 4, 2014, on the Estate's behalf, Stevens filed in the circuit court a complaint against Respondents seeking to quiet title to the Disputed Property, alleging that the Estate owned the Disputed Property through adverse possession.[3] In the complaint, the Estate alleged that the Disputed Property is unimproved real property, consisting of approximately six acres that were conveyed by a deed dated April 19, 1886 from Preston S. Devilbiss and Mollie L. Devilbiss, husband and wife, to Abner C. Devilbiss. The Estate alleged that the Disputed Property does not have a Maryland property tax identification number or a map/parcel number. The Estate also alleged that the Disputed Property lies between the Zimmerman Farm and the Laughlin Farm. The Estate alleged that Respondents' chain of title includes a deed dated September 16, 1908, by which Cephas M. Thomas and Milton G. Umer, as trustees, conveyed 191 acres of land to Mollie L. Devilbiss, an undivided one-third interest for her life, with the balance to Roger B. Devilbiss, Bayard Devilbiss, Hilda Devilbiss, and Preston S. Devilbiss. According to the Estate, the 1908 deed expressly excluded the Disputed Property.

         In the complaint, the Estate requested that the circuit court determine, among other things, that: (1) the Estate "has actual peaceable possession of the" Disputed Property; (2) in the alternative, the Estate "is in constructive and peaceable possession of the" Disputed Property; (3) its possession of the Disputed Property is "under color of right by reason of" its and its "predecessor's adverse possession for more than the statutory period"; (4) as between the parties, the Estate "has absolute ownership of the" Disputed Property and "the right of disposition of the" Disputed Property. Accordingly, the Estate requested that the circuit court "[e]nter a decree" that, as between the parties, the Estate has "absolute ownership of[, ]" "and the right of disposition of[, ] the" Disputed Property.

         On August 25, 2014, Respondents filed an answer to the complaint, denying that the Estate was in actual or constructive peaceable possession of the Disputed Property and that the Estate had the right to possess the Disputed Property through adverse possession. On the same day, Respondents filed a counterclaim against the Estate, alleging that the Disputed Property "has always been regarded as a part of the" Laughlin Farm "and deemed by all parties who had involvement with either parcel to be a part of the" Laughlin Farm, including the late Charles Howard Zimmerman ("Zimmerman"). Respondents alleged that they, and previously the Laughlin family, had given permission to Zimmerman and his wife "for limited use of the" Disputed Property, but that they had "formally noted the withdrawal of their consent and license for any use of the land by the heirs of the Estate . . . by letter." Respondents requested that the circuit court issue an order prohibiting the Estate and "its agents, successors, heirs, and assigns" from trespassing onto the Disputed Property.

         On September 24, 2014, the Estate filed an answer to the counterclaim denying that Respondents held title to the Disputed Property, arguing that Respondents failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, and asserting affirmative defenses.

         On September 15 and 16, 2015, the circuit court conducted a bench trial. At the beginning of trial, the Estate's counsel attempted to clarify an issue in the case, advising the circuit court that the dispute between the parties pertained "not necessarily [to] ownership[, ]" but rather concerned "the degree of possession that the [E]state has exercised over" the Disputed Property. The Estate's counsel explained that "legal ownership of the" Disputed Property "is with Abner C. Devilbiss, that the land was conveyed to him in 1886, deed recorded in the land records, and there ha[ve] been no further conveyances[.]" The Estate's counsel stated that Abner had died, and that the Disputed Property's legal owner "would be the personal representative of his granddaughter[, ] but they are not a party to th[is] case." At that point, the circuit court asked the Estate's counsel how this case could be decided and whether there was a lack of a necessary party. The Estate's counsel responded that the dispute at issue was strictly between the parties, and that the circuit court could issue a judgment in the matter, although that judgment would "not [be] good against the world" and would be "good [only] against the parties[.]" According to the Estate's counsel, the record owner would not be bound by the judgment and "would be free to re-litigate the issues." After being asked by the circuit court why the record owners were not joined as parties to the action to quiet title, the Estate's counsel responded:

I think . . . it would have required opening at least three decedents' estates, and trying to find[ ] heirs of[ ] parties . . . one of whom has been dead for almost 120 years. The second party, I believe, died in 1958. And [] the granddaughter, I think, died in the 1970s. . . . The last decedent died after 1970, which means [that] whatever interest she had would have gone to her estate. . . . Her estate was administered in Allegany County, but there's nothing in the inventory that shows any. . . . [T]he [Disputed P]roperty has been forgotten about . . . because they thought -- you have this 160-acre farm here. And the six acres that[ are] in dispute w[ere] considered part of the whole, and, [] conveyed out. No thought was given to the fact that the later deeds did not specifically mention [the Disputed Property.]

         In response, Respondents' counsel argued that the Estate's failure to join the Disputed Property's record owner rendered the circuit court unable to decide the matter. Stated otherwise, according to Respondents' counsel, the record owners were necessary parties. The circuit court advised Respondents' counsel that "[t]he want of a necessary party is a required pretrial motion[, ]" and that it would treat Respondent's counsel's argument as a motion to dismiss. The circuit court recessed to review the parties' arguments and consider the matter. After a brief recess, the circuit court stated that it had reviewed the case law, and determined that it could decide the issue between the parties and determine whether one party's claim was superior to the other party's claim, but that it could not grant title or allow conveyance of the Disputed Property in the absence of its record owner. The circuit court asked whether the parties desired to proceed with the understanding that the circuit court could decide only which party had a superior claim, and counsel for both parties responded in the affirmative. Thereafter, the trial proceeded.

         At trial, to demonstrate satisfaction of the elements of adverse possession, witnesses testified on behalf of the parties concerning each party's use of the Disputed Property. And, through exhibits and witness testimony, the following pertinent evidence was adduced. Beginning in the 1950s, Zimmerman and his wife resided on what is now known as the Zimmerman Farm with their "foster child, " George, and Zimmerman and George began operating the Zimmerman Farm as a dairy farm. By a deed dated September 28, 1965, Hilda Davies conveyed the Zimmerman Farm to Zimmerman and his wife, as tenants by the entireties.[4] Later, George's son, Stevens, who also grew up on the Zimmerman Farm, helped George and Zimmerman with the dairy farm. In 1999, the Zimmerman Farm ceased to operate as a dairy farm.

         On December 20, 2001, Respondents purchased Laughlin Farm from John Laughlin, successor trustee of the Henry P. Laughlin Family Trust. According to Respondents, they believed that they owned the Disputed Property from the time that they purchased the Laughlin Farm.

         In 2010, Zimmerman had a land survey conducted. Stevens testified that he first learned that the ownership of the Disputed Property was unknown upon review of the survey results. On January 29, 2011, Zimmerman died. In a letter dated October 5, 2011, Dr. Maharaj wrote to Stevens, who was serving as the Estate's personal representative, and claimed ownership of the Disputed Property. In a letter dated January 18, 2012, Dr. Maharaj opened a claim with her title insurance company, stating that she believed that the Disputed Property was inadvertently excluded from the Laughlin Farm deed and asking who rightfully owned it. In a letter dated December 13, 2012, the title insurance company's assistant vice president and claims counsel traced the chain of title for Respondents' property and concluded that the Disputed Property was conveyed out of Respondents' chain of title through "two out-conveyances" by deeds dated March 20, 1857 and April 19, 1886. The title insurance company's vice president and claims counsel did not identify the record owner of the Disputed Property. The title insurance company ultimately determined that Respondents' "property [was] described as insured[, ]" and denied Dr. Maharaj's claim.

         At the conclusion of the trial, the circuit court heard closing arguments and recessed to consider the case. Thereafter, the circuit court orally ruled from the bench, denying the counterclaim and ruling that, as between the parties, the Estate had the right to possess and use the Disputed Property through adverse possession. The circuit court first addressed the counterclaim, ruling that it could not grant the relief requested, i.e., a no-trespass order, in the absence of evidence that Respondents had title to the Disputed Property. As to the Estate's adverse possession claim, the circuit court summarized the evidence relating the elements of adverse possession and ruled:

And so I do find that the use of [the Disputed P]roperty meets the criteria of adverse possession. I do find that, as between the parties, the right to possess the [Disputed Property] is with the Estate[.] That is[] by adverse possession. And that[, ] henceforth, between the parties, the[ Estate] ha[s] the right of use of th[e Disputed Property].
I cannot rule that the[ Estate] ha[s] absolute ownership of the [Disputed Property.] . . . [The Estate] certainly did not prove that.

         On November 2, 2015, the circuit court issued an order consistent with its oral ruling, denying the counterclaim and ordering

that[, ] as between the parties to this action, the right to possession and use of the [Disputed Property], Six (6) acres, two (2) rood, and twenty-five (25) perches which comprise the area of unknown ownership between the properties of the [Estate] and [Respondents], is with the Estate . . . by adverse possession.

         In other words, the circuit court's ruling and subsequent order was to be ineffective against the record owner of the Disputed Property or any other person with an interest in the Disputed Property. The circuit court did not identify, either in its oral ruling or subsequent order, who the record owner of the Disputed Property is; rather, the circuit court determined only that, as between the parties, the Estate had the superior claim to the right to possess and use the Disputed Property.

         On November 30, 2015, Respondents noted an appeal.[5] On June 26, 2017, the Court of Special Appeals vacated the circuit court's judgment and remanded this case to the circuit court with instructions to dismiss this case. See Erich E. Blatter, et ux. v. Estate of Charles Howard Zimmerman, No. 2146, Sept. Term, 2015, 2017 WL 2730237, at *7 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. June 26, 2017). The Court of Special Appeals determined that, although the circuit court correctly observed that the action to quiet title lacked a necessary party, i.e., the record owner of the Disputed Property, the circuit court erred in proceeding with "trial to determine which party to the action had a superior right to possess the Disputed" Property. Id. at *1. The Court of Special Appeals explained:

The Court of Appeals'[s] interpretation of [RP § 14-108] leaves no room for doubt in this case. The record owner is [a] necessary party and must be joined to a quiet title action. [RP] § 14-108(b). Outstanding claims to a property are clouds on that property's title and prevent a court from granting the relief provided for in the quiet title action-absolute ownership and the right to dispose of the property. Id. The limited relief granted by the circuit court was a clear indicator that something was amiss. As the Estate admitted at trial, there was a record owner it did not name as a defendant in the action. [RP] § 14-108(b) plainly required the Estate to join the record owner. We hold, therefore, that the [circuit] court erred in conducting trial without ordering the Estate to join the record owner or any person who may "claim[] to have a hostile outstanding right" to the Disputed [Property] as a party, and we reverse the judgment of the [circuit] court with instructions to dismiss this case.

Id. at *7. As to the amendment of RP § 14-108 and the enactment of RP §§ 14-601 to 14-621, which occurred while the appeal was pending, the Court of Special Appeals noted the "substantial changes" and stated in a footnote:

Subtitle 6 prescribes precise procedures for actions to quiet title that did not exist prior to 2016. Although Subtitle 6 [had] not [been] enacted [when] the Estate filed the quiet title action in this case, its provisions further inform and support the purpose of quiet title actions related here.

Id. at *4 n.9. Because the Court of Special Appeals determined that the Estate's failure to join a necessary party to the action to quiet title was dispositive, it did not address Respondents' arguments that the Estate had failed to meet its burden to prove adverse possession. See id. at *4 n.8.

         The Estate filed a motion for reconsideration, which the Court of Special Appeals denied. On September 19, 2017, the Estate filed in this Court a petition for a writ of certiorari, raising the following two issues, among others:

1. Do new RP §§ 14-601 [to] 14-621 and new [Maryland] Rules 12-801 [to] 12-811, all of which concern quiet title actions and took effect during the pendency of this appeal, apply to this appeal?
2. If the answer to Question #1 is "yes", do the new procedural statutes and [Maryland R]ules eliminate any requirement in prior law that a quiet title action is subject to automatic dismissal for nonjoinder of a deceased record owner who has no personal representative?

(Cleaned up). On November 3, 2017, this Court granted the petition. See Estate of Zimmerman, 456 Md. 251, 173 A.3d 153.

         DISCUSSION[6]

         The Parties' Contentions

         The Estate contends that the new statutes and Maryland Rules governing actions to quiet title, which took effect while this case was pending in the Court of Special Appeals, apply to this case. According to the Estate, the changes in the law altered the procedures concerning actions to quiet title, and did not impair any substantive or vested rights, and, thus, the changes apply to all actions, including pending actions, unless there is an express intent to the contrary. In other words, the Estate argues that the new statutes and Maryland Rules governing actions to quiet title apply retroactively, even to cases pending on appeal. The Estate points out that the Rules Order adopting the new Maryland Rules governing actions to quiet title expressly states that the changes shall "apply to all actions [that were] commenced on or after April 1, 2017 and, insofar as practicable, to all actions [that were] then pending[, ]" and that, in enacting the new statutes governing actions to quiet title, the General Assembly did not express an intent that the statutes apply only prospectively. The Estate maintains that Respondents "do not appear to have any substantive or vested rights" to the Disputed Property such that applying the new statutes and Maryland Rules would impair a right possessed by Respondents.

         The Estate contends that the new statutes and Maryland Rules eliminated any requirement of automatic dismissal of an action to quiet title for nonjoinder of a deceased record owner who has no personal representative. The Estate maintains that, because the new statutes and Maryland Rules apply retroactively and eliminated any requirement of automatic dismissal for nonjoinder of a deceased record owner with no personal representative, this Court should remand this case to the Court of Special Appeals with instructions to review and decide the other questions presented by the parties in their briefs to the Court of Special Appeals.

         Respondents respond that RP § 14-108 is a substantive statute, not simply a procedural or remedial statute, because it provides the authority to bring an action to quiet title, and that the new statutes governing actions to quiet title "were enacted to promote consistent procedures in" actions to quiet title. Respondents contend that the new statutes and Maryland Rules did not nullify RP § 14-108(b)'s requirement that all record title owners be joined as parties in an action to quiet title. Respondents acknowledge that the new Maryland Rules apply to pending actions if practicable, but argue that it would have been impracticable to apply them after trial and on appeal, as in this case. Stated otherwise, Respondents assert that an appeal is too late a stage to facilitate adding new parties, such as a deceased record owner. Respondents maintain that, in any event, had the Court of Special Appeals applied the new statutes and Maryland Rules to this case, that application would not have excused the Estate's failure to name the necessary parties in the action to quiet title.

         Respondents contend that the Court of Special Appeals correctly instructed the circuit court to dismiss this case for failure to join necessary parties because, given the circumstances, "there is no realistic option but to require the Estate to start anew" so that the Estate can comply with the law. Respondents argue that a remand to allow the Estate to amend its complaint to add the record owners as defendants in the action to quiet title, after a trial on the merits has occurred on certain issues between the parties, would create several procedural problems, including an issue as to whether Respondents have the right to litigate their claim to the Disputed Property once the record owners are joined.

         Standard ...


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