Donald R. Laird v. Savannah Bellaire Home Builders Inc.--Appeal from Co Civil Ct at Law No 4 of Harris CountyAnnotate this Case
Vacated and Dismissed and Memorandum Opinion filed August 23, 2005.
Fourteenth Court of Appeals
DONALD R. LAIRD, Appellant
SAVANNAH BELLAIRE HOME BUILDERS, INC., Appellee
On Appeal from the County Court at Law No. 4
Harris County, Texas
Trial Court Cause No. 805,120
M E M O R A N D U M O P I N I O N
Appellant, Donald Laird, appeals the trial court=s judgment entered in favor of appellee, Savannah Bellaire Home Builders, Inc. (ASavannah@), awarding it possession of disputed property in its forcible detainer action. Because we find both the justice court and the county court at law lacked jurisdiction, we vacate their judgments and dismiss the cause of action.
On May 1, 2003, Savannah acquired a certain piece of property by a general warranty deed describing the property as ALot Eleven (11), in Block Thirty-six (36) and the adjoining North 2.5 feet of the abutting alley, of SOUTHDALE ADDITION, . . . .@ Laird owned the property behind the property purchased by Savannah. The properties are separated by a five-foot wide alley abutting each property. Savannah claims the it owns one-halfCthe northern 2.5 foot portionCof the alley, while Laird owns the other halfCthe southern 2.5 foot portion.
The dispute arose over Laird=s parking a recreational vehicle (ARV@) on what Savannah claims is its half of the alley. Raul Nieves, a partner in Savannah, testified that he spoke to Laird in May 2003, about the location of the RV. According to Nieves, Laird said he knew the RV was on Savannah=s property, but he needed to make some repairs before he could move it. Nieves understood that Laird would move the RV in a couple of weeks and that they had entered into an oral lease for Laird=s RV to remain on its property until that time.
A few weeks later, Laird had not moved the RV, but it appeared that he was working on the RV and there was no indication to Nieves that Laird would not move the RV. Nieves spoke to Laird again because the concrete for the foundation was going be poured in a couple of weeks. According to Nieves, Laird repeated that he would try to finish repairing his RV and would move it as soon as possible, but did not assert any claim to ownership of the northern half of the alley. When Laird still did not move the RV, Savannah made special provisions to protect the RV when the concrete was poured.
Savannah eventually retained legal counsel, Julian Moss, who wrote to Laird on August 27, 2003, demanding that Laird remove his RV from the northern half of the alley. After receiving the letter, Laird called Moss. On September 5, 2003, Moss wrote Laird again, stating, AThank you for you[r] telephone call today. Please let this letter confirm your agreement to move your motor home from the north 2.5 feet of the alley,@ informing him that Savannah would allow him two weeks in which to move his motor home, and requesting that if Laird was not able to move his RV within two weeks, to let him know. Laird never responded to this letter.
Laird testified that he told Nieves that when finished working on the RV he would move it, but he never told Nieves the reason he was going to move the RV. Laird does not recall Nieves= telling him that the RV was on Savannah=s property. Laird also stated that although he called Moss and told him that he was trying to repair the RV and move it out of the way, he did not agree to the demand to move it within two weeks. Laird testified that he never agreed to lease the disputed portion of the alley.
On October 10, 2003, Savannah filed a forcible detainer action against Laird in the justice of the peace court, which rendered judgment in favor of Savannah on November 10, 2003. Laird appealed the justice court=s judgment to the county court at law. On January 12, 2004, after a bench trial, the county court entered judgment awarding immediate possession of the northern 2.5 foot portion of the alley to Savannah.
In his first issue, Laird claims the county court erred by not dismissing the case for lack of jurisdiction. The only question in a forcible detainer action is who has right to immediate possession of the premises. Tex. R. Civ. P. 746; Aguilar v. Weber, 72 S.W.3d 729, 732 (Tex. App.CWaco 2002, no pet.); Falcon v. Ensignia, 976 S.W.2d 336, 338 (Tex. App.CCorpus Christi 1998, no pet.). The plaintiff need only show sufficient evidence of ownership to demonstrate a superior right to immediate possession in a forcible detainer action; it is not required to prove title. Dormady v. Dinero Land & Cattle Co., L.C., 61 S.W.3d 555, 557 (Tex. App.CSan Antonio 2001, pet. dism=d w.o.j.); Goggins. v. Leo, 849 S.W.2d 373, 377 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 1993, no writ).
The Texas Legislature has specifically declined to give justice courts jurisdiction to adjudicate title to land. Tex. Gov=t Code Ann. ' 27.031(b) (Vernon 2004); Rice v. Pinney, 51 S.W.3d 705, 708 (Tex. App.CDallas 2001, no pet.). Instead, district courts have sole jurisdiction to adjudicate title to real property. Falcon, 976 S.W.2d at 338.
Laird claims title to the northern half of the alley by adverse possession. When he attempted to testify about the elements of his claim for adverse possession, the trial court sustained Savannah=s objection, explaining, AI understand that you=re claiming through adverse possession, but we aren=t trying that here. So you don=t have to establish all the elements because I=m not going to make that decision.@
Where the question of right to immediate possession necessarily requires resolution of the question of title, the justice court has no jurisdiction to determine possession. Aguilar, 72 S.W.3d at 732; Rice, 51 S.W.3d at 709; see also Dormady, 61 S.W.3d at 557 (A[I]f the question of title is so intertwined with the issue of possession, then possession may not be adjudicated without first determining title.@). Here, the questions of possession and title are so intertwined that the justice court could not have decided Savannah=s claim to possession without deciding Laird=s claim to title by adverse possession. See Gibson v. Dynegy Midstream Servs., L.P., 138 S.W.3d 518, 524 (Tex. App.CFort Worth 2004, no pet.) (affirming justice court=s and county court=s dismissal of plaintiff=s forcible entry and detainer action where issue of possession was so integrally linked to issue of title by adverse possession raised by defendant that justice court could not decided question of possession without deciding question of title by adverse possession); Gentry v. Marburger, 596 S.W.2d 201, 203 (Tex. Civ. App.CHouston [1st Dist.] 1980, writ ref=d n.r.e.) (holding justice court was without jurisdiction to determine forcible detainer action where pleadings raised title by adverse possession and title to premises was directly involved). Therefore, the justice court was without jurisdiction to determine the issue of possession in the forcible detainer action.
Moreover, because the appellate jurisdiction of the county court Ais confined to the jurisdictional limits of the justice court,@ the county court similarly had no jurisdiction to hear the appeal of the justice court=s judgment in the forcible detainer action. Aguilar, 72 S.W.3d at 731; Rice, 51 S.W.3d at 708; see also Dormady, 61 S.W.3d at 557 (A[N]either a justice court, nor a county court on appeal, has jurisdiction to determine the issue of title to real property in a forcible detainer suit.@).
Accordingly, we vacate the judgments of the county court at law and justice courts and dismiss this cause of action for want of jurisdiction.
/s/ J. Harvey Hudson
Judgment rendered and Memorandum Opinion filed August 23, 2005.
Panel consists of Justices Yates, Anderson, and Hudson.
 Emphasis added.
 On cross-examination, Nieves also stated that Laird did not tell him that he was going to move the RV because he thought Savannah had title to the property.
 Having found the lower courts lacked jurisdiction, it is not necessary for us to address Laird=s other issues.