Real estate law practice in the rural parts of the Ozarks, at least at the level of taking phone calls from prospective clients, often involves unwritten agreements, a woman’s role, cattle, guns, vehicles, accusations of trespass and calling the sheriff. Once in a while, a case makes it to the appellate court, as in Manley v Meyer, which has these common ingredients.
Manley had an unwritten agreement with William and Linda Meyer that allowed Manley to put cattle on 57 acres owned by the Meyers. Under the agreement, Manley could also hunt, cut hay, and ride ATVs on the property for a payment of $1,000 for a one-year period.
Over something else, the Meyers filed a suit against Manley, which they settled under the terms of a written agreement filed with the court, requiring Manley to pay the Meyers the sum of $1,000 for rent and $125 for a pig. In addition, Manley was required to remove his cattle from the Meyers’ pasture before a deadline of September 10, 2008. The Meyers were required to return a shotgun and a camper to Manley.
Manley picked up a few of the cows on September 9, but the Meyers told him not to use ATVs, dogs or horses to assist with the roundup. The Meyers offered to put up a pen with cattle panels to catch the cattle, if Manley would supply feed to lure them in. By December, Manley had been unable to schedule a time to pick up the remainder of the cattle, apparently because the times he suggested were inconvenient for the Meyers. But Manley continued to deliver feed to the locked pen.
On December 2, Mrs. Meyer asked Manley to deliver additional feed, but Manley insisted that he was going to pick up the cattle that afternoon and would bring the sheriff with him. At the pen, Mr. Meyer refused to let Manley have the cattle unless Manley gave three calves to the Meyers as compensation for feeding the cattle. Manley refused, and Mr. Meyer told him that he needed to leave because he was trespassing. The deputy advised that his orders were to keep the peace, and that if Manley could not have his cattle, he had to leave.
A few months later, Manley sued the Meyers for $28,000, alleging conversion of his cattle, his shotgun and several cattle panels and breach of the settlement agreement. Meyers fired back with a claim for $2,340 for hay fed to the cattle, $1,500 for boarding the cattle, and $500 for fence repair.
At a trial before a judge without a jury, Manley testified about the value of his cattle and shotgun, the number of cattle (they had calves and the calves had calves while on the Meyers’ pasture). The Meyers made no objection to Manley’s testimony about the value of his shotgun or the cattle. The judge awarded $28,000 to Manley for breach of the settlement agreement requiring them to return his cattle and shotgun and denied the Meyers’ counterclaim entirely.
The Meyers appealed. They claimed that Manley didn’t introduce sufficient evidence about the number of calves born and surviving and the value of the cattle for which he did not have papers showing the amount paid for them. They also claimed that Mrs. Meyer had no part of the refusal of the return of the cattle.
If the $28,000 judgment were only against Mr. Meyer, then Manley could not require that it be satisfied out of the assets jointly owned by Mr. Meyer and Mrs. Meyer. When a party refuses to pay a judgment, the holder of the judgment has the right to enlist the assistance of the courts (through garnishment) and the sheriff (through levy and execution) in seizing the assets of the judgment debtor. Typically, almost everything that married couples have is jointly owned, so the Meyers were attempting to avoid the effect of the judgment by claiming that Mrs. Meyer had nothing to do with it. But the appellate court noted that Mrs. Meyer had signed the settlement agreement requiring the return of the cattle and shotgun, so that she was jointly liable, even though only her husband had the key to the lock on the cattle pen.
Now imagine that you, blog reader, are a judge on the court of appeals. There was no detailed judgment from the trial court, which might have included specific findings of fact and legal conclusions to indicate which rules of law the judge applied. In the appeal, Manley did not file a brief that would have contained legal arguments to refute those made by the Meyers.
As appellate judge, you would be relieved to know that the appellate court has rules that apply when the judgment of the trial court does not include findings of fact and conclusions of law. When no party has asked that the judge make written findings and conclusions, the appellate court presumes that “all fact issues were found in accordance with the judgment” and that the judgment will be upheld “under any reasonable theory presented and supported by the evidence.” And the trial judge is given great deference as to his evaluation of the credibility of the witnesses and his weighing of the evidence.
In other words, the trial court’s judgment will be affirmed absent an incredibly blatant misstatement of a rule of law. Most experienced lawyers will ask for written findings of fact and conclusions of law before the start of the trial. At the end of the trial, the judge will ask one or both lawyers to prepare findings and conclusions to submit to the judge, which the judge will review, amend and sign. Sometimes, the judge has not made up his mind at the conclusion of the trial and the findings and the conclusions assist the judge in making a decision.