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Ruhland v. Elliott

Supreme Court of Kansas

July 10, 2015


Review of the judgment of the Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion filed August 9, 2013.

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Appeal from Cloud District Court; KIM W. CUDNEY, judge.

Judgment of the Court of Appeals reversing the district court on the single issue subject to our review is affirmed. Judgment of the district court on the single issue subject to our review is reversed.



1. Whether a party has acquired title by adverse possession is a question of fact to be determined by the trier of fact.

2. An appellate court reviews a district court's factual findings to determine if the record shows substantial competent evidence to support the findings. Substantial competent evidence is such evidence that provides a substantial basis of fact from which the issues can be reasonably determined.

3. A party claiming title by adverse possession must prove each of the statutory requirements by clear and positive proof, which in the context of adverse possession corresponds to clear and convincing evidence and means evidence that shows the truth of the facts asserted is highly probable.

4. A party may not establish adverse possession through inference. Rather, a party claiming title through adverse possession must rely on the strength of his or her own title and not the weaknesses of his or her adversary's title. Every presumption is in subordination to the rightful owner.

5. K.S.A. 60-503 requires a party claiming ownership by adverse possession to have: (1) possessed the property for a period of 15 years in a manner (2) that is (a) open, (b) exclusive, and (c) continuous; and (3) that is either (a) under a claim knowingly adverse or (b) under a belief of ownership.

6. If a party seeks to establish adverse possession by showing 15 years of continuous, exclusive, and open possession under a claim knowingly adverse, that party must show his or her possession was hostile to the claim of the true owner. Hostile in this sense refers not to animosity but merely to the fact that the possessor is knowingly claiming adversely to the title of the true owner.

7. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the possession of the grantor, who has made an absolute conveyance, is presumed to be temporary and in subservience to the title of his grantee. The possession of a grantor of land is not considered to be adverse to a grantee, who has been vested with the entire title to the premises, and cannot be so regarded until the grantor explicitly renounces the title of his grantee or positively asserts a hostile claim of title in the grantor which is brought to the attention of the grantee.

8. Under Supreme Court Rule 7.07(a)(5) (2014 Kan. Ct. R. Annot. 70), an appellate court mandate will direct that an appellant recover the original docket fee and expenses for transcripts, if any, when a decision of the district court is reversed. This provision does not apply when a decision of the district court is only reversed in part.

Don W. Noah, of Noah Law Office, P.A., of Beloit, argued the cause and Frank G. Spurney, Jr., of Spurney & Spurney, of Belleville, was with him on the briefs for appellants Polly M. Ruhland and Sue Elliott.

William R. Thompson, of Condray & Thompson, L.L.C., of Concordia, argued the cause and Scott R. Condray, of the same firm, was with him on the briefs for appellees.


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This case arises from a dispute over the ownership of a 5.5-acre tract of real estate in Cloud County. The district court determined that Keith Elliott, who had at one time deeded away the land to his then-wife's daughter, had regained possession of the disputed tract through adverse possession. A panel of the Court of Appeals reversed on the issue subject to our grant of review, concluding that the district court's conclusion was not supported by substantial evidence. We now affirm the Court of Appeals' decision on that issue and reverse the judgment of the district court.

Facts and Procedural History

Keith purchased the disputed tract in 1963 as part of a larger purchase of approximately 80 acres. Keith built a metal building on the disputed tract sometime during 1980, but it is unclear when Keith actually began living on the land. Keith married Sue Elliott in 1988, and together they built an apartment inside the metal building and began living there.

After a few years, Keith and Sue became concerned the Internal Revenue Service or Keith's ex-wife might attach the disputed tract to satisfy Keith's unpaid debts. To avoid losing the property to a creditor, Keith and Sue decided to transfer ownership of the disputed tract to Sue's daughter from a former marriage, Polly Marie (Moore) Grant (now Polly M. Ruhland), and her husband, Eric Grant. Keith and Sue executed a warranty deed transferring the property on June 14, 1993, and the deed was recorded in Cloud County on the same date.

Despite the transfer of ownership, Keith and Sue continued living on the disputed tract in the same way as before: They maintained the disputed tract, made improvements such as planting trees and digging a well, and paid the property taxes. Keith and Sue did not execute a lease agreement or pay any rent, and Polly and Eric took no actions as owners or landlords and received no benefits from the property.

In 1999, Polly and Eric divorced. On March 9, 1999, in anticipation of the divorce, they executed a document labeled " QUIT CLAIM DEED" that purported to transfer their interest in the disputed tract to Sue alone. However, despite its title, this document did not follow the statutory language for quitclaim deeds and, although Polly mailed the document to Keith and Sue, it was never recorded. Sue testified at trial that she was not even aware of the document's existence until the present litigation, although it was found among Keith's private papers after his death. This " quit claim ...

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