Justice Joseph Albright
CHARLESTON – Judges should not push parties at trial to settle disputes, but when Christine McConaha hauled her brothers and sisters before Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky, the judge chose to take charge and make peace.
Now the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has endorsed Stucky's unorthodox approach, rejecting McConaha's claim that he coerced her into settling.
"We simply do not find from our review of the colloquy at the hearing that the lower court inappropriately cajoled Appellant through questioning or other method to settle the case," Justice Joseph Albright wrote in a March 2 opinion.
Albright wrote that anyone challenging a settlement must prove by clear and convincing evidence that an accident, mistake or fraud occurred.
The decision confirms McConaha as owner of ten acres among 55 acres that her parents, James Vinton Slater and Mabel Florence Slater, left to their seven children.
The trouble started about half a century ago, when James and Mabel decreed that each child would own a seventh of the property after the parents died.
James died in 1962.
Mabel Slater lived on, and not alone. A son, Elvin Slater, stayed with her. Elvin adopted a son, Samuel Webster Harrison Jr.
Elvin and his brother Jesse Slater made a deal. Elvin would give Jesse four sevenths of the property and Jesse would build a house for Elvin.
To carry out the deal, Elvin bought out the interests of his brother Marvin Slater and his sisters Ethel Rust and Janet Burdette.
Counting his own share, Jesse Slater at that point owned five sevenths of the property. The other two shares belonged to McConaha and her sister Roberta Kintz.
Mabel died in 1992. Elvin died in 1997.
In 1999, McConaha filed suit individually and as administratix of the estate of her parents against her sisters, her brothers and the son of her dead brother.
She challenged the validity of the transfers to Elvin Slater and asked the court to partition the property into seven pieces of equal value.
She asked for an accounting of property that Jesse Slater and Samuel Webster Harrison Jr., removed from the land.
She asked for an accounting of lost rental value from use of the property by Jesse Slater, his son Jesse Junior, and Samuel's brother, George Harrison.
In a low point of family relations, she identified Jesse Junior and George Harrison as "tenants by sufferance."
The case dragged on and the defendants panicked.
Marvin Slater, Ethel Rust and Janet Burdette had not recorded their transfers to Elvin Slater at the courthouse, so in 2002 they recorded "bills of sale" to his estate.
Samuel Harrison recorded a quit claim deed conveying his interest to Jesse Senior while reserving two acres for himself.
Stucky referred the case to a special commissioner, who in 2004 wiped all the transfers off the books. Turning back the clock, the commissioner ruled that the six children owned six equal pieces and Samuel Harrison owned the seventh.
The commissioner scrapped Samuel's quit claim because such a deed cannot reserve any portion of interest in a property.
The commissioner's decision pleased no one, so Stucky convened a hearing in his court.
Six of seven heirs showed up to testify. Only Roberta Kintz, identified in Albright's opinion as a New York resident, skipped the event.
Stucky decided that his commissioner made a mistake. Stucky declared that Marvin Slater, Ethel Rust and Janet Burdette had indeed transferred their interests to Elvin.
As for Samuel Harrison, Stucky ruled that the deal between his father and his uncle had diminished the value of his interest.
Stucky then chose to stretch his authority. With six of seven heirs in one room, he could not resist the opportunity to end the quarrel.
McConaha at some point had graded a spot on the property in preparation for building a home. Stucky encouraged her to accept that spot and some ground around it.
McConaha, with counsel present, agreed to take ten acres.
That did not end the quarrel.
McConaha renounced the agreement. Her attorneys, John Tinney and James Tinney of Charleston, asked the Supreme Court of Appeals to throw it out.
The Justices, however, could not understand why McConaha objected to the transfers and the quit claim.
"While these matters raise valid legal questions," Albright wrote, "we find that Appellant lacks standing to assert them."
He quoted an 1885 decision, Williamson v. Hays, that a person obtaining a writ of error from a judgment "must be both a party to the case and be aggrieved by the judgment."
He wrote that the heirs who executed the transfers could have complained but did not.
Albright waved off McConaha's claim for back rent, writing that she produced no evidence that anyone occupied or used more than a fair share of the property.
He wrote, "On the record and with the advice of counsel Appellant affirmatively and without reservation stated her decision regarding the section of the property she believed was representative of her one-seventh interest of the whole."
Attorney Kevin Hughart of Sissonville represented Jesse Slater Sr., and Jesse Junior.
C. Page Hamrick III of Charleston represented Samuel Harrison.
Supreme Court of Appeals case number: 32726