During Relationship Barber Placed Mobile Home on Woodard’s Property

Can Barber Replevin Abode From Woodward After Relationship Ends?

David Barber commenced a conversion and replevin action, seeking to recover a mobile home which he situated on the property of Marcia Crout-Woodard during their long-term personal relationship. Barber also sought the rental income derived from the mobile home and received by Woodard following the end of their relationship.

Woodard counterclaimed for money damages, alleging breach of contract, based on Barber’s alleged conversion of rental income he collected in excess of the purchase price of the mobile home prior to the parties’ break-up. Following a nonjury trial, Supreme Court found that no contractual relationship existed between the parties and dismissed the action in its entirety on the ground that the mobile home constituted a fixture on Woodard’s realty and, as such, Barber had no ownership interest upon which to base causes of action sounding in conversion and replevin. Barber appealed.

 Supreme Court correctly considered ownership of the mobile home under common-law principles concerning fixtures upon real estate.

Unlike personal property, fixtures are generally considered part of the real property and are included with the sale unless specifically excluded. The common-law definition of a fixture requires that the personalty in question must: be actually annexed to real property or something appurtenant thereto; be applied to the use or purpose to which that part of the realty with which it is connected is appropriated; and be intended by the parties as a permanent accession to the freehold.

Barber contended that Supreme Court erred in determining that the mobile home satisfied those requisite elements as, according to him, the evidence at trial established that the mobile home was not permanently attached, nor intended to be permanently attached, to Woodard’s land. In reviewing a nonjury verdict on appeal, the Court had broad authority to independently evaluate the evidence and render a judgment warranted by the facts, with due deference to the trial court’s credibility assessments.

Here, reviewing the evidence independently, the record supported Supreme Court’s determination. By his own testimony, Barber poured a concrete pad, removed the wheels, secured the mobile home to the concrete pad with steel cables, brackets and fastening skirting wrapped around the bottom of the mobile home, bolted it to the ground and then connected it to the electrical, municipal water and sewer systems. Woodard’s testimony reflected that, when the relationship ended, she acquiesced to Barber’s wish to uninstall and remove the mobile home. But by the  time Barber was prepared to move the mobile home — approximately a year later — Woodard refused.

Barber proved that it would be possible to move the mobile home and that Woodard previously demanded that it be removed–but such proof was insufficient to satisfy his burden with regard to its permanency on Woodard’s land. The critical factor was not whether the mobile home could be uninstalled and relocated, nor the degree of physical force required to do so but, rather, the motive and intention as measured at the time it was annexed. The permanency of the attachment does not depend so much upon the degree of physical force with which the thing is attached as upon the motive and intention of the party in attaching it. Less significance is accorded to the manner of annexation and more to the intention of the person annexing the property.

Barber’s intent at the time he affixed the mobile home must be deduced from the circumstances. At the time he purchased the mobile home, the parties had been together for six years and Woodard had recently inherited the real property. For most of the next five years, the mobile home was occupied by tenants and, at least until the $13,000 purchase price was recouped in rental income, such monies inured to Barber with Woodard’s consent.  Woodard was issued the building permit and the certificate of occupancy. The evidence showed that, some six years later when their relationship ended, there was a temporary meeting of the minds that the mobile home would be removed. But the evidence also strongly supported that there was a mutual contrary intention at the time it was installed. Thus, Supreme Court correctly determined that the mobile home was a fixture that goes with the land, to which Woodard had the superior claim. Stated otherwise, in the absence of a right of ownership, Barber could not establish that Woodard exercised dominion in derogation of his rights. Accordingly, Supreme Court properly dismissed the action.

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