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Whitley v. Robertson County

Supreme Court of Kentucky

April 25, 2013

HAROLD WHITLEY; BONNIE WHITLEY; RICHARD WILSON; TONYA WILSON; MARION BALDWIN; PATSY BALDWIN; DAVID WIGGLESWORTH; LYNDA WIGGLESWORTH; JEREMY MCCLOUD; KIM MCCLOUD; REBEKA BERTRAM; DAVID ALLEN WELCH; JIM ALEXANDER; ROSE MARIE ALEXANDER; JIM ANDREWS, III; MARK WILSON; JAN BERTRAM, HELEN (BILLIE) BATTE; HELEN BATTE APPELLANTS
v.
ROBERTSON COUNTY; ROBERTSON COUNTY FISCAL COURT; MARYANNA ROBINSON APPELLEES

CORRECTED: AUGUST 8, 2013

Final Date May 16, 2013

ON REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS CASE NOS. 2009-CA-002182-MR &.2009-CA-002210-MR ROBERTSON CIRCUIT COURT NO. 04-CI-00040

COUNSEL FOR APPELLANTS: James Stuart Thomas

COUNSEL FOR APPELLEES ROBERTSON COUNTY AND ROBERTSON COUNTY FISCAL COURT: Jesse Phillips Melcher

COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE MARY ANNA ROBINSON: Sannie Louise Overly Shannon Maureen Johnson Overly & Johnson, LLC

OPINION

VENTERS JUSTICE

Appellant Harold Whitley (Whitley) and others[1] appeal from a decision of the Court of Appeals which reversed a judgment of the Robertson Circuit Court in a lawsuit involving whether a disputed passway located in Robertson County is a private drive or a county road. Appellants contend that the passway is a private drive, whereas Appellees Robertson County and Robertson County Fiscal Court (collectively, Fiscal Court) and Maryanna Robinson contend that the pas sway in dispute was properly adopted into, and remains a part of, the " formal county road system of Robertson County. Our decision, however, is not focused on questions regarding the legal status of the roadway. The questions now before this Court relate to the process that governs the circuit court's adjudication of the road's status and the standards of review to be employed by the circuit court in that adjudication.

The issues we address arise from the Court of Appeals' conclusion, 'which we regard as erroneous, that Appellants' action could be brought in the circuit court only as an appeal from a decision of Robertson County Fiscal Court refusing to order the abandonment, or "discontinuance, " of a county road as provided by KRS Chapter 178, not as a declaratory judgment action to determine the road's legal status. The difference is significant because in the adjudication of an appeal under KRS 178.100 from a fiscal court decision, the circuit court must apply the deferential standard of review explained in Trimble Fiscal Court v. Snyder, 866 S.W.2d 124 (Ky. App. 1993), rather than the de novo adjudication of an original action for a declaratory judgment under KRS 418.040. Because the circuit treated the Appellants action as a de novo action for declaratory judgment, giving no deference to prior "findings" of a fiscal court action, the Court of Appeals reversed the judgment.

For the reasons stated below, we conclude that the Appellants properly invoked the declaratory judgment process of KRS 418.040 to challenge the legal status of the disputed passway and that the action could not be characterized as an appeal from a fiscal court decision because, under the specific facts of this case, no appealable event had occurred. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals, and remand for its further consideration of the remaining unaddressed issues.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Batte Lane[2] is- single lane, dirt and gravel road located in Robertson County that traverses Whitley's property and serves as access to the property of several other parties to this action, including Appellee Maryanna Robinson. Appellants contend that Whitley has fee simple title to the passway pursuant to his deed.[3] Appellees contend that Robertson County has title to the property by its lawful incorporation into the Robertson County road system in 1987.

Whitley and his wife bought the. affected land in 1994 and assumed then that Batte Lane was legally and formally part of the Robertson County road system. However, in January 2004, burdened by what he regarded as undesirable traffic which he wanted to limit by erecting gates, Whitley petitioned the Robertson County Fiscal Court to abandon, or formally "discontinue" from the county road system pursuant to the relevant provisions of KRS Chapter 178, the portion of Batte Lane that traversed his property.[4] In February 2004, the matter was formally addressed by the Fiscal Court at a public hearing on the issue, after which the Fiscal Court formally decided against Whitley's petition and voted against the discontinuance of the roadway. This decision of the Fiscal Court was not appealed.

In the following months, additional study of the records relating to the legal status of the road led Whitley to believe that road had never been properly adopted by the county as a part of the official county road system, and therefore was not actually the county's road to abandon. So, at the August 20, 2004 regular meeting of the Fiscal Court, Whitley appeared with his attorney and presented the Fiscal Court with information supporting his claim that the road had never belonged to the county because it had never been properly incorporated into the county road system. Notably, he did not repeat his February 2004 request for the county to officially "discontinue" the road because his point was that the county had lacked any legal interest that it could "discontinue." Instead, Whitley asked the Fiscal Court to acknowledge that there had never been a formal adoption of Batte Lane into the official county road system. The Fiscal Court declined to make that concession; it simply reaffirmed it legal position that Batte Lane "is part of the county road system."

In September 2004, the Appellants filed a Complaint in Robertson Circuit Court seeking a declaratory judgment that the disputed section of Batte Lane was not a lawfully adopted county road. The pleading is captioned "Complaint Seeking Declaration of Rights and Appeal." Robertson Fiscal Court, Robertson County, and Robinson were named as defendants. Appellees answered the complaint and asserted that the disputed section of Batte Lane had properly been adopted as a county road pursuant to KRS 178.115(1), and in the alternative, that the road was a "public road" by prescription or other method.[5]The parties eventually filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the substantive issue of the road's legal status as a duly adopted county road, a . public pas sway, or a private lane.

Ultimately, the trial court granted Appellants' motion for summary judgment, holding that there were no genuine issues of material fact which would necessitate a trial and that, as a matter of law, the disputed section had not been properly adopted as a county road pursuant to the statutory requirements of KRS Chapter 178. The circuit court also concluded that the disputed segment of Batte Lane was not a "public" road pursuant to the provisions of the Chapter. Post-judgment motions to alter, amend, or vacate the judgment (or portions thereof) followed in the normal course. At the request of Appellee Robinson, the circuit court entered an order altering the final judgment "to reflect that the ...


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