Skip Maine state header navigation

Agencies | Online Services | Help
Blanche v. Alley
Download as PDF
Wordperfect 3
Back to Opinions page

MAINE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT					Reporter of Decisions
Decision:	1997 ME 125
Docket:	Han-96-490
Argued:	February 5, 1997
Decided:	June 4, 1997

Dissent:  DANA, J.



	[¶1]  Nellie Blance appeals from a summary judgment entered in the
Superior Court (Hancock County, Mead, J.) concluding that her claim of title
by adverse possession was barred by res judicata.  On appeal, Blance
contends that res judicata does not apply because a different cause of action
is present in this case.  In the alternative, she contends that a summary
judgment should not have been entered against her even if the same cause of
action is stated.  We are unpersuaded by her contentions and affirm the
	[¶2]  On April 5, 1994, Blance filed a quiet title action against Alley
and others regarding a parcel of land in Gouldsboro.{1}  In this suit, Blance
alleges that she and her late husband had acquired title to the property by
adverse possession as a result of holding the property for forty or more years
in the required manner.  After removing the case to the Superior Court,
both parties subsequently filed cross-motions for a summary judgment. 
After a hearing, on May 9, 1996, the court entered a summary judgment for
Alley on Blance's complaint.  The court concluded that res judicata barred
Blance's claims because the new legal theory arose from the same aggregate
of operative facts as did the prior claims that Blance had filed against Alley
and that Blance could have brought the adverse possession action in the
prior suits.  This appeal by Blance followed. 	
	[¶3]  In reviewing an appeal from an order granting a motion for a
summary judgment, we view "the evidence in the light most favorable to the
party against whom the judgment was entered to determine whether the
record supports the trial court's conclusion that there is no genuine issue of
material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law."
Simpson v. Central Maine Motors, Inc., 669 A.2d 1324, 1325-26 (Me. 1996). 
When no factual issues exist in determining the res judicata effect of an
earlier action, we review "the court's application of the doctrine for errors
of law."  Wozneak v. Town of Hudson, 665 A.2d 676, 678 (Me. 1995).
	[¶4]  The doctrine of res judicata bars "the relitigation of issues that
were tried, or that may have been tried, between the same parties or their
privies 'in an earlier suit on the same cause of action.'"  Wozneak v. Town of
Hudson, 665 A.2d at 678 (emphasis in original) (citations omitted).  The
"measure of a 'cause of action' is the 'aggregate of connected operative facts
that can be handled together conveniently for purposes of trial,'" Petit v. Key
Bancshares of Maine, Inc., 635 A.2d 956, 959 (Me. 1993) (quoting Courier v.
Cyr, 570 A.2d 1205, 1208 (Me. 1990)).  Res judicata applies even though
"the second suit relies on a legal theory not advanced in the first case, seeks
different relief than that sought in the first case, or involves evidence
different from the evidence relevant to the first case." Id.  The doctrine
"serves the critical policies of judicial economy, the stability of final
judgments, and fairness to litigants."  Salenius v. Salenius, 654 A.2d 426,
429-30 (Me. 1995).  The courts "must not be clogged by repetitious
presentations of identical issues." Motrram v. State, 263 A.2d 715, 720 (Me.
	[¶5]  In Blance v. Alley, 330 A.2d 796 (Me. 1975) (Blance I), we
vacated a judgment resolving a boundary dispute in favor of Blance's
husband, concluding that although Blance had admitted evidence to
establish the location of a disputed boundary line, he did not sufficiently
prove his title to the land.  Id at 799.  We explained that the
[f]ailure to carry the burden of proof regarding title to the land
effectively negates any right to determination of the boundary
line.  From the record before us, we hold as a matter of law that
the plaintiff has failed to establish any interest in the land
described in his complaint which would entitle him to recover
in this action.

Id.  In Blance v. Alley, 404 A.2d 587 (Me. 1979) (Blance II), we noted that,
on retrial after Blance I, the very same documentary evidence found
insufficient in the first trial was again relied on by Blance.  Id. at 588. 
Nevertheless, the trial court again entered a judgment for Blance.  Id.  Based
on the doctrine of the law of the case, we vacated Blance's judgment because
Blance again failed to further establish sufficient interest in the land at the
second trial.  Id. at 589-90.  In 1984, Blance filed another action seeking a
declaratory judgment establishing title in the same land.  In 1991, the court
(MacInnes, J.) granted a judgment as a matter of law for Alley, concluding
that res judicata barred the action despite the presence of a different theory
of action.  In 1994, Blance sued for a third time, filing the complaint in the
present action seeking to establish title by adverse possession.  
	[¶6]  Blance argues that her adverse possession claim is a different
cause of action than those inhering in her previous attempts to establish
title to the property by deed.  In addition, Blance contends, citing Wozneak
v. Town of Hudson, 665 A.2d 676, 678 (Me. 1995), that her entitlement to
bring an adverse possession claim continues on each new day that she is in
possession.  We disagree with Blance's contention because res judicata
applies even if a new legal theory is being presented.  Petit v. Key
Bancshares of Maine, Inc., 635 A,2d 956, 959 (Me. 1993).  The adverse
possession theory does not preclude the application of res judicata simply
because this is the first time the claim has been asserted.  In her complaint
Blance has alleged continuous possession of the property for forty years or
more.  The theory of adverse possession could have been asserted, in the
alternative, at the very least, in the second action brought in 1984.{2}  See
Bagley v. Moxley, 555 N.E.2d 229 (Mass. 1990)  (adverse possession barred
because it could have been brought in prior action attempting to establish
ownership by a certificate of title).  Moreover, Blance's reliance on Wozneak
is inapposite.  In Wozneak, we concluded that res judicata did not apply to
bar judicial review of a denial of an application for a 1992 junkyard permit
after a previous appeal of a 1991 permit.  The 1992 denial could not have
been the subject of the judicial review in 1991 because it had not yet
occurred.  Indeed, we said that the 1992 permit application was a "separate
and distinct matter" from the 1991 application.  Wozneak v. Town of
Hudson, 665 A.2d at 678.  In contrast, Blance's previous actions to establish
title encompass the land that is the subject of the present action to establish
title by adverse possession.  Because Blance could have argued her adverse
possession theory in one of the previous actions, unlike the situation in
Wozneak, her present claim is barred by res judicata. 
	[¶7]  Blance also contends that res judicata should not be applied even
if the same cause of action is present in this case.  Blance argues that
because Alley has never filed a counterclaim to quiet title to the disputed
parcel, a finding adverse to Blance will result in a legal vacuum of title and a
disposition that fails to serve the underlying goal of finality that res judicata
seeks to achieve.  In addition, Blance contends that a permanent cloud will
exist on her title because the boundary line never has been settled. 
Although we acknowledge that no adjudication exists as to the placement of
the boundary line or who owns title to the disputed land, this legal
uncertainty does not allow Blance to proceed with the present suit.  The
issue presented here is not whether Alley can establish title to the property
but rather, whether Blance's previous failures to successfully do so bar her
present attempt.  At least in the suit Blance commenced in 1984,{3} the
adverse possession theory could have been advanced, and the failure to do so
bars the present action.{4}     
	 The entry is:
			Judgment affirmed.

DANA, J., dissenting. [¶8] I respectfully dissent. In her verified complaint filed in 1994 Blance claimed title by adverse possession for a period "20 years or more prior to the commencement of this action." Although Blance could have asserted a claim based upon adverse possession in her 1969 and 1984 complaints, those claims would have asserted periods of adversity ending in or prior to 1969 and 1984 respectively. Blance could not have alleged in either action a period of adversity ending in 1994. Such a claim therefore should not be barred by the doctrine of res judicata because it relies on a different aggregate of operative facts. [¶9] Although the Court acknowledges in its opinion that Blance may someday be able to bring an adverse possession claim, the Court holds that her prior actions break the running of the required 20-year period of adversity. We have never so said. We have said: Starting an action in ejectment or to quiet or register title by the owner and carrying through to a successful conclusion, not discontinued or otherwise disposed of not on the merits, is an interruption, causing the statute to start to run anew if the adverse possession is continued thereafter. Irving Pulp & Paper Ltd. v. Kelly, 654 A.2d 416, 418 (Me. 1995) (quoting 10 Thompson on Real Property § 87.13 (David H. Thomas ed. 1994)). In neither of Blance's prior actions, however, did Alley either assert or establish his title to the disputed parcel. We should not conclude that a passive, albeit successful, defense of a real or declaratory judgment action "is an interruption, causing the statute to start to run anew if the adverse possession is continued thereafter." Id. [¶10] If a person unsuccessfully brings a quiet title action after only ten years of adversity, why should she have to wait 20 more years to advance another adverse possession claim? Without a comprehensive factual inquiry we do not know whether Blance would have been able to establish title by adverse possession in either of her prior lawsuits. We need not make that inquiry, however, because under principles of res judicata reviewed by the Court today we should conclude that those precise claims are barred because they could have been brought in the prior actions. The pending claim could not have been brought because it relies on a period of adversity after 1984 and involves a different set of facts from those at issue in the prior actions. The Court's application of the principles of res judicata in this case has the further disadvantage of leaving two neighbors in a state of anarchy until the year 2011. [¶11] I would vacate the judgment of the Superior Court.
Attorney for plaintiff: Paul A. Weeks, Esq. (orally) Norton & Weeks 23 Water Street, Suite 203 Bangor, ME 04401 Attorney for defendant: Anthony J. Giunta, Esq. (orally) P O Box 735 Ellsworht, ME 04605-0735
FOOTNOTES******************************** {1} The property at issue in this case has been the subject of an ongoing dispute between the parties that has resulted in previous litigation. See Blance v. Alley, No. CV-84-133 (Me. Super. Ct. Han. Cty, Oct. 2, 1991) (MacInnes, J.) (Blance III); Blance v. Alley, 404 A.2d 587 (Me. 1979) (Blance II); Blance v. Alley, 330 A.2d 796 (Me. 1975) (Blance I). In these suits, Blance and her late husband attempted to prove title to a larger portion of land by deed. In each suit, however, they were ultimately unsuccessful. Prior to this action, Blance had not asserted title by adverse possession. {2} A party seeking to establish title by adverse possession must possess the property for twenty years or more. See, e.g., Milliken v. Buswell, 313 A.2d 111, 117 (Me. 1973) (citation omitted). In an affidavit, Blance claims continuous possession of the property since 1947. {3} Blance has not argued on appeal that she would have been unable to meet the factual elements of adverse possession in the earlier suits. Indeed, the Superior Court noted that Blance alleged in her statement of material facts in support of her motion for summary judgment that she had maintained the requirements since 1947. Based on her own representations, Blance would have been able to successfully claim adverse possession as early as 1967. {4} Blance, however, is not precluded from establishing title by adverse possession at some point in the future. See Irving Pulp & Paper, Ltd. v. Kelly, 654 A.2d 416 (Me. 1995). Blance is barred, however, from using her possession of the land prior to the date of the judgment in the 1984 action in a subsequent adverse possession claim. Absent any interruptions in her continuous possession, Blance will be entitled to file a suit alleging title by adverse possession twenty years from the entry of judgment in 1991, if by that time she has satisfied the other requisite elements for such a claim.