In March of 1948 Jules Dassin’s classic film The Naked City ended with the now classic line, “There eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.”
Louisiana, with 4.5 million residents, has only a little more than half of New York City’s 8.4 million population and granted, there are far fewer of our stories which are considerably less dramatic given the fact that our 4.5 million are spread out over a much larger geographic area and not packed together like so many sardines in a can.
And not all of our stories are of the voyeuristic quality of the childish soap opera being played out between Gov. Bobby Jindal and his hand-picked Superintendent of Education John White over the Common Core curriculum.
When there is an especially well-played game between two deserving teams, you can count on the sports commentators lamenting the fact that one team must lose. In this case, it’s a shame that either Jindal or White must win this sorry struggle of egos. They both deserve to lose.
But as we said, there are other stories out there that are just as important to the principals involved even if the outcome doesn’t necessary affect the rest of us.
Take the case of Rapides Parish attorney Wilbert J. Saucier, Jr. vs. the heirs of Simon and Clara Harrell.
Harrell, a black man, purchased 61.67 acres of land on the Grant-Rapides parish line in rural Pineville in 1929 for $800. He farmed the property on which he and his wife reared 16 children. On Nov. 8, 1973, the family purchased a private road crossing from the Louisiana & Arkansas Railway Co. in order to gain access to his landlocked property from River Road, the only access to his land.
Article 741 of Louisiana state statutes says that whenever prescriptive right of way is used by property owners for 20 years “without force, without secrecy and without the oral or written consent of the servient land owner (the land owner whose property is being crossed),” the right of way automatically becomes the right of way of the person using it, especially when that right of way is the only way to enter and exit the property.
The Harrell family had use of this right of way for more than 80 years but a new federal law that went into effect on Dec. 1, 2009, which we will examine later, changed all that.
Everything was fine for Harrell and his descendants until Sept. 2, 1994. That’s when Saucier purchased 2,200 acres of the Erris-Omega Plantation. The Erris-Omega Plantation completely surrounds the Harrell property on all four sides.
Erris-Omega Plantation, Inc., it should be noted, is listed by the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office as “not in good standing for failure to file annual report.” The last annual report filed by Erris-Omega was on July 28, 2011, records show.
When Saucier decided he wanted to stock his land with axis deer, indigenous to India and considered by many to be more desirable than domestic deer, he filed a lawsuit in 9th Judicial District Court in Alexandria, accusing the family of trespassing onto his property and of dumping trash on their own family property which subsequently was carried onto the Saucier property by flood waters.
The problem with the garbage theory was that the Harrells by that time lived in Alexandria where they had municipal garbage pickup, so why would they carry garbage 13 miles to dump onto one’s own property? That made no sense whatsoever.
The trespassing issue arose over the Harrell family’s placing deer stands along the fence row even though Saucier also had deer stands along that same fence row.
When the case was assigned by random drawing to Judge Donald Johnson, a black judge, Saucier quickly had the case dismissed without prejudice—meaning it could be reinstated at a later date (dismissing with prejudice means the case is over and done with forever)—and re-filed in Pineville City Court where it would be heard by Saucier’s friend, Pineville City Judge Phillip Terrell.
Normally, when a case is dismissed without prejudice, it is because the plaintiff feels his case may be weak and he can’t win, or if there is a settlement. The use of such tactics for the purpose of judge shopping is generally frowned upon.
Judge Terrell, who is running this year for Rapides Parish District Attorney, has his detractors and even got his ears pinned back by our old friend Jimmy Faircloth in a case involving Pineville police officers’ attempt at forming a union. The city, represented then by Terrell, was ordered by the courts to cease its harassment practices against union organizers.
And now that Terrell is retiring from the bench to run for district attorney, Saucier’s daughter Lauren Elizabeth Saucier, who serves as Vice President and Director of Erris-Omega Plantation, Inc., is running for Terrell’s city judgeship, leading some observers to conclude that the political parts at this level are interchangeable.
Harrell family member Robert Washington, a retired nurse and grandson of Simon Harrell, chosen to speak for the family, said he took Judge Terrell to the site and explained that no one in the Harrell family drank alcohol (there were beer and liquor bottles) and that there were no infants at the Harrell camp house (there were baby diapers and other baby paraphernalia).
Still, Terrell ruled against the Harrells and ordered them to pay Saucier $17,000. But when the Harrells attempted to pay Saucier, he refused the money and attempted to place a lien on the Harrell property, raising immediate suspicions as to the real motive for his lawsuit against the Harrells.
The Harrells filed their own suit in 9th JDC and again, the case fell to Judge Johnson who, telling Saucier he couldn’t “have his cake and eat it, too,” ordered him to accept the money because the Harrells had met their legal obligations, such as they were. Johnson added that he did not know how things were done in Pineville, but that the case looked suspicious to him but he was helpless under the law to remedy the situation.
If there was ever any doubt that Saucier wanted the Harrell’s land, in the fall of 2004, he erected a 10-foot fence around the Harrell property and installed a cattle gap and two padlocked gates, blocking access to their 61 acres.
When Washington filed a second lawsuit suit in 9th JDC to force Saucier to remove the gates, that case was assigned to Judge Harry Randow. The Harrell family’s attorney, Gerald Torry of Baton Rouge, requested a continuance but instead Randow set a trial date without informing Torry or the Harrells and subsequently ruled against them.
Ignoring Article 741, Randow attempted to force the Harrells to pay Saucier for the right of way they had been using since 1929. His judgment was signed on Dec. 1, 2009.
That date is not a coincidence. It’s the same date that the federal Land and Coveyancing Law Reform Act became law. That law directly affected rights of way and easements.
The new law says that those with unregistered rights of way had from Dec. 1, 2009, until Dec. 1, 2012, to register their rights in the federal land registry. If they failed to do so, their right of way may be extinguished and the time period for re-acquiring that right legally starts from Dec. 1, 2009, with previous use being considered irrelevant. The result could be the complete loss of the right of way.
Did Saucier and Judge Randow know this? Was there some kind of “agreement” as to the date the ruling would be handed down? Were the Harrells deliberately kept in the dark about an obscure federal law about which they had no knowledge or a way or reason to know but which could adversely affect their land rights?
That would be impossible to prove, but given Saucier’s attempt at on overt land grab (moving the case from being heard by a black judge to a city judge with whom he was friends, refusing a court-ordered payment in lieu of seeking a lien against the property and then subsequently fencing off the Harrell property), it does raise eyebrows.
Should the land owner refuse to confirm a right of way, the blocked family may be required to obtain a court order. To do that, it must be proved that the blocked person or persons have been using the road in question for the relevant period of time.
Saucier, in an April 15, 2013 letter to the Harrells, said the case “is now fully and finally over” and that the Harrells no longer “may obtain a legal servitude across my property. In a pseudo-magnanimous gesture, he offered to allow the Harrells to remove their belongings from the property.
The Harrells may yet have an out, however.
The law pertaining to situations in which there is only one access point remains unchanged. This is referred to as a right of way of necessity i.e., when there is only one access road to the property. The law does not allow the road owner to deny the property owner access to his land if it is the only access available.
That should be the Harrells next legal step.