Spiller v. Mackereth Case Brief

Summary of Spiller v. Mackereth, Supreme Ct. of AL (1976)

Parties: John Spiller and Hettie Mackereth were co-owners of a building in downtown Tuscaloosa, AL.

Cause of action/remedy sought: The following is a cause of action for back rent as the result of using the building as storage. Respondent here received a trial verdict. Looking for reversal of verdict, and for his application for partition to be accepted.

Procedural History: Trial court awarded DF $2100 in back rent. Appealed and reversed.

Facts: Spiller and Mackereth owned a building together in Tuscaloosa. When the main tenant moved out, Spiller started to use the building as a warehouse. Spiller also installed locks on the building. Mackereth sent Spiller a demand letter, asking him to pay half of six months rent or vacate the premises. Spiller did no such thing, and the parties went to court.

Issue(s): Under AL property law is one tenant in common liable to another tenant in common for back rent when one cotenant uses the whole building for storage and the other cotenant writes a letter demanding he leave or pay back rent?

Holding: No. In AL, a demand letter is not enough for a cotenant to be liable for half the rent as a result of “dispossessing” the other cotenant, so as to require ouster, and thus liability for violating the understood covenant between cotenants in a tenancy in common.

Court’s Rationale/Reasoning: Since there was no agreement to pay rent, there must be evidence which establishes an ouster before Spiller is required to pay rent to Makereth. The court has trouble defining the word “ouster,” as they see it as a conclusory word to describe one of two factual situations: (1) the beginning of the running of the statute of limitations for adverse possession, and (2) the liability of an occupying cotenant for rent to other cotenants. So the court looks to proof on either element.

Adverse possession require one of the cotenants to assume complete ownership of the land and a denial of the cotenancy relationship in order to support a conclusion of an ouster. Here, Spiller acknowledged the cotenancy relationship in his filing for partition. There was also no evidence of Mackereth actually trying to move into the building and Spiller denying him his right. The letter that Mackereth sent Spiller to vacate half the building or get out is not a demand for equal use, just a demand to get out.

Rule: General rule: In absence of an agreement to pay rent or an ouster of a cotenant, a cotenant in possession is not liable to his cotenants for the value of his use and occupation property.

Before an occupying cotenant can be liable for rent in AL, they must have denied a cotenant the right to enter, which can only happen if there is a demand or an attempt to enter.

Did court avoid issues?: No.

Dicta: Putting locks on the building is a safety measure, and should not be characterized as an attempt to dispossess the cotenant either. Mackereth never requested keys to the building, so there was no denial of access

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