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Emson Investment Properties, LLC v. JHJ Jodeco 65, LLC

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

March 5, 2019

EMSON INVESTMENT PROPERTIES, LLC
v.
JHJ JODECO 65, LLC et al.

          MCFADDEN, P. J., RICKMAN and MARKLE, JJ.

          MARKLE, JUDGE.

         In April 2014, JHJ Jodeco 65, LLC, and RCB Jodeco 35, LLC (collectively, "JHJ") bought a parcel of land that adjoins parcels owned by Emson Investment Properties, LLC ("Emson") in the Jodeco Road Village commercial development ("the development"). After Emson blocked access to a section of the parking lot, JHJ sued for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, asserting rights to quasi-easements and implied easements across Emson's property for use of the common infrastructure of the development, including additional parking spaces, access for ingress and egress, and the water, sewer and storm water management systems. Following a bench trial, the trial court entered final judgment in JHJ's favor.

         Emson now appeals, arguing that the trial court erred because (i) JHJ was not entitled to quasi-easements and implied easements as a matter of law; (ii) even if JHJ was so entitled, Emson was a bona fide purchaser for value, and thus took title to its property free and clear of such claims; and (iii) JHJ was not entitled to equitable relief. For the reasons set forth below, we agree and reverse the trial court's judgment.

On an appeal from an entry of judgment following a bench trial, we apply a de novo standard of review to any questions of law decided by the trial court, but will defer to any factual findings made by that court if there is any evidence to sustain them. Nevertheless, if the trial court makes a finding of fact which is unsupported by the record, that finding cannot be upheld, and any judgment based upon such a finding must be reversed.

(Citation and punctuation omitted.) Denapoli v. Owen, 341 Ga.App. 517, 518 (801 S.E.2d 314) (2017).

         Viewed in this light, the record reveals that in 2003, Gadson Woodall, as principal of Charrette Development Group, LLC ("CDG"), began assembling the individually owned parcels, in excess of eleven acres of land in total, that would become the development. In March 2005, CDG purchased the initial tract of land, comprising approximately seven acres fronting Jodeco Road in Henry County. This portion of the property, referred to as the "Miller tract," encompassed the front parcel on which retail buildings A and B were built, now owned by JHJ. The Miller tract also included the rear parcel, as well as the land where retail building C would be built, both parcels now owned by Emson. The same day that CDG acquired the Miller tract, it conveyed title to the rear parcel, as well as the land eventually occupied by building C, to Jodeco Road Investments, LLC ("JRI"), another of Woodall's corporate entities.[1] Woodall testified that title to the development was divided among separate corporate entities[2] because he could not obtain a single source of financing for construction.

         To complete the footprint of the development, in April 2005, CDG purchased the side tract, or the "Hulsey-Dukes-Cates tract," an assemblage of five separate tracts comprising approximately four acres. Emson now owns this tract.

         Woodall testified that Henry County approved JRI's rezoning request for a single development with a common infrastructure, to be shared by the entire development. However, it is undisputed that no cross-easements, covenants, or restrictions regarding common use of the infrastructure were ever recorded.

         With the initial loan secured by security deed on a portion of the property, construction began on buildings A and B on the front parcel in 2005. The rear parcel was also developed in this phase, including the detention pond, water and sewer lines, and other utility lines. Due to the high cost of the infrastructure improvements, CDG required additional financing to finish the interiors of buildings A and B, and it obtained another loan from yet a different lender secured by security deed on other tracts within the development. This pattern of dividing up the development property for financing purposes and obtaining loans from different lenders continued until no further financing could be secured. One by one, the loans went into default and, by 2009, all of the parcels secured under the loans were individually foreclosed and sold off.[3]

         At an auction in June 2011, Emson purchased the tract where retail buildings C and D are located. Because there was inadequate parking for the retail buildings, Emson next purchased the side tract in July 2011. And in December 2011, Emson purchased the rear parcel of the development. In February 2013, in a separate action not before this Court, Hamilton State Bank, the owner of the front parcel at the time, brought suit against Emson asserting claims for access to Emson's property for parking.[4]

         In April 2014, JHJ purchased the front parcel from Hamilton State Bank, despite its principal, John Hardy Jones, being aware of the pending litigation with Emson and the inadequate parking situation. . Relying only on zoning records, Jones assumed that the parking lot in the rear parcel, which Emson owns, was burdened to accommodate additional parking for the businesses in retail buildings A and B on the front parcel. Months after JHJ purchased the front parcel, Emson installed a gate impeding access to the rear parcel and the parking area.

         JHJ brought suit, seeking a declaration that it was entitled to quasi-easements and implied easements across Emson's property for use of the common infrastructure, including additional parking spaces, access for ingress and egress, and the water, sewer and storm water management systems. Emson answered and brought counterclaims for ejectment, trespass, nuisance, attorney fees and punitive damages.[5] The parties agreed to bifurcate the proceedings with JHJ's claims to be resolved by bench trial, and Emson's remaining counterclaims to be heard by a jury. Following a bench trial on JHJ's claims, the trial court found that JHJ had quasi-easements and implied easement across Emson's property, and issued declarations and permanent injunctions in JHJ's favor. This appeal followed.

         1. As an initial matter, JHJ argues that this appeal is premature and subject to dismissal because Emson's counterclaims remain pending below. We disagree. Declaratory judgments, such as the trial court's judgment here, "shall have the force and effect of a final judgment or decree and be reviewable as such." OCGA § 9-4-2 (a). Regardless of whether the trial court's judgment resolved all of Emson's counterclaims, the trial court's order is directly appealable pursuant to the Declaratory Judgment Act. OCGA § 9-4-1 (a); Bldg. Block Enterprises, LLC v. State Bank & Trust Co., 314 Ga.App. 147, 150 (1) (723 S.E.2d 467) (2012) (declaratory ...


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