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Rackleff v. Lambert

Superior Court of Maine, Somerset

November 15, 2016

PETER RACKLEFF et. al., Plaintiffs


          Robert E. Mullen, Justice Maine Superior Court

         Procedural posture:

         This case is before the undersigned on defendant Jeffrey Lambert's appeal of a small claims judgment in favor of plaintiffs Peter and Kimber Lee Rackleff, the parties having waived oral argument.

         I. Background:

         In the summer of 2014, Jeffrey Lambert loaned his John Deere bulldozer to his nephew, Lucas ("Luke") Nelson. (Tr. 29.) On August 3, 2014, in response to a Craigslist post, Peter Rackleff purchased Lambert's John Deere bulldozer from Lucas Nelson for $4, 500. (Tr. 9, 17; Pi's Ex. 1.) Peter and Kimber Lee Rackleff, who own an equipment auction company, then "did some work" on the bulldozer to prepare it for sale at an October 2014 equipment auction. (Tr. 8-10, 17.) This included changing the fluids and filters and having a new seat made. (Tr. 17.) On or about October 11, 2014, prior to the October equipment auction, Lambert called the Rackleffs and informed Peter Rackleff that the bulldozer had not been Lucas Nelson's to sell. (Tr. 10-11, 14, 15-16, 22-24, 34.) The Rackleffs asked a family member "in law enforcement" to look into the status of the bulldozer and were told that it was never reported stolen. (Tr. 11, 23.) Nonetheless, they decided not to sell the bulldozer and instead used it occasionally themselves. (Tr. 11, 25.)

         On October 17, 2014, Lambert (in his own name and in the name of his business) filed a civil complaint in the Somerset County Superior Court against Luke and Dylan Nelson for conversion and unjust enrichment with regard to the bulldozer, a truck loader, and a 4-wheeler. Lambert sought damages of $20, 037 plus costs and attorney fees. (Tr. 38-39; PL's Ex. 3.) The complaint listed the value of the bulldozer as $15, 000. (PL's Ex. 3 19, 12.) Although he was aware at the time that the Rackleffs had already purchased the bulldozer from Luke and Dylan Nelson, Lambert did not mention the Rackleffs or the sale in his complaint. (Tr. 40-41.)

         On March 30, 2015, this Court entered a default judgment against Luke and Dylan Nelson. (PL's Ex. 4; Lambert et al. v. Nelson et al, SKOSC-CV-14-36 (Me. Super. Ct., Somerset Cty., Mar. 30, 2015) (hereinafter "Lambert v. Nelson").) In the default judgment, this Court ordered Luke and Dylan Nelson to return the equipment within ten days and pay costs and attorney's fees, or, if they failed return the equipment, to pay Lambert and his business $20, 037 for the value of the equipment (including $15, 000 for the bulldozer), plus interest, costs, and attorney's fees. (PL's Ex. 4.)

         On May 8, 2015, pursuant to a request filed by Lambert, this Court issued a writ of possession for the bulldozer listing Luke and Dylan Nelson as the defendants.[1] (PL's Ex. 2.)

         On May 16, 2015, Lambert contacted the Fairfield Police Department and requested civil standby while Lambert took the bulldozer from "the pickers yard on Rt. 201." (Tr. 30-31; Def.'s Ex. 2 1, 2.) Lambert showed Officer Matt Wilcox "the court paperwork" and explained that Luke Nelson had sold the bulldozer to a third party. (Def.'s Ex. 2 2.) Officer Wilcox escorted Lambert as Lambert hauled away the bulldozer. (Tr. 30-32; Def.'s Ex. 2 2.) Officer Wilcox later informed Peter Rackleff that Rackleff "would have to get his money back from Nelson through the civil process." (Def.'s Ex. 2 2.) (Peter Rackleff testified that he had received a telephone call from the Fairfield Police Department informing him that somebody had a writ of possession granting that person "the right to take this dozer because it was his property." (Tr. 11.)) In turn, Peter Rackleff attempted to report the bulldozer stolen. (Tr. 18-20; Def.'s Ex. 4 3.) According to the report filed by Fairfield Police Officer Patrick Mank, Peter Rackleff "was advised that because there was court ordered paperwork allowing [Lambert] to have the bull dozer, that he would need to seek court action against Lucas (the seller) who sold him the bull dozer." (Def.'s Ex. 4 3.)

         On July 7, 2015, Peter Rackleff filed a statement of claim in Skowhegan small claims court seeking a judgment of $6, 000 against Lambert. The court initially granted default judgment to Peter Rackleff on August 13, 2015, but on March 17, 2016, the court granted Lambert's motion to set aside that judgment.

         On May 12, 2016, following a hearing, the court entered a judgment against Lambert in the amount of $6, 000 plus court costs. The court also granted Peter Rackleff s motion to add Kimber Lee Rackleff as an additional named plaintiff in the matter. In its ruling, the District Court (Stanfill, J.) noted that (1) the civil judgment that Lambert obtained was binding only against Luke and Dylan Nelson; (2) it was unclear whether Lambert had the right to obtain the writ of possession as to the bulldozer; (3) Lambert took the bulldozer under color of law but he did not actually have the right to do so; and (4) Peter Rackleff purchased the bulldozer for $4, 500 but "then did some work on it." (Tr. 48-49.)

         On June 2, 2016, Lambert filed a notice of appeal of the May 12 judgment.

         Lambert filed his brief on July 15, 2016; the Rackleffs filed their brief on August 5, 2016; Lambert filed his reply brief on August 18, 2016.

         II. Arguments of the parties.

         The following arguments of the parties are organized by the headings in the argument sections of the parties' respective briefs.

         a. Lamberts Brief.

         i. "This Court's Order dated March 30, 2015, found that Mr. Lambert is the lawful owner of the Tohn Deere bulldozer at issue in this case-Acting pursuant to that Order, Mr. Lambert lawfully retrieved the bulldozer from Mr. Rackleff's premises after he obtained a Writ of Possession." (Appellant's Br. 4.)

Lambert quotes 14 M.R.S. § 7071: "[A]fter the judgment is entered, the court shall upon request of the plaintiff issue a writ of possession requiring the sheriff to put the plaintiff into possession of the plaintiff's personal property." (Appellant's Br. 4 (quoting 14 M.R.S. § 7071(6)(2015)).) Lambert argues that he rightfully retrieved the bulldozer pursuant to the writ of possession and notes that the District Court stated in its ruling that it was "not suggesting that it was illegal or anything else" for Lambert to have taken the bulldozer. (Appellant's Br. 4 (quoting Tr. 49).) Lambert adds that "[i]f he was not 'technically' entitled to possession of the bulldozer then the Writ of Possession should not have been issued as that was misleading to Mr. Lambert and to the law enforcement officials that assisted him." (Appellant's Br. 4.)

         ii. "Mr. Nelson was not the lawful owner of the bulldozer when he sold it to Mr. Rackleff and therefore, the sale was not valid." (Appellant's Br. 5.)

         Lambert seems to argue that the Rackleffs did not have title to the bulldozer and that he therefore cannot be liable to them for taking it:

It is well settled, as a general rule, that one having possession of personal property as a bailee can give no title thereof to a purchaser, although the latter acts in good faith, parts with value, and is without notice of the want of title in his seller. The mere possession of chattels, by whatever means acquired, if there is no other evidence of property, or authority to sell from a true owner, will not enable the possessor to give a good title. So long as the possession of the goods is not accompanied with some indicia of ownership, or of right to sell, the possessor has no more power to divest the owner of his title, or to affect it, than a mere thief.

(Appellant's Br. 5 (quoting Cadwallader v. Clifton R. Shaw, Inc., 127 Me. 172, 179-80, 142 A. 580, 584 (1928) (citing 24 R. C. L. 375-76)).)

         '"[O]ne in possession of chattels by theft can convey no title to an innocent purchaser.'" (Appellant's Br. 5 (quoting Salley v. Terrill, 95 Me. 553, 555, 50 A. 896, 897 (1901)).)'

Whoever takes the property of another, without his assent express or implied, or without the assent of some one authorized to act in his behalf, takes it, in the eye of the law, tortiously. His possession is not lawful against the true owner. That is unlawful, which is not justified or warranted by law; and of this character may be some acts, which are not attended with any moral turpitude. A party honestly and fairly, and for a valuable consideration, buys goods of one who had stolen them. He acquires no rights under his purchase. The guilty party had no rightful possession against the true owner; and he could convey none to another.

(Appellant's Br. 4-5 (quoting Galvin v. Bacon, 11 Me. 28, 30 (1833)).)

         Lambert further contends that Peter Rackleff failed to verify that Lucas Nelson owned the bulldozer before Rackleff purchased it, and adds that he (Lambert) "put [Rackleff] on notice" when he called the Rackleffs to notify them that Lucas Nelson had not owned it. (Appellant's Br. 5, 6.)

         iii. "Plaintiffs' appropriate remedy must be against Mr. Nelson since he is the one who sold the Plaintiffs the bulldozer to which he did not have the title to sell." (Appellant's Br. 6.)

         Lambert argues that the Rackleffs must look to Lucas Nelson for reimbursement because "Mr. Nelson is the party who has wronged the Rackleffs and the party who has caused them loss." (Appellant's Br. 6-7.) "'The vendor in possession of personal property impliedly warrants the title to the thing sold. He is therefore bound to make good to the purchaser all his losses resulting from the want of a good title.'") (Appellant's Br. 7 (quoting Thurston v. Spratt, 52 Me. 202, 204-05 (1863)).)

         Lambert likens this case to Martel v. Bearce, in which the Law Court affirmed a trial court ruling in favor of the plaintiff, a purchaser of real estate at a sheriff's sale, where title to the real estate in question had already passed from the original owner directly to a third party before the defendant, judgment creditor of the original owner, purported to levy it. (Appellant's Br. 7 (citing Martel v. Bearce, 311 A.2d 540 (Me. 1973)).) "'When there has been a complete failure of title in a sheriff's sale, the better rule is that the purchaser is entitled to the return of his money from the judgment creditor.'" (Appellant's Br. 7 (quoting Martel, 311 A.2d at 548).)

         iv. "The Plaintiff Mr. Rackleff did not provide sufficient basis for his judgment request of $6, 000." (Appellant's Br. 8.)

         Lambert also argues that there was insufficient evidence to support the judgment amount of $6, 000. (Appellant's Br. 8.) Lambert states that Peter Rackleff "testified that he changed the fluids and filters and had a new seat made for the bulldozer but he was not seeking monetary reimbursement for those things." (Appellant's Br. 8.) Lambert adds, "there was no testimony ... on the current value [of the bulldozer] and whether its condition and value decreased at the time it was returned to Mr. Lambert." (Appellant's Br. 8.) Lambert also notes that the court incorrectly stated that the Superior Court judgment against the Nelsons stated that the bulldozer was worth $20, 000 as opposed to $15, 000. (Appellant's Br. 8 (referencing Tr. 49).)

         b. The ...

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