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Peggy Kirk Hall, Asst. Professor, OSUE Agricultural & Resource Law Program     

A recent decision by the Ohio Court of Appeals addressed two important legal standards: the proof necessary to claim title to another's land by adverse possession and conditions allowing a trial court to set aside a jury's verdict.

The case, Kiesel v. Hovis, centers on a land dispute between two adjacent farms in Sandusky County, Ohio.   A recent land survey established a new legal description and a boundary line between the farms; the survey placed the boundary line 126 feet east of a ditch that the Kiesels had previously considered the boundary.   Since the new boundary reduced their parcel by seven acres, the Kiesels filed a lawsuit, claiming title to the seven acres of land by adverse possession.

Adverse possession is an old law; its historical purpose was to encourage settlement of the frontier by rewarding "squatters" who put land into productive use.  Today, adverse possession is a controversial law used to try to resolve misunderstandings about boundaries established long ago.  A party claiming land by adverse possession must prove that he or his predecessors had exclusive, continuous possession of the disputed land for at least 21 years and that the possession was open, notorious and adverse to the legal title holder.   If the party proves each element of adverse possession, the court will order a new deed that changes title to the property.

Offering Evidence to Prove Adverse Possession

Landowners often ask what type of evidence will prove the elements of adverse possession.  In this case, the Kiesels offered proof through the testimony of several witnesses.   Two farmers testified that they had farmed the disputed land for the Kiesels' predecessor from 1975 to 1993, although one farmer stated that he didn't believe all of the land had belonged to the predecessor.   The Kiesels also testified, stating that they had owned the land since 1993, had farmed up to the ditch for ten years,  had placed the land into the Conservation Enhancement Reserve program in 2003 and still received annual payments from the government for the land.

Hovis, the neighboring landowner and defendant in the case, offered witnesses to dispute the Kiesels' claims.  The surveyor for Hovis testified that the new boundary line was consistent with old legal descriptions for other parcels and with old tax maps.  The surveyor also stated that early maps did not show the ditch; a ditch did not appear on any government map until 1959.  Hovis called a witness from the county auditor's office, who testified that the new survey line was consistent with old tax maps and that the auditor's office had  ordered the new survey because the old legal description was ambiguous.  Hovis also testified that his father had owned the land since 1966, that he and his father had paid taxes for the disputed strip since that time, and that his father and the owner previous to Kiesels were friends but that he didn't know whether they had an agreement about the use of the land in question.  In reference to whether he had given the Kiesels permission to use the land, Hovis testified that he had never said anything but had consented to the use by his inaction, as it was difficult to get his equipment across the ditch to access the land.

Who Gets the Land?

As is often the situation in adverse possession cases, the jury sided with the legal title holder.  A unanimous verdict by the jury rejected the Kiesels' claim of adverse possession and ruled in favor of Hovis.

A Court's Power to Set Aside a Jury Verdict

After the jury verdict, the Kiesels asked  the court for a “judgment notwithstanding the verdict.”  This motion argues that the court should set aside a jury verdict because reasonable minds could have come to only one conclusion based on the evidence submitted, and that conclusion was opposite the jury’s decision.   The trial court agreed and granted the Kiesels' motion to replace the jury’s verdict, commenting that the jury had “lost its way.”   Hovis immediately appealed the court’s decision to the court of appeals, arguing that sufficient evidence existed to refute the claim of adverse possession, the trial court had used the wrong standard for determining whether to set aside the jury's decision, and  the trial court had invaded the “province of the jury.”

The Review by the Court of Appeals

The Sixth District Court of Appeals reinstated the jury’s verdict.  The trial court’s conclusion that the jury had “lost its way” was "patently the wrong standard to use," the court of appeals stated.  Instead, the trial court should have determined whether reasonable minds could have disagreed on the decision.  Examining all of the witness testimony, the appeals court concluded that the testimony was not conclusive either way;  reasonable minds could have examined the evidence and reached different conclusions about whether the Kiesels had proven adverse possession.  For this reason, the trial court erred by setting aside the jury's verdict.

Lessons Learned

The case reminds us once again of the difficulty of proving adverse possession.  Imagine the jury's challenge:  whether to take land from one landowner and give it to another.   The difficulty of this task is likely one reason that adverse possession claims are hard to win; another could be that "permission" for the use by the title owner is a defense to the claim that the use was "adverse" or against the wishes of the owner.   While the Kiesels and predecessors had clearly used the land in dispute for more than 21 years, they weren't able to convince the jury that their use was adverse.  Hovis, on the other hand, apparently established enough evidence to suggest that both he and his predecessor had allowed the use of the land since it was on the other side of the ditch and not easily accessible, thereby giving permission for the use.  The law of adverse possession does not allow a party to claim the land of one who has given permission or "acquiesced" in the use of his or her land by another, even if the other party mistakenly believes he or she owns the land.

This case also reminds us about the role of juries and judges in our legal system.  While a trial court judge can disagree with a jury, the judge does not have automatic authority to deprive the jury of its decision.  Only if there's no uncertainty about the interpretation of evidence--no room for reasonable minds to disagree about what the evidence proves--can a court step in and replace a jury's verdict.   This is an important principle of our legal process, intended to balance power between the people and the courts.

Time will tell whether the Kiesels invoke another significant component of our legal process--the right to request a review of the appellate court's decision by the Ohio Supreme Court. The appellate court's decision in Kiesel v. Hovis is here.

Catharine Daniels, Attorney, OSUE Agricultural & Resource Law Program

In Ohio, thanks to our cottage food law, there are certain types of low risk food products you may produce and sell right out of your home kitchen with no inspection or licensing requirements. This is perfect for anyone who wants to test the market for their food product without the risk of investing a lot of money in a storefront. We have already discussed the requirements for a cottage food production operation here. As promised, we are now going to turn to the specific food products that Ohio law defines as  "cottage foods."

Only food products that are non-potentially hazardous fall into the cottage food category.  Ohio Administrative Code Section 901:3-20-04 lists the food items approved as cottage food products.  This list is very specific and includes the following food products:

  • Non-potentially hazardous bakery products (such as cookies, breads, brownies, cakes, and fruit pies)
  • Jams
  • Jellies
  • Candy (including no-bake cookies, chocolate covered pretzels or similar chocolate covered non-perishable items)
  • Fruit butters
  • Granola, granola bars, granola bars dipped in candy
  • Popcorn, flavored popcorn, kettle corn, popcorn balls, caramel corn (does not include un-popped popping corn)
  • Unfilled, baked donuts
  • Waffle cones
  • Pizzelles
  • Dry cereal and nut snack mixes with seasonings
  • Roasted coffee, whole beans or ground
  • Dry baking mixes in a jar (for making items like breads and cookies)
  • Dry herbs and herb blends
  • Dry seasoning blends (such as dry barbeque rubs and seafood boils)
  • Dry tea blends

If there is a specific food product you want to produce in your home but it is not in the cottage food definition, you may need to obtain a home bakery license.  For an explanation of home bakery products and requirements for home bakery licenses, see this post.

If the food item you want to produce is not in the cottage food or home bakery definitions, then you likely need to produce the product in a facility licensed by the Ohio Department of Agriculture or local county health department.  For example, salsas, BBQ sauces, canned vegetables, frozen foods and homemade hummus must be produced in a licensed facility.  Specifically, salsas, BBQ sauces, and canned vegetables must be produced in a licensed cannery facility.   Licensing information for these types of food products  is available on the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s website.  If you're not ready or able to obtain one of these licenses, you may be able to produce your food in a "food business incubator" facility that is already licensed.  Several programs in Ohio provide their licensed facilities for use by food entrepreneurs, such as ACEnet's Food Manufacturing and Commercial Kitchen Facility in Athens or CIFT's Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen in Bowling Green; these programs also provide additional support for developing food products.

If you want to produce a home-based food product, first review these questions:

  1. Is the food product in Ohio's definition of "cottage foods?" If so, you do not need a license.
  2. If the food product is not a "cottage food," is it a "home bakery" product? If so, you will need to obtain a home bakery license and pass a home kitchen inspection.
  3. If the food product is not a "cottage food" or "home bakery" product, is there another licensed facility where you can produce the product?  You cannot produce the food in your home; unless you are able to use a  facility that already has a license, you must obtain the appropriate license from the Ohio Department of Agriculture or your county health department.

Ohio's cottage food regulations are here.

Peggy Hall, Asst. Professor, OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program           .

Tree obstructions, unwanted vegetation and noxious weeds are serious matters for Ohio farmers, which is why several Ohio laws provide mechanisms for addressing these problems through the board of township trustees.   Two recent Ohio court cases illustrate the practical impacts of the laws and demonstrate the consequences of both following and failing to follow the processes provided by these laws.

The first case, Kilroy v. Jackson Township, concerned the clearing of weeds and vegetation in a partition fence row.   The case recently resulted in a judgment of over $56,000 against the board of trustees of Jackson Township in Montgomery County, including an unusual finding of personal liability against each trustee.  The court determined that the trustees failed to perform a settlement agreement with the Kilroys concerning the clearing of their neighbor’s fence row.  The settlement agreement arose from a lawsuit filed by the Kilroys asking the court to require the township trustees to perform their legal duties to have the neighbor’s fence row cleared of weeds and vegetation.

Ohio Revised Code 971.34 allows a landowner in a rural area to ask a neighbor to clear his or her side of a partition fence between the properties and, if the landowner fails to do so, to petition the township trustees to step in and resolve the problem.  The trustees must view the property and determine whether the fence row contains brush, briers, weeds and vegetation and if so, “shall cause them to be cut, by letting the work to the lowest bidder, or by entering into a private contract therefor.” The Kilroys petitioned the trustees under this process after their neighbors failed to clear the fence row when requested, but the trustees did not act on the petition or arrange for removal of the vegetation.

After the Kilroys filed suit against the trustees and the neighbors, the parties entered into a settlement agreement in which the neighbors agreed to clear the fence row and the trustees agreed to have the row cleared if the neighbors didn’t do the work.  The Kilroys later filed a second complaint alleging breach of the settlement agreement after neither the trustees nor the neighbors cleared the fence row.  The second complaint included individual claims against the trustees for intentional interference with a contract and civil conspiracy.  The neighbors finally cleared the fence row, but the Kilroys maintained the lawsuit against the trustees.  The parties entered into a second settlement agreement in which the trustees agreed to pay the sum of $15,000 and to issue an apology letter to the Kilroys.  Eventually, the matter ended up in court again for a breach of the agreement because the Kilroys did not receive either the $15,000 or the apology letter.   The trial court determined that the trustees had signed the settlement agreement in both their official and individual capacities and had subsequently breached the agreement; the court awarded the Kilroys $15,000 as specified in the agreement plus an additional $37,558 in attorney fees and $3,888 for fees paid to expert witnesses.  The trustees filed an appeal, but the Second District Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s decision.

Contrast the Kilroy case with a second dispute in Sterling Township, Brown County, where a farmer could not drive his new combine down a township road because of overgrown trees and brush along the road.  The farmer asked the trustees to trim the trees and vegetation but the trustees did not do so.  The farmer then trimmed the vegetation himself and submitted an invoice to the township for $1,863.  When the township did not pay the invoice, the farmer filed a lawsuit claiming that the township trustees had failed in their duty to keep the road free of obstructions and had also failed to eliminate a known safety hazard.  Included in the suit was a request to remove the trustees from office for failure to perform their official duties.  The Brown County Municipal Court dismissed the farmer’s case and the farmer filed an appeal on the claim alleging that the trustees had failed their statutory duty to maintain the roadway.

The court of appeals analyzed Ohio Revised Code sections 5571.02 and 5579.08, which state that a township shall keep its roadways in good repair and shall cut or destroy all brush, briers, vines, and noxious weeds growing along the roadways between the first and twentieth days of June, August and, if necessary, September.  The court noted that these sections of law do not provide the process for a private cause of action against the trustees as demanded by the farmer.  To enforce the law, the farmer must follow the proper legal process, explained the court, which is to first formally request the trustees to perform the action and then ask the court for an order compelling the action, referred to as a “writ of mandamus,” if they fail to do so.

In this case, the farmer did not formally present his request to have the trees trimmed to the township trustees.   He had called each trustee personally by phone and had visited one trustee at his home.  The County Prosecutor had advised the farmer to make an official complaint to the trustees, but the farmer never attended a trustee meeting or made a formal complaint about the vegetation.  By choosing instead to take matters into his own hands and trim the trees and vegetation himself, the farmer had “self-imposed” his own damages, said the court.  Seeking reimbursement for his own work was not the proper method for enforcing the township’s duty to clear the vegetation.

The lesson here should be clear to both township trustees and farmers.  Ohio law establishes duties and remedies for dealing with trees, weeds and vegetation in rural areas; township trustees must perform these duties and farmers must know how to seek a remedy.  The different outcomes from these cases illustrate the importance of knowing and following the proper legal process.

Read Kilroy v. Jackson Township here and Mezger v. Horton here.  See Ohio Revised Code sections here: 971.34 and 5579.08

Peggy Hall, Asst. Professor, OSUE Agricultural & Resource Law Program       

Does an Ohio resident have a constitutional right to keep rabbits, goats, chickens, horses, cows, ducks, turkeys, geese or other fowl on his or her property?  No, according to a recent decision by Ohio's Eighth District Court of Appeals.  Nor does a city ordinance that prohibits the keeping of such animals violate the federal or state constitutions.

A resident of Bedford, Ohio raised the challenge after being found guilty of a minor misdemeanor for keeping a pygmy goal and four chickens at his home, in contradiction to a city ordinance.  The resident claimed that the city ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution and Ohio Constitution, Article 1, Section 1, which provides:  "All men are, by nature, free and independent, and have certain inalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and seeking and obtaining happiness and safety."

But the court noted that the Ohio Constitution also states in Article 1, Section 19 that "Private property shall ever be held inviolate, but subservient to the public welfare,"  which allows a law to interfere with private rights to accomplish a valid public welfare purpose.   Where a law does affect private rights, the court explained that it must scrutinize the law and its purpose.  Interferences with fundamental private  rights require the most strict scrutiny, but the court quickly followed precedents set by other Ohio courts to reiterate that the right to maintain animals is not a fundamental right.  Thus, under a lower level of judicial scrutiny, a law that interferes with the right to keep animals will be upheld if the law is "rationally related to a legitimate government interest."  According to the court, the Bedford ordinance surpasses this test because the law protects the public from unsanitary conditions and noxious odors by prohibiting certain animals in an urban area.

All is not lost for city dwellers who want farm animals, however.  Recognizing the popularity of "urban farms" and "backyard chickens," the court explained that residents in urban areas can petition their lawmakers to allow such animals as pets.  The local government could permit the animals while protecting public safety and welfare through building requirements or restrictions on the number of animals, the court explained.

The Bedford case is not unusual, but illustrates a continuing trend in conflicts over keeping animals in urban areas.  To read the court's opinion, see City of Bedford v. James L. Deal, here.

Peggy Hall, Asst. Professor, OSUE Agricultural &  Resource Law Program

The Ohio legislature has already addressed a legal issue that recently created discord on Ohio's Sixth District Court of Appeals.  In its recent decision in Ohio Department of Agriculture v. Central Erie Supply & Elevator Association, the appeals court disagreed over how to interpret the statutory lien provisions in Ohio's Agricultural Commodity Handler's Law.  The majority held that the  statutory lien favors farmer claimants over all other interests while the dissent argued that the statute is "entirely silent" on the issue of priorities between farmers and competing parties who have security interests in the proceeds of a failed grain handler.  Obviously attuned to the problem, the Ohio legislature revised the  law just over a month ago to include language that removes any doubt on the matter.

Ohio's Agricultural Commodity Handler's law contains many provisions designed to protect farmers from the risks of doing business with a grain elevator or other grain handler.  If a handler suffers financial distress before paying farmers who've deposited grain with the handler, the law establishes an automatic statutory lien on behalf of the farmers.  The law grants the Director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture power to enforce the statutory lien against the grain handler and distribute lien proceeds among the unpaid farmers.  The law also states that the commodity handler's law takes precedence over any conflicting provisions for secured transactions in another section of Ohio law, Ohio Revised Code section 1309.

In the Central Erie Supply case, the question before the court was whether the statutory lien for the farmers had priority over a $425,691 security interest established by Citizens Banking Company, a creditor of the failed grain handler.  The panel of judges examined the commodity handler's law and reached opposite conclusions.  The majority concluded that the law conflicted with R.C. section 1309 and thus took precedence over the bank's security interest that was established under section 1309.  The dissent argued that the language about conflicts between the different laws referred only to the issue of how to distribute proceeds between farmers and did not pertain to other security interests established under R.C. section 1309.  Both sides did agree, however, that the issue of priority between farmers and other security interests is a matter for the legislature, not the courts.  "Yet, unless and until the legislature acts, we are bound to interpret the law as it is currently written, not as we wish it to be," stated dissenting Judge Yarbrough.

The Ohio legislature did act on the matter--and did so before the court had even issued its ruling.  In late June of this year, the legislature approved S.B. 66 (see our earlier post) and added this language to the commodity handler's law:  “The lien established under this section shall have priority over all competing lien claims asserted against the  agricultural commodity assets.”   The legislation ascertains that upon its effective date of October 11, 2013, a statutory lien established under the commodity handler's law will be first in line ahead of all other liens claimed against the assets of a failed grain handler.  Until October 11, the Central Erie Supply decision bolsters an argument seeking the same order of priority stated in the new law.   Based on the recent actions of the legislature and the court of appeals, the commodity handler's statutory lien now has a few more teeth.

Read the Central Erie Supply decision here, S.B. 66 here and the Agricultural Commodity Handler's Law here.