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Watkins v. Paragould Light & Water Commission

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division II

September 28, 2016

CONNIE WATKINS AND RICHARD WATKINS, HUSBAND AND WIFE APPELLANTS
v.
PARAGOULD LIGHT & WATER COMMISSION AND CITY OF PARAGOULD APPELLEES

         APPEAL FROM THE GREENE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 28CV-2006-335] HONORABLE MELISSA BRISTOW RICHARDSON; HONORABLE PAMELA HONEYCUTT; HONORABLE DAVID N. LASER; HONORABLE VICTOR L. HILL, JUDGES

          Richard and Connie Watkins, pro se appellants.

          Michael Mosley and Scurlock Law Firm, by: James V. Scurlock II, for appellees.

          ROBERT J. GLADWIN, Chief Judge

         Nearly ten years ago, appellee Paragould Light & Water Commission (PLWC) petitioned the Greene County Circuit Court to enjoin appellants Connie and Richard Watkins from interfering with PLWC's efforts to trim trees around its electrical power lines.[1] The lawsuit grew in size and complexity when Mr. and Mrs. Watkins filed a pro se counterclaim that asserted over twenty causes of action ranging from breach of contract to intentional torts to civil-rights violations. The counterclaim was ultimately dismissed by summary judgment, and the circuit court entered an order enjoining Mr. and Mrs. Watkins from interfering with PLWC's tree trimming.

         In this pro se appeal, Mr. and Mrs. Watkins argue that several errors occurred over the lengthy history of the case, which saw four separate circuit judges presiding. We find no merit in appellants' arguments and affirm the circuit court's rulings.

         I. Factual Background and Procedural History

         Because appellants do not directly challenge either the sufficiency of the evidence to support the injunction or the propriety of granting summary judgment on their counterclaim, we set forth only those facts necessary for an understanding of the issues on appeal.

         Appellants live on a residential lot which has a number of trees along its northern and southern borders. The trees on the southern border are interspersed along an old fence row between appellants' lot and an open field farther to the south. A major PLWC electrical-distribution line runs east and west along that fence row, and at least one power pole is located along the row, at or near the corner of appellants' lot. The proof below revealed that PLWC's line had been in place since at least 1983 and that PLWC had trimmed the trees around the line for many years.

         Beginning in 1999, appellants and PLWC experienced a series of conflicts over PLWC's tree-trimming methods. That year, Mrs. Watkins alleged that the trees in her front yard were trimmed improperly while she was out of town. In 2002, she sued PLWC in small-claims court for damage to her trees but later nonsuited the action. In 2003, Bill Fisher, the CEO and general manager of PLWC, agreed that appellants could trim their own trees. Despite this agreement, appellants requested PLWC's assistance in 2004 to trim the trees in the northern, or front, part of their property. When the crew arrived, Mrs. Watkins objected to the personnel that PLWC had sent to do the job. According to witnesses, she became quite confrontational with the workers and with Bill Fisher. Near this same time, Mr. Watkins attempted to trim a tree himself and caused a limb to fall on a power line. Consequently, PLWC informed appellants that they could trim their own trees if they did so in a manner that met electric-safety codes but that, unless they removed encroaching vegetation by May 1, 2004, PLWC crews would remove it.

         In April 2006, Bill Fisher sent appellants a letter reserving PLWC's right to trim trees on the City's rights-of-way or easements. PLWC also commissioned a survey of appellants' property that, unlike previous surveys, located most, if not all, of the southern fence-row trees even farther south, off appellants' property.

         With this survey in hand, PLWC attempted to trim the trees near the southern part of appellants' lot in July 2006. However, the trimming crew was met with resistance by Mrs. Watkins and did not accomplish the task. A few months later, on November 9, 2006, PLWC crews arrived at appellants' property to trim the trees on the northern part of the lot. Mrs. Watkins got involved in the process, attempted to direct the tree trimming, and, according to witnesses, insulted and cursed the workers.

         Concerned that winter weather was on the horizon, PLWC planned to trim the trees along appellants' southern border on November 28, 2006. Given PLWC's history with appellants, Bill Fisher was concerned about the possibility of a confrontation. He therefore asked the Paragould Police Department to provide officers for a civil standby during the tree trimming. PLWC crews, along with two police officers, arrived in the open field south of appellants' property on the morning of November 28.

         Appellants, who had learned of the trimming, appeared at the work site and tried to stop the trimming. Witnesses would later testify that Mrs. Watkins rushed at the crew, yelled and cursed at them, refused to leave the restricted work area, and slapped a police officer's arm when the officer tried to move her away. As a result, Mrs. Watkins was handcuffed at the scene and taken to the police station. She was later convicted of misdemeanor disorderly conduct in connection with the incident. Our court affirmed the conviction in Watkins v. State, 2010 Ark.App. 85, 377 S.W.3d 286, cert. denied, 562 U.S. 892 (2010).

         A few days after the above-described confrontation, PLWC filed a petition in the circuit court alleging that it owned, or had acquired by prescription, "right of way easements for the erection, maintenance, repair, removal and replacement of its electrical transmission lines . . . on, over, across and through [appellants'] property." PLWC asked that appellants be enjoined from interfering with the easement. Appellants counterclaimed that PLWC had engaged in improper tree trimming and had, among other things, engineered Mrs. Watkins's arrest, defamed her, and interfered with her right to complain publicly about the tree-trimming situation.

         In March 2009, Judge Victor Hill dismissed several of the counts in appellants' counterclaim by summary judgment. He ordered that the remaining counts be tried separately from PLWC's claim for an injunction. The case was later transferred to Judge David Laser, who conducted a bench trial on the injunction issue over the course of six days in June and September 2011.

         Following the trial, Judge Laser granted PLWC's request for an injunction in an order entered May 10, 2012. Judge Laser ruled that PLWC had maintained the power lines over appellants' property for more than thirty years; that appellants had acquiesced in PLWC's line ...


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