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Watkins v. The Arkansas Department of Agriculture

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division IV

October 3, 2018

CONNIE WATKINS AND RICHARD WATKINS APPELLANTS
v.
THE ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, THE ARKANSAS STATE BOARD OF LICENSURE FOR PROFESSIONAL ENGINEERS AND PROFESSIONAL SURVEYORS, ARKANSAS DIVISION OF LAND SURVEYS; BRADLEY P. HANCOCK SURVEYING AND MAPPING; AND IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES: EVERETT ROWLAND, BRANDON ROBINSON, STEVE HARALSON, JAMES ATCHLEY, RONALD HAWKINS, H. JAMES ENGSTROM, NORA MOSES, ROBERT D. HOLLOWAY, AND BRADLEY P. HANCOCK APPELLEES

          APPEAL FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, SIXTH DIVISION [NO. 60CV-15-4085] HONORABLE TIMOTHY DAVIS FOX, JUDGE

          Richard and Connie Watkins, pro se appellants.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: William C. Bird III, Ass't Att'y Gen., for state appellees.

          Roger U. Colbert, P.A., by: Roger U. Colbert, for appellee Bradley P. Hancock.

          RAYMONDR. ABRAMSON, JUDGE

         Appellants Connie and Richard Watkins bring this appeal, which stems from a long-standing dispute regarding Paragould Light & Water Commission's (PLWC) tree trimming around their property. During the dispute, PLWC engaged licensed land surveyor Bradley P. Hancock and his business Bradley P. Hancock Surveying and Mapping (collectively "Hancock") to perform a land survey. Hancock's survey located certain trees that appellants understood to be on their property as being beyond its boundaries. Appellants believe Hancock's survey was maliciously and fraudulently performed and filed two complaints against Hancock-one in 2007 and one in 2014-with the Arkansas State Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Professional Surveyors (ASBL). The ASBL dismissed both complaints.

         In this lawsuit, appellants, who are proceeding pro se, sued based on the handling of their complaints against Hancock and allege that each of the parties sued engaged in a conspiracy to conceal fraud perpetrated by Hancock. Appellants have sued Hancock, several state agencies, three employees of those agencies, four members of a state board, and the state attorney who advised the agencies. Those who were sued responded to the complaint with motions to dismiss on several grounds. The circuit court granted the motions to dismiss. Appellants appeal and raise several arguments in support of reversal. We hold that there is no merit to appellants' arguments and affirm the circuit court's order dismissing their complaint.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         Nearly twenty years ago, appellants and PLWC first clashed regarding the method in which PLWC was trimming trees on appellants' property during its power-line maintenance. The dispute escalated in 2006. It was then that PLWC commissioned Hancock to perform a land survey that included appellants' property. The Hancock survey, unlike previous surveys, determined that certain trees adjacent to the southern fence of appellants' property were beyond the southern bounds of their property. Appellants challenged the validity of the Hancock survey from the outset, claiming Hancock was prejudiced against them and that he made the deliberate choice to satisfy a known government adversary of theirs when he performed his survey.

         In November 2006, PLWC came to the area to trim trees that the Hancock survey identified as being outside appellants' boundary line. An altercation followed, and Mrs. Watkins was ultimately arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. She was later convicted of disorderly conduct in the Greene County Circuit Court. Mrs. Watkins appealed her conviction to our court, and we affirmed. See Watkins v. State, 2010 Ark.App. 85, 377 S.W.3d 286.

         After the confrontation, PLWC filed a petition in the Greene County Circuit Court seeking to enjoin appellants from interfering with or harassing its workers during their maintenance of power lines. In its petition, PLWC stated that it owned or had acquired a prescriptive easement over the appellants' property for the purpose of maintaining power lines. Appellants responded with a voluminous counterclaim against PLWC, which included causes of action for breach of contract, intentional torts, and civil-rights violations. Ultimately, the circuit court granted PLWC's request for an injunction, found that PLWC was entitled to a right-of-way easement by prescription, and denied all relief requested by appellants. On appeal, our court affirmed the circuit court's decision. Watkins v. Paragould Light & Water Comm'n, 2016 Ark.App. 432, 504 S.W.3d 606.

         In February 2007, appellants filed a complaint against Hancock with the ASBL, seeking to have Hancock sanctioned for his actions with regard to the survey. The ASBL dismissed this complaint against Hancock. Appellants call the ASBL's refusal to sanction Hancock "contrary to all evidence" and claim that the ASBL's findings were "lies" and that the dismissal of their complaint was "baseless, of bad faith, and false." Essentially, they claim that the dismissal of their complaint was the result of a conspiracy against them.

         In February 2014, appellants filed a second complaint with the ASBL against Hancock. In this complaint, they alleged that they had learned of fraud committed in connection with Hancock's survey. The ASBL ultimately dismissed the 2014 complaint.

         After the ASBL refused to sanction Hancock in 2014, appellants filed this lawsuit on August 28, 2015, in the Pulaski County Circuit Court. They sued Hancock, three state agencies-the ASBL, the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, and the Arkansas Division of Land Surveys. They also sued three state-agency employees-Everett Rowland, James Atchley, and Steve Haralson; four members of the ASBL-Ronald Hawkins, Nora Moses, James Engstrom, and Robert Holloway; and the state attorney who advised the agencies- Brandon Robinson-in their individual capacities. Rowland, Atchley, Haralson, Hawkins, Moses, Engstrom, Holloway, and Robinson are often referred to as the individual capacity defendants (ICDs).

         Appellants' complaint spans 191 pages, includes 195 pages of exhibits, and raises twenty-eight causes of action including fraud, defamation, violations of criminal statutes, violations of administrative statutes, and § 1983 actions. The complaint is lengthy, chaotic, inartfully written, and at times, practically unintelligible. It is replete with speculative and conclusory allegations. But the essence of the complaint is that each of these parties colluded to conceal fraudulent actions taken by Hancock. By way of example, appellants frequently reference Hancock's "fraudulent survey" and PLWC's "malicious plan." They also allege the ASBL "created malicious falsified record" to "minimize and conceal the overwhelming clear evidence against Hancock and Hancock's clear misconduct and fraud, advance the interests of PLWC AND to incriminate, with defamation Connie Watkins." (Emphasis in original.)

         In September 2015, the Arkansas Attorney General filed a motion to dismiss on behalf of the state agencies, the employees of those agencies, the state board members, and the attorney advising those agencies. In the motion, several defenses were raised including that appellants' claims were barred by the applicable statutes of limitation, that appellants failed to state a claim for relief, and that these parties were immune from suit. Similarly, Hancock filed a motion to dismiss for reasons including the failure to state a claim for relief.

         The circuit court held a hearing on March 22, 2016. To appellants' extreme dissatisfaction, the circuit court announced from the bench its rulings on all pending motions without allowing argument. The circuit court granted Hancock's motion to dismiss. The circuit court also granted the motion to dismiss filed by the Attorney General, finding that appellants' claims were barred by the applicable statutes of limitation and that their complaint failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted. An order dismissing appellants' complaint with prejudice was entered on April 29, 2016.

         Appellants filed numerous posttrial motions with the circuit court. Posttrial motions relevant to this appeal begin with the appellants' April 1, 2016 filing of a motion to recuse, which the circuit court denied. Appellants also filed two Rule 60 motions to vacate on May 13, 2016. The Rule 60 motions requested that the circuit court vacate the April 2016 dismissal order and again asked the circuit court to recuse. These motions were deemed denied on June 12, 2016, and the circuit court entered an order denying the motions on June 20, 2016. Appellants filed a timely notice of appeal on July 12, 2016, appealing several orders, including the deemed denial of the Rule 60 motions, the June 20 orders denying those motions, the April 2016 order of dismissal, and the May 2016 order denying the motion to recuse.

         Appellants continued to file pleadings with the circuit court. Importantly, in October 2016, appellants filed a motion and affidavit of newly discovered facts relating to what they believed were unauthorized costs being assessed by the Pulaski County Circuit Clerk. They also filed a Rule 60 motion alleging a prejudicial clerk note. The circuit court never ruled on these motions.

         In this appeal, appellants make numerous arguments seeking to reverse the circuit court's dismissal order. From the outset, it is clear that we are procedurally barred from addressing several of these arguments. We also note that this appeal poses some unique challenges. Appellants' arguments are often practically incomprehensible because they are poorly developed and citations to relevant authority are rare. The burden is on appellants to demonstrate error and to bring up a record that so demonstrates. RAD-Razorback Ltd. P'ship v. B. G. Coney Co., 289 Ark. 550, 713 S.W.2d 462 (1986). Our court will not make appellants' argument for them or consider an argument that is not properly developed. Teris, LLC v. Chandler, 375 Ark. 70, 289 S.W.3d 63 (2008). Thus, in instances where appellants' argument is unclear, we do not address it.

         The fact that appellants have chosen to represent themselves does not allow us to give special consideration to their case. Appellants' right to represent themselves carries with it concomitant responsibilities, and pro se appellants receive no special consideration of their argument and are held to the same standard as licensed attorneys. Elder v. Mark Ford & Assoc., 103 Ark.App. 302, 304, 288 S.W.3d 702, 704 (2008).

         II. Dismissal of the Fraud and Defamation ...


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