Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mrs. Abigail Sparklepants

Property law produces great characters. Today I have been introduced to yet another great character of property law: Mrs. Abigail Sparklepants.

Mrs. Abigail Sparklepants, Abby for short (though I prefer to call her Mrs. Sparklepants because if you have that name, why not use it?), is a Mississippi Boston Terrier Rescue dog. Lest you think I am joking, just look up Moore v. Knower, 2016-CA-0776 (La. App. 4th Cir. 2017).

Mrs. Sparklepants was the pet of two individuals who at one time were in a romantic relationship. As frequently happens, the romance flamed out, but Mrs. Sparklepants remained. Both parties to the relationship had apparently grown fond of Mrs. Sparklepants, and thus they decided that a joint custody arrangement was in order. Over the course of multiple years, the former lovers exchanged Mrs. Sparklepants at a neutral location once a week. Eventually the couple resumed their romance, only to eventually break up again. And with the second break up came a second joint custody arrangement, again with the couple trading the dog back and forth once a week at a neutral location.

This was the life of the former lovers and Mrs. Sparklepants until one day, the defendant decided enough was enough; she was keeping Mrs. Sparklepants. She failed to show up at the neutral location. Words and emails were exchanged. And, as is the American way, a lawsuit was filed.

To me, this is a quite simple analysis, particularly under Louisiana law where there are Civil Code articles that spell out how to handle co-ownership situations. But even in another jurisdiction, the questions the court should look at are pretty straightforward.

  1. Were the lovers tenants in common (or co-owners as we say in Louisiana) of Mrs. Sparklepants?
  2. If the lovers were co-tenants, did they have an agreement about how to manage Mrs. Sparklepants?

If the lovers had an agreement, the court’s job is very simple: enforce the agreement. If the lovers did not have an agreement or cannot agree on how to handle the situation, and they are tenants in common, again, the answer is simple: let them partition (by sale, obviously . . . I am not suggesting the Court act like King Solomon).

The Fourth Circuit in Louisiana agreed with my above stated inquiries and found that yes, the lovers were co-owners and yes, they had a tacit agreement to exchange Mrs. Sparklepants every week. Great. The end result should be simple. Interesting because it involves Mrs. Sparklepants, but simple. Right?

Wrong.

Instead of following the questions and answers to what I believe is their natural end, the court took a different approach. The court said “the plaintiff . . . is the best person to determine the use and management of [Mrs. Sparklepants].”

Huh?!?!?!?

I understand the defendant was wrong to keep Mrs. Sparklepants, but is the answer really to let the plaintiff call all the shots from here on out? That seems extreme to me, and I’m not even a dog owner.

I’ve been thinking a lot about co-ownership these days for a piece I am working on (and that I am presenting at ALPS later this week!), and this is the inherent problem: what do you do when the parties disagree on how to use and manage the property? The Louisiana Civil Code, like many civil law systems, has pretty express and explicit rules on how to handle the situation. The court in Moore v. Knower simply chose not to follow those rules. My guess as to why the court chose to ignore the rules is because the property in the case was difficult. It’s a dog that, by all accounts, both parties care deeply about. The court seemed to let heart strings get in the way and lose sight of the law.

Now one might say, sure, but c’mon. It’s a pet. Pets are complicated and therefore it’s okay the law was not followed to a T. But all property is tricky. People co-own land that they deeply care about. Does that mean we disregard our rules of co-ownership when dividing up Blackacre? And if we are going to simply disregard our rules whenever parties feel particularly strongly about property or the property is too difficult to divide, does that mean we need new co-ownership rules?

These are the questions I am mulling over as I pack for Ann Arbor, Michigan and the eighth annual Association of Law, Property, and Society Conference. Be on the lookout this weekend for some live blogging from ALPS. In the meantime, my best wishes for a long and happy life to my favorite new property law character, Mrs. Sparklepants.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/property/2017/05/mrs-abigail-sparklepants.html

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