Attorney Trey Wilson - RL Wilson Law

27 August 2010

Cost and Fee-Shifting in Texas Adverse Possession Cases

There is little doubt that adverse possession lawsuits can be costly. Litigants to these title disputes -- where the key evidence is necessarily historical and often pre-dates current ownership of a given property -- frequently incur substantial expense in surveys, document searches, depositions of prior owners, expert witnesses and title searches. Naturally, a real estate lawyer's time associated with weaving or undermining a credible claim for ownership which is contrary to "legal title" as it appears in the deed records can also translate into significant attorneys' fees. Thus, property owners with boundary disputes often inquire about the possibility of recovering their costs and attorneys' fees in the event that the prevail in an adverse possession case.

For all its criticism, the Texas Legislature has generally been sensitive to the sanctity of land ownership in Texas. For that reason, it enacted Section 16.034(a) of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code to allow the Court (in its discretion) to award costs and reasonable attorneys' fees to the prevailing party in a suit for the possession of real property where one party is "claiming under record title to the property and one claiming by adverse possession." TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 16.034(a). However, this grant of discretionary authority for trial courts to award fees didn't have much of an impact on the number of adverse possession suits, including those where claims of ownership by adverse possession were simply frivolous.

To address this concern, statutory revisions were made in 2009, and Section 16.034(a) now requires the trial court to award attorney’s fees “if the court finds that the person unlawfully in actual possession made a claim of adverse possession that was groundless and made in bad faith, . . . .” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 16.034(a) (Vernon Supp. 2009).

The issue of unlawful possession is still part and parcel of the availability of attorney’s fees under section 16.034(a). TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 16.034(a). However, under the statutory revisions, the presence of these elements, together with a finding of bad faith, frivolity and/or groundlessness will necessarily result in the shifting of costs and attorneys' fees.

When considering whether to litigate a trespass, title dispute or adverse possession claim, a landowner shouldn't count on having the opposing party pay his or her attorneys' fees. However, given the 2009 revisions to Section 16.034(a), the frequency of such recovery in those cases involving groundless claims of adverse possession seem much better.

Trey Wilson --Named By Scene in SA Magazine As One of San Antonio's Best Real Estate Litigation Attorneys -- September 2008 -- As voted on by peers