"Undisputed Ignorance" Is No Defense
Distant cousins suddenly showed up when they discovered they were heirs to a portion of Great-Grandpa’s farm.
The cousins-in-possession (Bailey) claimed they had acquired their cousins’ (Littleton) tenancy-in-common interests by constructive ouster and “prescriptive possession” that began in 1957. This is the usual scenario. The twist came when Littleton defended by claiming their “undisputed ignorance” of their interests until very recently constituted a “disability,” which prevented the statute of limitations or laches from running against them.
Despite prevailing in the trial court and intermediate appellate court, Littleton was shot down by the Tennessee Supreme Court. “’Disability,’ in the context of title by prescription, is either a disability by minority or by incapacity—that is, because of age or mental capacity, a non-possessing co-tenant is unable to file suit to assert his or her rights.” The Court declined to extend “disability” to include ignorance of law or fact, stating that “such a holding would be contrary to the long-held public policy of this state to quiet the title of real property.” Roberts v. Bailey, No. E2013-01950-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. July 31, 2015).
The “discovery rule” can toll a statute of limitation. But it applies primarily to tort causes of action, where the harmful conduct or its consequences are hidden from the plaintiff through no fault of his own. In Roberts, the Court took pains to point out that “knowledge of the law is presumed” and “there is constructive notice of the status of property by virtue of recordation.” Thus, Littleton could not hide behind an “ignorance” that could have been overcome by diligent inquiry.