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County case heading to Knoxville

A dead dog, bad blood, and ‘no man’s land’ dispute will be heard in the Court of Appeals

  • These are just part of the documents from a de- cade-old dispute that may finally find resolution in the Court of Appeals in Knoxville. - Crystal Huskey

  • Bill and Shirley Pruitt have been locked in a high stakes legal battle since 2014 with Clinton attorney Phil Harber. - Crystal Huskey

A decade-old feud that culminated in legal action is soon headed to the Court of Appeals in Knoxville, according to defendants Bill and Shirley Pruitt.

A petition to partition or sell off three parcels of land was filed by Clinton attorney Phil Harber in 2014.

The Pruitts live on the land, but Harber has a partial interest in it for reasons listed below.

Originally scheduled for a two-day bench trial in April 2014 — the year that Harber ran for chancellor — Harber dropped the case minutes before the hearing, according to an AP story published in 2014.

He refiled in 2015.

The Pruitts’ attorney, Phil Crye, filed a petition to dismiss the case because of “the doctrine of unclean hands,” which means the plaintiff has acted in bad faith. Anderson County Chancellor Nikki Cantrell ruled that the Pruitts did not “meet their burden to justify relief on the affirmative defense of unclean hands,” according to court documents.

The motion was filed because the Pruitts believe, according to the motion, Harber “should be barred by the doctrine of unclean hands from recovering any relief in this matter, because Petitioner, who is a licensed attorney, inequitably inserted himself into the context of this family and property solely for the improper purpose of oppressing Respondent.”

Court documents state that when asked why Harber was attempting to purchase interests in the property, he responded, “Because I hate him.”

The appeal, filed by the Pruitts’ attorney, is in response to that ruling.

So what happened?

Bill Pruitt has lived on the three parcels of land in question his entire life, along with his parents. The property was owned by his late stepfather, J.R. Harris, and Bill’s mother, Juanita.

J.R. Harris died in 1992 and then Juanita died in 2003.

They didn’t leave a will and the property did not go to probate court.

In 2004, before the original petition to sell the land, Harber advised the Pruitts when they were losing their home to foreclosure, according to court documents. According to court documents, Bill Pruitt said that Harber advised him that “although [Bill’s] family might assert that they had an ownership interest in the property, [Bill] could defend against that claim based on the fact that [he] had at all times exercised control over the property and paid all of the taxes and expenses relating to the property.”

The relationship between Harber and the Pruitts ended, though, when Harber claimed that one of the Pruitts’ dogs killed his dog while he and his wife were on vacation.

The two families live very close to each other; Harber lives on Crestwood, and the Pruitts live on West Broad Street, just a block away from the Green McAdoo center. One 10-acre parcel of land sits between them. Court documents state that Bill claims Harber went on his property with a handgun and shot at the dogs he thought killed his own dog. Harber then told the Pruitts he would never represent them again.

The Pruitts believe and allege that Harber went around town gossiping about them after his dog died, allegedly costing them business at their towing company.

They sued Harber for defamation, but they represented themselves and lost.

“We felt like we had the right to sue him in court because it was interfering with our livelihood,” Shirley Pruitt said.

She thought they had seen the end of “this mess,” she said, but it was far from over. It was in 2013 that Harber started buying up quitclaim deeds from other heirs of the Harris estate.

History of ownership

The entire property was sold on the courthouse steps in 2005 for unpaid property taxes, but Bill Pruitt says he bought it back.

When the property sold at the tax sale, a Rocky Top family bought it. Pruitt went to that family after it was sold and paid them for it. They didn’t give him a quitclaim deed to that land until 2015.

Pruitt believes he owns the property because he redeemed it, and that his siblings should have no interest in it whatsoever. He believes that they lost their interest in the property when it sold on the courthouse steps.

“It should have gone to probate,” said Shirley Pruitt. “It should have. But if you don’t know these things… We didn’t know. If we knew all of this back then, it would be a whole different thing today.”

Since Harber has rounded up so many quitclaim deeds — 14 of them, to be exact, although two were discovered not to have been heirs of J.R. Harris — he believes he has enough interest in the property to demand the division or sale of the property. The “doctrine of unclean hands” motion made by the Pruitts’ attorney asserts that Harber was using the case to frighten the Pruitts because of their personal history.

Harber told The Courier News that his petition has nothing to do with their personal history. While he said he’d rather not get into a discussion about their relationship, he said he only wants the property to be sold because he wants to prevent development of the piece of land in between his property and the Pruitts.

“I don’t want apartments behind me,” he said.

Harber said he would ideally like to have lot 36 — the other two are lot 24 and 26 — to prevent someone from having access to the lot behind him.

There is all kinds of paperwork surrounding this property. Bill Pruitt has the receipt and documents to back up his claim that he exercised his right of redemption of the tax sale in 2005. There are tax records, property assessor records, quitclaim deeds, police reports and receipts, but some contradict others and the stack of papers is nearly a foot high.

The main issue is that Harber, knowing that there was no will deeding the land to the Pruitts, went around to all the heirs he could find and bought up their interest in the property.

He offered some $1,000 and some closer to $100 for a quitclaim deed, according to Shirley Pruitt.

One of those people offered money was Bill’s sister, Mary Ann Pruitt. She refused it and testified in court on the Pruitts behalf.

“I was getting ready to go to work,” Mary Ann told The Courier News in a phone interview, “and I got a telephone call from Mr. Harber. He said he wanted to buy the interest in my land. I said, ‘I don’t have land.’” He said, ‘The land your mother owned is yours now, and you’re an heir.’”

She said he offered her $1,000 for her interest in the property.

“Come to find out, he’d contacted my brother up in Virginia and given him $1,000 and gave my baby brother $1,000,” she alleged.

“Then when I wouldn’t sell, he jumped over my head and went to my nieces and nephews. But our stepdad gave that land to Bill.”

If the case is upheld in Knoxville, it will come back to Anderson County for a decision on whether to sell the land.