Mellark et. al v. Everdeen
323 U.Va 105 (2019)
Elicegui, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Shmazzle, C.J., Ranzini, Luk, and Schmid, JJ. join. Calamaro, J., filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Elicegui delivered the opinion of the Court.
At the beginning of every year, the normally polite, well-mannered, collegial students of UVA Law channel their inner Hunger Games fighters and chaos ensues as the barbarians fight to get the best seats. The Administration’s statute, U.Va. G. St. § 17-839, describes the School’s seat policy as: “We let students pick their own seats.” Given the lack of guidance and ambiguity in the statute, this Court will restore order by interpreting the statute against the backdrop of UVA’s general rules of collegiality and the common-law understanding of adverse possession. Property rights do not attach to a particular seat until a seating chart is filled out or students become accustomed to the seat over the course of at least three weeks.
On September 2, 2019, Peeta Mellark arrived for his 1:00 p.m. Corporations class in SL 289. Mellark discovered that a group of three—Clove, Cato, and Glimmer—had taken Mellark’s seat from last class. Since there was not yet a seating chart, Mellark was content to move back a few rows. Mellark picked out a seat and began settling in.
Five minutes later, Mellark had settled in and was enjoying his morning coffee. All of a sudden, an arrow whizzed past Mellark’s ear. Mellark jumped clear out of his seat, which ended up being a good thing, because another arrow whizzed underneath him. Mellark looked around, confused and frightened, and caught a glimpse of Katniss Everdeen’s camo-clad figure.
Suddenly, Everdeen dropped down on Mellark’s desk from the ceiling. “What?!” Mellark loudly exclaimed. “Excuse me, this is my seat,” Everdeen hissed.
“Oh, well there’s not a seating chart yet, and other people were in my seat, which is totally cool. But that means I needed to move,” Mellark explained.
“I don’t think you understand,” Everdeen said, her voice getting more menacing. “This is MY seat.” Frightened and wanting to avoid confrontation, Mellark got up and moved, giving Everdeen the seat she claimed as her own.
After class, Mellark drafted a complaint and filed suit against Everdeen in the Court of Petty Problems. Mellark alleged unlawful conversion of property and emotional distress from Everdeen’s aggression. At trial, Judge Marlyse Vieira found that Everdeen correctly protected her property from Mellark’s attempted unlawful conversion and Everdeen did not engage in unlawful conversion because she had a vested property right in the seat. Judge Vieira also dismissed the emotional distress claim, citing 1L Gunners v. Everyone Else, 324 U.Va. 22, 24 (2019) (“[E]motional distress is a harm within the risk of attending law school.”).
Mellark appeals Judge Vieira’s ruling on the property question, but does not appeal the emotional distress decision, as it is clearly right as a matter of law under petty precedent.
With all statutory analysis questions, this Court begins with the text of the statute. However, U.Va. G. St. § 17-839 does not provide much insight. “We let students pick their own seats” does not account for a seating chart, which locks students into particular seats and prohibits moving after a certain point in the semester. As current and former professors, the drafters of U.Va. G. St. § 17-839 clearly knew about seating charts and intended for the rule to co-exist with them. Therefore, “We let students pick their own seats” cannot exclusively mean what it says.
This Court must look outside the face of the statute into the larger cultural context of UVA Law. As demonstrated by the existence of a seating chart, property rights clearly must attach to a student’s chosen seat at some point. To co-exist with the Law School’s policy and the fact that the School, in fact, owns every seat in the school, students gain property rights in the form of a semester-estate through adverse possession. Adverse possession requires open and notorious use that is contrary to the owner’s interests in the seat. This Court holds that possession cannot be open until a seating chart is filled out. At that point, property rights attach to the student and the student has a cognizable claim should someone else invade the property right. The school has notice that the student has claimed the seat, satisfying the open use requirement. The possession is also notorious because the school loses the right to put prospective 0Ls or visiting guests in that seat for the remainder of the semester.
In situations where a seating chart is not yet in place, or for courses where the professor does not use a seating chart, the regular rules of UVA Law student conduct govern. Therefore, students are expected to behave in a civil manner. The Hunger Games ends now. No more shooting arrows. If you want a particular seat, get yourself to class early and claim the seat. If a student arrives early enough to claim the seat they want, they get it. If you aren’t happy with your seat from last class, get there early next class. And, if someone takes a seat you do not yet own, suck it up and find a different seat. Don’t hate the player—hate the game. After a reasonable period of time, consistent occupation establishes adverse possession even without a seating chart.
J. Calamaro, dissenting.
My colleague writes of the interaction between Mellark and Everdeen through the lens of a social “faux pas.” Yet she forgets that, throughout the history of law school, the greatest minds have always been the ones that commit these social “mistakes” every day. Have not the most successful, greatest law students also been the friendless, and socially awkward? Is this even social awkwardness so much as social Darwinism, whereby the strong may take the seats of the weak? Fighting for seats is a time-honored tradition, the game of kings and peasants alike, and should be the main tool by which we choose our seats throughout the semester.
I propose that we cast aside these “castes” of seating charts which have long been a tool for professors to gain even more control over the lives of the plebeians. Instead, we must remember that law school is about intimidation and strength, and that if someone comes in with a knitted wool vest over a button-down shirt, he is clearly the smartest and most accomplished student and must be allowed to take whichever seat suits him. So it was with our ancestors, so it must be now. It is our human nature to fight, be it with clubs and pitchforks, or with passive-aggressive looks at the person who is sitting where we feel that we ought to. We must therefore be allowed to duke it out in whatever manner is necessary to achieve seating tranquility. The time for “seating socialism”™ is long gone—the time for seating altercations, be they verbal or just angry mutters under breaths, is here.
The majority should be prepared to reckon with the grave consequences of their actions today. Law students are people who throw off the bonds of social structure, who decide to cut in line because life is theirs for the taking, who go to class sick because herd immunity be damned. We deserve to prove our worth to our families not just in the field of finals, or the field of softball, but also in the field of seating arrangements. Only by knowing who is the best at sitting will the black holes that are our hearts be filled with self-esteem and meaning.