Icon (Close Menu)

Logout

Sibling Dispute Leads to Sale of Farm & Hunting Land in Delta

6 min read

A long-running sibling dispute is culminating this month in a court-ordered sale expected to yield a $50 million-plus transaction.

The Feb. 24 public auction encompasses 15,881-acre holdings in Arkansas and Jefferson counties divided into three categories: 9,450 acres of farmland, 5,058 acres of timberland and 1,373 acres of recreational land plus Five Oaks hunting lodge.

But even as the sales date approaches, the disagreements persist between Deborah Tipton of Memphis and her younger brother, George Dunklin Jr.

His home is across Highway 152 from Five Oaks in western Arkansas County and east of the 33,832-acre Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area.

Dunklin is national president of Ducks Unlimited and was a member of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission from 2005-12.

Tipton asked for a postponement of the auction. Her Jan. 27 motion raised belated concerns about details of the auction that failed to sway U.S. District Judge Brian Miller.

Tipton’s motion to postpone included statements attributed to staffers of Thomas Blackmon Realty, charged with conducting the sale of property. However, staffers at the Little Rock firm denied making statements that expressed concerns about the timing, marketing and other details of the auction that could adversely affect top bidding.

The judge noted that Tipton had agreed to the terms and requirements of the auction, and there would be no 11th-hour modification or further delay.

“It is disappointing that plaintiffs’ new lawyers (if my memory serves me correctly, this is her fourth set) have come to the party late and are attempting to support plaintiffs’ position with representations that appear to be baseless, …” Miller wrote in his Feb. 2 order denying the motion to postpone the auction.

“It is time to put this case to rest.”

Dueling Experts

The disagreement between sister and brother erupted into a federal case when Tipton filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Jan. 2, 2013. But the storm was building long before that.

By Dunklin’s reckoning in court filings, the seeds for litigation were sown when he received a letter written on behalf of his sister by a Memphis lawyer, Bruce Kramer, on Nov. 7, 2011.

Her questioning of his management of the farm and hunting operations grew into accusations of self-dealing and mismanagement in the following months.

By March 2012, Kramer had been replaced as Tipton’s attorney by Phillip Hicky of Forrest City. Five months later, Hicky was gone and replaced by John Tull of Little Rock and Phillip Seaton of Memphis.

Tipton hired a financial expert to mine tens of thousands of pages of business records and explore her concerns with a forensic audit.

Dunklin hired his own financial expert to examine and explain corporate accounting nuances in their shared business interests, which include M.E. Black Farms Inc.

Mary “Lib” Elizabeth Black was the daughter of L.A. Black, who between 1907 and 1945 assembled much of the property now owned by her children, Tipton and Dunklin.

The Five Oaks hunting complex, owned by Memphis Furniture Co. on land leased from the family, was bought in 1983. Tipton and Dunklin inherited the properties after the deaths of their parents just 10 days apart in May 2007.

Days before the start of a trial last July, all of the issues save one were washed away when the parties entered a consent judgment that called for separating their mutual holdings.

During the course of her litigation, Tipton has expressed her interest in having the property partitioned, an equal division of property overseen by the court. She would receive 100 percent ownership of half the property, and her brother would receive 100 percent ownership of half.

However, her initial complaint asked for a liquidation of assets, and that heading has remained true even as the case meandered along.

Dunklin has indicated his intention to bid on some of the property since the possibility of an auction was put in motion six months ago.

Unusual Auction

Some aspects of the auction have raised eyebrows from outsiders looking in, especially the hefty deposit required to inspect the Tipton-Dunklin properties.

Prospective bidders have to present a $3 million certified check or wire transfer the funds to Thomas Blackmon Realty to view all seven tracts. Viewing deposits for individual tracts range from $15,200 to nearly $2.1 million.

The escrowed funds will be returned if a party withdraws as a bidder or is unsuccessful in bidding at the auction.

The steep viewing deposit is designed to weed out non-serious parties and ensure that lookers have the financial capability to buy the properties. But it has also had the effect of scaring off potential bidders, who don’t want to have so much money tied up just to check out the property.

“The parties at the time didn’t realize it would be an impediment to potential bidders,” said Bill Allen of Little Rock, one of Tipton’s attorneys. “I believe it was Mr. Dunklin’s attorney who suggested it.”

The entire Tipton-Dunklin acreage is available for purchase, and the property also is separated into seven tracts for individual bidding or combinations — whatever generates the most money. The division of property into seven tracts for bidding purposes is curious to some:

  • 1,000 acres of cropland in Arkansas County;
  • 280 acres of cropland in Arkansas County;
  • 160 acres of cropland/timber in Arkansas County;
  • 80 acres of cropland/timber in Arkansas County;
  • 350 acres of cropland/timber in Arkansas County;
  • 2,875 acres of timber in Arkansas County; and
  • 11,022 acres in Arkansas and Jefferson counties with lodge, shops and sheds, green timber reservoir, woods and zero grade cropland.

The disparity in size of the seventh tract, which includes Five Oaks Duck Lodge and so much farmland scattered between two counties, and the other six tracts is glaring. Allen said the configuration was the result of a recommendation by the auction company.

“People are expressing interest in the property and getting qualified to bid,” he said.

A $75 million commitment and proof of funds are required to become a bidder for all seven tracts. The potential size of the deal doesn’t reach historic levels in terms of monetary value or acreage, according to a veteran agri-businessman who knows the family well.

“What’s really historic or sad about it is the way it’s going down,” he said. “There’s a lot of anger and contention behind this sale.”

Litigation Timeline

2013

Jan. 2: Deborah Tipton of Memphis files suit in U.S. District Court in Pine Bluff to remove her brother George Dunklin Jr. from management of shared farming and hunting properties in Arkansas and Jefferson counties. The complaint also seeks to liquidate M.E. Black Farms Inc. Tipton alleges self-dealing and mismanagement by Dunklin.

Jan. 3: Dunklin files suit in Arkansas County Circuit Court to dissolve the partnerships and corporations, shared in ownership with Tipton.

Feb. 4: Proposed trial date for Tipton’s case is set for May 5, 2014.

Feb. 21: The Dunklin suit is moved to federal court.

Feb. 28: U.S. District Judge D.P. Marshall Jr. recuses from the case citing a potential conflict: His extended family is discussing the possible sale of mineral rights with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. The discussions began in March 2012, when Dunklin was a member of the commission. The case is reassigned to Chief Judge Brian Miller.

March 27: Little Rock attorneys Everette Clarke Tucker IV and John Tull III withdraw from representing Tipton.

April 11: Jury trial for Tipton’s case is set for the week of July 14, 2014.

Aug. 23: The two federal cases are consolidated.

Sept. 25: Little Rock attorneys Philip Kaplan, Jess Askew III and Andrew King withdraw from representing Tipton. Court records indicate Tipton’s current legal team includes three Houston attorneys, Charles Parker, Collin Cox, and Deborah Karakowsky; two Little Rock attorneys, Bill Allen and Willie Haley; David Caywood of Memphis; and Charles Merkel of Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Dec. 20: Case referred to Magistrate Judge Beth Deere for settlement conference.

2014

March 18: Jury trial in the consolidated case is set for week of July 14.

July 7: Parties enter a consent judgment, dropping all disputed matters and agreeing to sell their shared property.

Aug. 29: Tipton files a motion to set aside the consent judgment.

Sept. 22: Tipton’s motion is denied. Charles Roscopf of Helena is appointed special master to supervise the sale and recommend whether it should be a private or public sale.

Oct. 31: A public auction conducted by a licensed auctioneer/broker is set for Feb. 2, 2015, or as soon as possible thereafter at the Arkansas County Courthouse in Stuttgart.

Dec. 11: Roscopf recommends a public sale. “While the parties agree to the dissolution, liquidation and sale of assets, the means of doing so has become a long-running point of contention between them.” Tipton advocates a private sale. Dunklin advocates a public sale.

2015

Jan. 26: A public auction of the Tipton-Dunklin property is set for Feb. 24, in a rural setting between Stuttgart and DeWitt.

Jan. 27: Tipton files a motion to postpone the sale.

Feb. 2: Her motion is denied.

Send this to a friend