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In honor of Sunday's term in the "Define That Term" post, I bring you the recent New York Court of Appeal's decision, Walling v. Przybylo, 2006 NY Slip Op 04747, which is all about adverse possession.
In this case, the plaintiffs and defendants purchased undeveloped, adjacent lots in the late 1980s. The plaintiffs developed the disputed portion of land, beginning in 1987, one year after they'd purchased the land. Among other things, the plaintiffs laid PVC pipes on the land, installed an underground electric dog fence, installed a 10 foot post with a bird house on it, and continuously mowed, raked, graded, planted and watered the disputed land.
The defendants moved into their house on the land in 1994 and admitted that the lawn on the disputed area was partly cultivated when they arrived.
In 2004, the defendants had the land surveyed and learned that they had title to the dispute land. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiffs brought this action to quiet title on the basis of adverse possession.
In reaching its determination, the Court first set forth the relevant law:
Adverse possession must be proven by clear and convincing evidence...To establish a claim of adverse possession, the following five elements must be proved: Possession must be (1) hostile and under claim of right; (2) actual; (3) open and notorious; (4) exclusive; and (5) continuous for the required period (Belotti v Bickhardt, 228 NY 296, 302 ; see also Van Valkenburgh v Lutz, 304 NY 95, 99 ; Spiegel v Ferraro,
73 NY2d 622, 624 ; Ray v Beacon Hudson Mountain Corp.,
88 NY2d at 159). Here the required period is at least ten years (see Ray, id.).
The Court rejected the defendants' contention that based on its prior decision in Van Valkenburgh v. Lutz, 304 NY 95 (1952), there is no claim of right when the adverse possessor has actual knowledge of the true owner at the time of possession. The Court then applied the relevant factors and concluded that the defendants had acquired title to the disputed land through adverse possession:
Plaintiffs possessed the disputed parcel of land as early as 1986 in an open and notorious manner, hostile to the interests of the title owners and continuously for 20 years, ten of which occurred after defendants moved into their residence...It was not until April 21, 2004, close to ten years after moving into the house and almost fifteen years after purchasing the property, that defendants sought to assert their rights over the disputed parcel. The failure to assert their rights in a timely manner prevents defendants from prevailing on this appeal.
Whenever I read cases of this nature, I always wonder how large the parcel of land was and whether it was really worth the attorneys' fees paid to assert title to the land. In this case, given the extensive nature of improvements, it probably was worth it.
Which then leads me to wonder why it was even necessary to litigate this issue. Couldn't the neighbors have been, well--neighborly and somehow worked it out? You would think so, but apparently not. Which is all well and good for us lawyers, right?