On February 21, 2023, the New York Supreme Court (“the Court”) issued its opinion in Gelles v. Sauvage, NY Slip Op 50120(U) (Sup. Ct. 2023), a factually interesting but relatively straightforward adverse possession dispute, providing a comprehensive summary of New York’s adverse possession law, its various elements and nuances, and an example of the forms of proof sufficient to establish a valid claim.
Amy Gelles (“Plaintiff”) is the owner of 6031 Huxley Avenue in the Bronx, New York, while Maria P. Sauvage (“Defendant”) is the owner of the adjacent property located at 6030 Huxley Avenue. In April 2015, Defendant destroyed a garage that sat on the property line between the two properties and erected a chain-link fence in the middle of where the garage used to stand. Plaintiff subsequently brought suit for, among other causes of action, quiet title by adverse possession under New York Real Property Actions and Proceedings LAW (“RPAPL”) § 1501(1), alleging she had obtained title to the garage and the sections of land on which it previously stood by virtue of adverse possession.
Plaintiff ultimately moved for partial summary judgment on her quiet title by adverse possession claim. In assessing her motion, the Court first reiterated the essential elements of adverse possession, which requires that a plaintiff demonstrate their possession of a property was: “(1) hostile and under a claim of right, (2) actual, (3) open and notorious, (4) exclusive, and (5) continuous for the statutory period of 10 years.” The Court noted that the “hostility” element is not as combative as its wording may suggest and is presumptively satisfied where there has been simple “possession of the land/premises, accompanied by all the usual acts of ownership.” Similarly, the regular removal of trash or waste and general maintenance of a property will presumptively satisfy the “open and notorious” element of the claim.
Plaintiff submitted various pieces of evidence in support of her motion, foremost among them an affidavit wherein she averred that when purchasing the 6031 Huxley property in June 1997, she was told during the closing that the garage was partially located on Defendant’s property. She testified that despite knowing this she intentionally used the garage anyway, maintaining it, storing personal vehicles and various materials in it, allowing guests to make use of it, for large periods of time leasing it out to others for use and keeping any rents received, and at all times solely possessing the keys allowing access.
She further affirmed that her exclusive use of the garage commenced in 1997 and continued unabated until the garage’s destruction. During these years of use, she performed general maintenance to the garage and its surrounding driveway and landscape, including the wholesale replacement of the concrete floor, brick repair, and the fabrication and installation of new garage doors. Only once did Defendant ever request to use the garage, in 2006, with said request being denied by Plaintiff. Without prior forewarning, while Plaintiff was at work in April 2015, Defendant hired workers to dismantle the garage and erect a fence in its place. Plaintiff called the police in an attempt to prevent its destruction but they declined to intervene.
As supporting materials Plaintiff also submitted: (1) deeds and diagrams of the two properties, which confirmed that the garage sat “such that the property line of record between both properties nearly bisect[ed] the garage in half”; (2) a “closing agreement” dated June 1997 which specifically referenced the garage and the fact it partially sat on Defendant’s property; (3) photographs depicting both the use and maintenance of the garage over the years and its destruction; (4) various check receipts and letters from prior renters demonstrating that the garage had been rented out over the years; and (5) several other less relevant forms of documentary evidence.
Based on these proofs, the Court ultimately held that “with her evidence, plaintiff establishes that she adversely possessed the  Garage and to the extent it sat on land belonging to 6030, such land as well.” Specifically, the Court observed that from 1997 through its destruction in 2015, Plaintiff had exclusively used the garage despite knowing it was not hers, without ever having obtained permission from Defendant to do so, and had made various improvements and repairs to the structure over time. Such use “[f]or purposes of adverse possession . . . sufficiently establishe[d] each and every element required by prevailing law.”
While Defendant offered several grounds as opposition, none were availing. First, Defendant contended that adverse possession of property to which another party held legal title was not possible, an argument the Court found “so nonsensical that at best it is bizarre and at worst, it is frivolous.” Defendant also argued that because, over the years, the garage at times lacked doors, it was thus accessible to the public and Plaintiff’s use was therefore not “exclusive.” This contention was dispatched with similar verve, with the Court holding that exclusivity is not negated merely because other parties can potentially access the land, or even when other parties are permitted to use the land. Finally, Defendant alleged that Plaintiff “could have done more” in its maintenance of the garage – however, the Court observed that this was not the requisite standard, and all that was necessary was that Plaintiff had regularly maintained the property, which she had.
This Opinion serves as a useful primer on adverse possession, conveniently providing a comprehensive discussion of its various elements, the considerations unique to each element, and examples of the proof and application of each element. Practically, it also shows that our courts will not hesitate to apply the adverse possession doctrine when applicable, even when it would seem inequitable to do so, such as here where the Plaintiff freely admits to possessing knowledge that she lacked the right or permission to utilize the possessed property but opted to do so anyway.
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