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Where there has been an actual continued occupation of premises under a claim of title, exclusive of any other right, but not founded upon a written instrument or a judgment or decree, the premises so actually occupied, and no others, are deemed to have been held adversely.
Plaintiffs and defendants are owners of adjoining residential lots, 22 and 23, located in the Town of Queensbury, County of Warren, New York. The disputed portion of the land is on the northern border of lot 23. In January 1986, plaintiffs, the Wallings, purchased lot 22 on Butternut Hill Drive. In 1989, the Przybylos purchased lot 23. Both lots were unimproved land on which the parties built homes and swimming pools. On lot 22, the plaintiffs also built a small shed. Even though the defendants purchased their land in 1989, they did not construct their residence until 1991 and did not obtain a certificate of occupancy and move in until May 1994. In May 1987, plaintiffs bulldozed and deposited fill and topsoil on defendants' northerly side yard, including the disputed parcel, dug a trench and installed PVC pipe for the purpose of carrying water from plaintiffs' eaves and downspouts to and under the disputed parcel, ultimately discharging the water in and over the disputed parcel. Also prior to defendants' arrival, plaintiffs constructed an underground dog wire fence to enclose their dog and continuously mowed, graded, raked, planted, and watered the grassy area in dispute. Also, on this portion of the land, the plaintiff installed 69 feet of four-inch PVC pipe in such a way that all of the pipe ran underground but finally surfaced within a "swale." Defendants admit that the lawn was in part cultivated before they moved in. In 1992, plaintiffs dug a hole near the northwesterly corner of the grassy part of the disputed territory and placed in it a post approximately 10 feet long on which they affixed a birdhouse. Since 1992, the post and birdhouse have remained in place. In 2004, defendants had the land surveyed and discovered that they had title to the disputed portion of the land. Upon learning of this, plaintiffs brought an action to quiet title. On September 16, 2004, the Warren County Court granted plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment quieting title to the land. On December 15, 2004, after a motion to renew, the motion court modified its decision by denying summary judgment to the plaintiffs. Based upon an affidavit by the previous owner of lot 22, and the 1986 survey of plaintiffs' property, the motion court found that there were triable issues of fact as to whether plaintiffs had actual knowledge of the true owners prior to making improvements on the land. The Appellate Division modified the order of County Court by reversing the denial of summary judgment to the plaintiffs and granting that motion.
Did the Appellate Division err in granting summary judgment to plaintiffs on the ground that the evidence in this case was sufficient to establish title by 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, 10 of which occurred after defendants moved into their residence. "The ultimate element in the rise of a title through adverse possession is the acquiescence of the real owner in the exercise of an obvious adverse or hostile ownership through the statutory period.” It was not until April 21, 2004, close to 10 years after moving into the house and almost 15 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. Defendants argue that there is no claim of right when the adverse possessor has actual knowledge of the true owner at the time of possession. However, longstanding decisional law does not support this position. The adverse possessor must act under claim of right. By definition, a claim of right is adverse to the title owner and also in opposition to the rights of the true owner. Conduct will prevail over knowledge, particularly when the true owners have acquiesced in the exercise of ownership rights by the adverse possessors. The fact that adverse possession will defeat a deed even if the adverse possessor has knowledge of the deed is not new. The issue is "actual occupation," not subjective knowledge. Adverse possession, although not a favored method of procuring title, is a recognized one. It is a necessary means of clearing disputed titles and the courts adopt it and enforce it, because, when adverse possession is carefully and fully proven, it is a means of settling disputed titles and this is desirable.