Van Valkenburgh v. Lutz Case Brief

Summary of Van Valkenburgh v. Lutz, Court of Appeals of NY (1952)

Parties: AP is the adverse possessor by means of foreclosure purchase, APE is the former possessor of said land.

Cause of action/remedy sought: This is an equitable action to quiet title of a traveled way to APE’s land.

Procedural History: Trial court found in favor of APE, awarding him right of way over the traveled way. Judgment affirmed. This court reverses.

Facts: AP’s bought land which was previously APE’s for 15 years in a foreclosure sale. After APE cleared most of his belongings off the land which was foreclosed upon, but argued he still had the right to the traveled way to his remaining property, which were on property adjacent and behind the foreclosed land. AP built a fence blocking the right of way, which had been used for several years by APE’s.

Issue(s): Under property law, does the adversely possessed party have right to a traveled right of way to provide access to their properties on either side of the possessed land by interposing the claim they had used the right of way for almost 30 years prior to the possession?

Holding: No. Under New York law, Lutzes never actually owned the land they claim was adversely possessed, so there was no adverse possession.

Court’s Rationale/Reasoning: The court goes right to the NY law, which sets out the requirements for adverse possession. One must own the land to claim adverse possession in the first place. There are two such ways in which one can prove ownership of the land: by either enclosing it, or by substantially improving it.

Here, APE’s did neither. The garden was never enclosed by anything. Additionally, the cultivation of the garden never utilized any substantial portion of the land, as it was too speculative of a claim to make the substantial claim.

APE also claims he had a shed and other items on the property so as to show “a claim of title,” which could provide proof as to the adversity this alleged dispossession has caused. However, the shed, a portable chicken coop, consistently cleared brush along the path, or even old furniture on the traveled way are not symptomatic of a claim.

Finally, APE’s actions seal the deal. Upon hearing of the possession, he acquiesced to AP’s claim of legal title conferred actual ownership, instead of declaring his ownership claim.

Rule: NY Law: “To acquire title to real property by adverse possession not founded upon a written instrument, it must be shown by clear and convincing proof that for at least 15 years there was an “actual” occupation under a claim of title, for it is only the premises so actually occupied “and no others” that are deemed to have been held adversely.

The essential elements of proof being either that the premises (1) are protected by a substantial inclosure, or are (2) usually cultivated or improved. (civ prac act).

Did court avoid issues?: What is the standard of owning the land in this case (subjective, objective)

Dicta: N/A.

Dissents: There is no doubt the record contains some evidence the premises were occupied by Mr. Lutz for 15 years under a claim of title, for he used the land as anyone would have if they had actual title to the land: he tilled it, cleared it, raised chickens on it, and even stored things on it. Additionally, his acquiescence to the title claim by AP’s after the foreclosure sale should not dismiss his previous stay on the land in question. He had property which was bottle-necked by this traveled way, and he needed and used this way to get to and from both properties. Title on the record in this case, since no one owned the land when the Lutzes first settled there, shouldn’t matter if Lutz himself took the area in question as his.

As to the substantial portion of the requirement of improving the land, NY law does not call for such an absolutism: Lutz used enough of the land, some for fire wood, some for his produce business, and some for raising chickens and storage. The neighbors attested to these facts (as well as the ones above). How could the land not at least be accessible to the Lutzes?

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