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Beyer v. Cutler Brothers Box & Lumber Company

A-3382-08T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2010) (Unpublished)

ADVERSE POSSESSION; EASEMENTS — The failure of a property owner to reassert title against an adverse possessor is only relevant if the owner has had notice, actual or constructive, that another considers itself to be, or is using the property as the owner, the use is generally consistent with existing easement rights, and is not adverse to the title owner.

Adjacent landowners became involved in a dispute over a roadway that was used for ingress and egress of all abutting properties. One landowner purchased the roadway together with the adjacent land in 1990. The deed described the roadway as an undedicated private roadway without a lot and block number. Upon purchasing the roadway, the buyer did a cursory inspection and observed no obstructions. He knew that all owners of property abutting the roadway had ingress and egress easements.

A few years before the present dispute, the owner of the road received complaints from other landowners that the roadway was partially, and sometimes completely, blocked by trucks that were going to and coming from another user’s property. It also was discovered that the same user’s dustbin, concrete pad, and pallets were encroaching the roadway. Confronted with these complaints, he had obtained title to the property adjacent to the roadway in 1951, and had consistently used the roadway in accordance with the ingress and egress easement, with his trucks loading and unloading on the roadway. He also claimed that he had continuously stored pallets and a dust bin at the end of the road since 1951. Lastly, he contended that he had placed concrete on the roadway to repair the asphalt and had the roadway plowed when it snowed.

The owner of the road sued the neighbor who had been running trucks on the road, who counterclaimed, alleging it owned the disputed portion of the roadway through adverse possession. The road owner’s request for preliminary injunctive relief was denied and, following a bench trial, the lower court held that the neighbor had obtained title to some portions of the disputed road through adverse possession, but it had not obtained title to the entire roadway. Both appealed.

The Appellate Division revered the lower court and remanded the matter for reconsideration, concluding that the lower court had applied the wrong standard of proof. The Court followed the standard applied by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Patton v. North Jersey Water Supply Commission, which placed the burden of proof on the adverse possessor to establish the elements of adverse possession by a preponderance of the evidence

The lower court concluded that the neighbor’s use had put forth a successful counterclaim for adverse possession and the road owner’s request for ejectment or injunction was denied. It found the dustbin extended onto the roadway, and there was no evidence that any changes had been made to that structure since 1951. The lower court reasoned that while there was an encroachment, it did not unreasonably interfere with the road owner’s use of the roadway and the pallets were found to be a de minimus trespass. The road owner’s claim for adverse possession was partially granted and ruled that a portion of the roadway now belonged to the neighbor by way of adverse possession.

The matter returned to the Appellate Division, and it affirmed the lower court’s decision, adding that the neighboring user’s contention that the lower court should have found it owned the entire section of the roadway adjacent to its property was without merit. The Court held that the actions taken by the neighboring user were not beyond the rights of the holder of an easement because they were necessary for its enjoyment, and consequently they could not be considered actions adverse to the rights of the title owner of the roadway. It reasoned that the neighboring user had an easement to use the roadway, so its use, which was generally consistent with its easement rights, and its unarticulated belief that it was the owner of the road, was insufficient to warrant a finding of ownership of the entire roadway by adverse possession.

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