WHO ARE YOU GOING TO BELIEVE – ME OR YOUR OWN EYES?
Judges actually go to judges school to learn cool, judge-related things. Not the law … they already know about the law, or they know how to look it up. Instead, judges learn really practical things — such as how to tell when a witness is lying.
And how can you tell when witnesses are lying? No, not when their lips move. That’s too easy. But judges learn how to watch for signs — and they don’t tell us in the great unwashed what those signs are — that witnesses may be dissembling. Dissembling: a great euphemism for lying.
In today’s case, two New York neighbors had a common fence. On the Zeltsers’ side of the fence was a one-foot wide strip of land between the fence and the driveway. It had been there for a long time. The Zeltsers took care of the strip, planted trees and shrubs, enclosed it from the street and even paved part of it. But in 2003, the Sacerdotes had a survey done and found, lo and behold, the strip belonged to them. They tore down the fence and cut down the trees. The Zeltsers sued.
The trial court found, on the crucial issue, that the Zeltsers had used the one-foot wide strip openly, continuously and exclusively from 1987 to 2003. The Sacerdotes argued that there had been evidence — testimony from the Sacerdotes — that showed otherwise. But the Court of Appeals noted that the trial court — which had been in “a unique position to assess the evidence and the credibility of the witnesses” — resolved that issue in favor of the Zeltsers.
Generally, appellate courts will not disturb credibility findings of a trial court. The trial judge, after all, with her keen eye for prevaricators (a euphemism for dissemblers, see above), can smell testimony that gives off the reek of tergiversation — and the appellate court wasn’t about to question what the trial court had decided.
There is undoubtedly a good backstory here, one we’ll never know. The Zeltsers were awarded the one-foot strip by adverse possession, so it’s a cinch the judge believed them. In fact, all of the physical evidence – the old fence, the trees planted by the Seltzers, the asphalt and the edging – made this a pretty open and shut case.
The only evidence to the contrary was the Sacerdotes’ testimony. It was rather self-serving testimony at that. The self-serving nature doesn’t make it wrong, but it sure makes it suspect.
The Zeltsers won rights to the foot-wide strip. In the process, they lost any chance that they’d be invited to a Sacerdote picnic any time soon.
Zeltser v. Sacerdote, 860 N.Y.S.2d 624, 52 A.D.3d 824 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept., 2008). The Zeltsers and the Sacerdotes owned adjoining residential properties. When the Sacerdotes purchased their property in 1987, an existing fence — covered in rose bushes and vines — ran parallel with their property line from the street to a garage in the rear for about 100 feet. A small strip of dirt, about a foot wide was sandwiched between the fence and the Zeltsers’ driveway. The Zeltsers believed that the strip — which was on their side of the fence — belonged to them. They planted trees on the strip, trimmed the bushes and vines on the fence, and installed a row of bricks as an edging. They installed a fence that enclosed the front portion of the strip, making it inaccessible from the street, and they laid asphalt on the strip between their garage and the Sacerdotes’ garage, both of which were on the back portion of the respective properties.
It turned out that title to the one-foot strip was held by the Sacerdotes. They never mentioned that to the Zeltsers, and may have been uncertain about it themselves, until they had a property survey done in 2003. After the survey, the Sacerdotes removed the fence and the trees.
The Zeltsers sued to quiet title to the disputed strip, based on their claim of adverse possession.
Held: The Zeltsers had become owners of the strip of land by adverse possession. The Court observed that a party claiming title by adverse possession – rather than a written instrument – must show that the parcel was either regularly cultivated, or improved or protected by a substantial enclosure. Additionally, the party must satisfy the common-law requirements demonstrating by clear and convincing evidence that the possession of the parcel was hostile, under claim of right, open and notorious, exclusive, and continuous for the statutory period of 10 years.
The trial court properly found that the Zeltsers had established that they met both the statutory and common-law requirements of adverse possession. The trial court’s findings relied substantially on its perception of the credibility of the witnesses, and the appellate court was not willing to disturb those findings. The Court said that the evidence established that the Zeltsers openly used and maintained the disputed strip from 1987 until 2003.
The Sacerdotes argued that there was conflicting evidence as to whether the Zeltsers’ possession of the disputed property was exclusive. However, the trial court — which, the Court observed, “was in a unique position to assess the evidence and the credibility of the witnesses” — resolved that issue in favor of the Zeltsers, and the appellate court wasn’t about to disturb the finding.
– Tom Root