According to Robert Frost: “Good fences make good neighbors.” (Mending Wall, 1914) But, as a recent case illustrates, a roadway crossing gate may result in an acrimonious legal dispute between contiguous property owners.
Monica and Harold Hulett and Terri Korb own neighboring parcels of land in the Town of Saratoga. Since 1986, the Huletts had accessed their property through the use of a roadway, known as Rodgers Lane, that crossed over a number of their neighbors’ parcels, including a roughly 250-foot-long portion of Korb’s parcel.
In 2012, Korb installed gates and made other modifications to Rodgers Lane. The Huletts then sued for a declaration that they had a prescriptive easement over the portion of Rodgers Lane that crossed Korb’s property.
After discovery proceedings and motion practice, Supreme Court ruled that the Huletts had established three of the four elements required for a prescriptive easement– by showing that their use of Rodgers Lane from 1986 through 2002 was open, notorious, and continuous for a period of 10 years– thereby giving rise to the presumption that such use was hostile to the prior owners of Korb’s property. The Court, however, concluded that a question of fact existed as to whether Korb could rebut the presumption of hostility with evidence that the Huletts had permission to use the disputed portion of Rodgers Lane during the relevant time frame.
The matter proceeded to a jury trial solely on that limited issue, with the jury ultimately finding for Korb that the Huletts’ use of Rodgers Lane from 1986 through 2002 had been permissive. But the Court set aside the verdict and directed judgment in the Huletts’ favor, finding that their use of Rodgers Lane had been hostile for the required statutory period and, thus, they had acquired a prescriptive easement over the relevant portion of Rodgers Lane. Korb appealed.
Korb argued that she rebutted the presumption of hostility at trial and that Supreme Court erred in setting aside the verdict and directing judgment in favor of the Huletts. Pursuant to CPLR 4404 (a), a trial court may, upon motion or its own initiative, “set aside a verdict or any judgment entered thereon and direct that judgment be entered in favor of a party entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” To set aside the verdict and direct judgment as a matter of law, the verdict must be “utterly irrational” — that is, there must be simply no valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences which could possibly lead rational jurors to the conclusion reached by the jury on the basis of the evidence presented at trial.
To rebut the presumption of hostility at trial, Korb had to establish that, during the period of 1986 through 2002, the Huletts received permission to use the portion of Rodgers Lane that passes over her property from her predecessors in interest. To that end, Korb relied upon an affidavit that Harold Hulett signed in 2010 in connection with unrelated litigation over a land dispute between his neighbors. In that affidavit, Hulett attested that he had used and maintained Rodgers Lane for more than 20 years. He stated that he received permission to use Rodgers Lane from “Anthony Rogers, his niece and the other neighbors” and that he had “permission from the neighboring landowners whose land the path crosses.” The parties stipulated facts establishing Korb’s chain of title, and it was thereby undisputed that Anthony Rogers and his niece were not prior owners of Korb’s property.
The appeals court agreed with Supreme Court that Hulett’s vague and general references to unspecified neighbors fell short of establishing, as a matter of law, that Korb’s particular predecessors in interest had granted them permission to use the relevant portion of Rodgers Lane between 1986 and 2002. In the absence of any other evidence that the Huletts received such permission or that their relationship with Korb’s predecessors in interest was “one of cooperation and neighborly accommodation”, Supreme Court properly concluded that there was no valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences which could possibly lead the jurors to conclude that the Huletts’ use of the relevant portion of Rodgers Lane was permissive, so as to rebut the presumption of hostility. Accordingly, there was no error in Supreme Court setting aside the jury verdict and directing judgment in favor of the Huletts.