By Robert Nislick
In order for one Massachusetts landowner to establish title by adverse possession to land owned of record by another, the claimant must prove “nonpermissive use which is actual, open, notorious, exclusive and adverse for twenty years.” Lawrence v. Concord, 439 Mass. 416, 421 (2003).
Frequently, a person who is adversely possessing another’s land may not be able to establish that he personally has used his neighbor’s land for twenty years. This might be because the adverse possessor only recently purchased his property. Alternatively, it might be because he inherited the property he now owns.
The twenty-year requirement is strictly construed. For example, in one case, the court ruled that a claim of adverse possession that continued for “nineteen years, eleven months, and five days” was insufficient, and did not bar the record owner from retaking possession of a disputed strip of land. See Hewitt v. Peterson, 253 Mass. 92, 93-94 (1925).
“[A]lthough the time period is often described as the time necessary to achieve title by adverse possession, it actually is a limitations period, after which the true owner may not recover possession of the land from the adverse possessor.” In re Colarusso, 382 F.3d 51, 58 (1st Cir. 2004).
Even if the claimant has not personally used the land for twenty years, he may satisfy the requirement by tacking on “several periods of successive adverse use by different persons provided there is privity between the persons making the successive uses.” See Ryan v. Stavros, 348 Mass. 251, 264 (1964). Privity exists when there is “some relation between the successive users of such a nature that the use by the earlier user can fairly be said to be made for the later user, or there must be such a relation between them that the later user can be fairly regarded as the successor to the earlier one.” See id.
For example, the case of AM Properties, LLC v. J&W Summit Ave, LLC, Land Court Miscellaneous Case No. 13 MISC 479776 (AHS), (Sands, J.) (Jul. 2, 2015), involved a small strip of land located along a common boundary between the parties’ properties and two passageways to access the strip. The plaintiff purchased its property in 1999 from a trust, which had purchased the property in 1934. The trust had leased the property to a tenant in August 1993. The tenant soon began improving the strip on the defendant’s property.
The court noted that privity of estate exists between lessor and lessee. Additionally, the court noted that, “the adverse possession of the tenant maybe tacked to that of the landlord”. See Holmes v. Turner’s Falls Co., 150 Mass. 535, 547 (1890). Therefore, the court found that plaintiff could tack its use of the strip onto that of the trust for purposes of establishing adverse possession. Accordingly, even though plaintiff itself was adversely possessing defendant’s strip for less than twenty years, it was able to add on, or tack, its predecessor’s tenant’s use onto its claim.
In Perry v. Nemira, Land Court Miscellaneous Case No. 11 MISC 457157 (AHS), (Sands, J.) (Jan. 15, 2015), plaintiff acquired title to his property in early 1996. Plaintiff was required to demonstrate adverse use since 1991. Plaintiff proffered no evidence to suggest that his predecessors ever adversely possessed the disputed area. Moreover, plaintiff’s predecessor in title had essentially abandoned the property in late 1994 when she was incarcerated. Thus, the court found that even if the plaintiff’s predecessor intended to adversely possess the disputed area, there was a break in adverse use from late 1994 to early 1996. This prevented plaintiff from establishing continuous adverse use for the requisite twenty-year period.
In Giombetti Clue Props., LLC v. DiFronzo, Land Court Miscellaneous Case No. 10 MISC 443972 (HMG), (Grossman, J.) (Nov. 7, 2014), plaintiff sought a prescriptive easement over a portion of a paved driveway that encroached onto the neighboring property. The defendant argued that plaintiff’s claims failed because one of plaintiff’s predecessors sought permission to pave the driveway. The court noted that the plaintiff could not seek to tack its own adverse use onto a period of adverse use by an earlier predecessor, thereby “leap-frogging” over a period of permissive use.
If you have a claim or need to defend against a claim for adverse possession or prescriptive easement, contact Robert Nislick, a Massachusetts real estate lawyer. He can be reached at (508) 405-1238, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.