Petry v. Gillon

Citation2021 NY Slip Op 06590
Decision Date24 November 2021
Docket Number532567
PartiesJohn Petry et al., Respondents, v. Isabella Gillon, Individually and as Trustee for the Adam Gillon 1997 Trust and the Isabella Gillon 1997 Trust, et al., Appellants.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New York)

Calendar Date: October 12, 2021

Isabella Gillon, Palm Beach, Florida, appellant pro se, and Iris Gillon, Teaneck, New Jersey, appellant pro se.

Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham LLC, Saratoga Springs (Phillip A Oswald of counsel), for respondents.

Before: Garry, P.J., Lynch, Aarons, Pritzker and Reynolds Fitzgerald, JJ.

Garry P.J.

Appeal from that part of an order of the Supreme Court (Cahill, J.), entered May 21, 2020 in Ulster County, which (1) granted plaintiffs' motion to dismiss defendants' seventh counterclaim and claims for counsel fees, (2) denied defendants' cross motion for leave to serve a second amended answer, and (3) granted plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction.

Defendant Isabella Gillon and her husband were the original owners of a tract of land in the Town of Gardiner, Ulster County. At some point, the property was transferred to their respective trusts, of which Isabella Gillon and defendant Iris Gillon are trustees. In 1987, the property was subdivided into two lots. A map was filed showing the metes and bounds of those lots and depicting a driveway located wholly on Lot 2. In 2005, defendants transferred Lot 2 to plaintiffs' predecessors in interest, who transferred the property to plaintiffs in 2008. In 2017, plaintiffs obtained a survey of their property, which showed that the driveway was located along the property line between plaintiffs' and defendants' lots and partially extended into Lot 1.

Plaintiffs commenced this action in 2018 alleging, among other things, that they had acquired the disputed property (the entire driveway and a buffer of 55 feet) by adverse possession or practical location. Defendants answered and then amended their answer as of right to include, among other things, a counterclaim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. In April 2018, plaintiffs moved to dismiss this counterclaim, as well as defendants' claims for counsel fees. Defendants opposed and cross-moved for leave to serve a second amended answer adding certain additional counterclaims. Over a year later, defendants, now pro se, served an amended cross motion with a different proposed second amended answer that contained, among other things, a counterclaim for defamation and new allegations supporting their intentional infliction of emotional distress counterclaim. Plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction enjoining defendants from entering or using plaintiffs' property, as identified in the relevant tax map.

Supreme Court ultimately granted plaintiffs' motion to dismiss defendants' emotional distress counterclaim and claims for counsel fees. The court also denied defendants' cross motion to serve either version of their second amended answer. Finally, as relevant here, the court granted plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction. Defendants appeal from that part of the court's order that granted plaintiffs' motion to dismiss defendants' emotional distress counterclaim and claims for counsel fees, denied defendants' motion for leave to serve a second amended answer, and granted plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction.

Plaintiffs' motion to dismiss defendants' requests for counsel fees targeted certain paragraphs of their amended answer that address counterclaims alleging trespass and a violation of RPAPL 861. [1] Under the general rule, counsel fees are considered incidents of litigation and "cannot be awarded unless authorized by statute, court rule, or agreement between the parties" (Xiaokang Xu v Xiaoling Shirley He, 147 A.D.3d 1223, 1226 [2017] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]; see Hooper Assoc. v AGS Computers, 74 N.Y.2d 487, 491 [1989]). That general rule ordinarily precludes counsel fees in litigation concerning the tort of trespass. Defendants point to no provision in the CPLR or any other statute authorizing an exception to the American Rule that parties are responsible for their own costs of litigation, including counsel fees (see Congel v Malfitano, 31 N.Y.3d 272, 291 [2018]). Additionally, "RPAPL 861 does not permit an award of counsel fees to a prevailing party" (Halstead v Fournia, 134 A.D.3d 1269, 1272 [2015]). Hence, Supreme Court properly granted the portion of plaintiffs' motion seeking to dismiss defendants' claims for counsel fees.

As to plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, a "party seeking a preliminary injunction must demonstrate a probability of success on the merits, danger of irreparable injury in the absence of an injunction and a balance of equities in its favor" (Nobu Next Door, LLC v Fine Arts Hous., Inc., 4 N.Y.3d 839, 840 [2005]; accord Green Harbour Homeowners' Assn., Inc. v Ermiger, 67 A.D.3d 1116, 1117 [2009]; Karabatos v Hagopian, 39 A.D.3d 930, 931 [2007]). The existence of a question of fact "does not prevent a party from establishing a likelihood of success on the merits; success need not be a certainty to obtain a preliminary injunction" (Cooperstown Capital, LLC v Patton, 60 A.D.3d 1251, 1252-1253 [2009]; see XXXX, L.P. v 363 Prospect Place, LLC, 153 A.D.3d 588, 591 [2017]; Lew Beach Co. v Carlson, 57 A.D.3d 1153, 1155 [2008]). The decision to issue a preliminary injunction "is committed to the sound discretion of the trial court" and will not be disturbed unless the court "has either exceeded or abused its discretion as a matter of law" (Waldron v Hoffman, 130 A.D.3d 1239, 1239 [2015] [internal quotation marks, brackets and citations omitted]; see Cooperstown Capital, LLC v Patton, 60 A.D.3d at 1252).

Here, to obtain a preliminary injunction, plaintiffs needed to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits on at least one of their claims. To establish a claim for adverse possession, "the party claiming ownership is required to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the character of the possession is hostile and under a claim of right, actual, open and notorious, exclusive and continuous for the statutory period of 10 years" (McMahon v Thornton, 69 A.D.3d 1157, 1159 [2010] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]; see EPG Assoc., LP v Cascadilla Sch., 194 A.D.3d 1158, 1163 [2021]; LS Mar., LLC v Acme of Saranac, LLC, 174 A.D.3d 1104, 1106 [2019]). "A claim of right means a reasonable basis for the belief that the property belongs to the adverse possessor or property owner" (RPAPL 501 [3]; see Kheel v Molinari, 165 A.D.3d 1576, 1577 [2018], lv denied 32 N.Y.3d 1194 [2019]).

Even though the deeds from defendants to plaintiffs' predecessors in interest and from the predecessors to plaintiffs provide a metes and bounds description of plaintiffs' property that does not include the disputed property, plaintiffs have asserted a claim of right to the property based on the 1987 map (compare McConnell v Wright, 151 A.D.3d 1525, 1526 [2017]; Hess v Baccarat, 210 A.D.2d 544, 545 [1994]). That map, which was filed by Isabella Gillon in June 1987 and incorporated by reference into the deeds, shows the driveway wholly on Lot 2, which is now plaintiffs' property. Plaintiffs aver that they and their predecessors in interest have, since 2005, openly and notoriously used the driveway to drive, park and store vehicles, and other materials, and have never asked for nor received plaintiffs' permission to do so. Contrary to defendant's assertion, plaintiffs' unsuccessful attempt and offer to resolve this property dispute with defendants prior to commencing litigation does not disadvantage plaintiffs in this action, as "a possessor's offer to purchase made after the 10-year statutory period has run will not defeat a valid claim of adverse possession" (2 N. St. Corp. v Getty Saugerties Corp., 68 A.D.3d 1392, 1395 [2009], lv denied 14 N.Y.3d 706 [2010]; compare Larsen v Hanson, 58 A.D.3d 1003, 1004 [2009]). In his affidavit, plaintiff John Petry stated that defendants' tenants have trespassed on his property, that one of the tenants crashed a car into a tree on the property, and that defendants have trespassed onto the property to harass plaintiffs' contractors. Plaintiffs also submitted photographs and police reports to substantiate the trespasses. Therefore, plaintiffs have established a likelihood of success on the merits of their adverse possession claim and irreparable injury.

As defendants have a separate driveway and parking...

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