By decision of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, Matthew R. Zwick, founding partner of Zwick Law, representing Elizabeth “Louise” Wells and her late husband, William Wells, prevailed on appeal, reversing the trial court’s decision regarding the application of the adverse possession doctrine in Pennsylvania. The Weible v. Wells decision (reported at 156 A.3d 1220) establishes and creates clear legal principles and guidelines for applying the doctrine of adverse possession in Pennsylvania.
In this case, the Superior Court was tasked with deciding whether the statutorily prescribed period to adversely possess land in Pennsylvania is tolled (paused) or started anew (reset) when property is owned and used for a public purpose by political subdivisions (i.e., counties, townships, boroughs, etc.) during the 21-year statute of limitations for the title owner of the land to file an ejectment action against the adverse possessor. The Superior Court, agreeing fully with Attorney Zwick, held that the 21-year statutory period was merely tolled, and did not completely reset, under the circumstances presented in this case.
This civil case was commenced by Rodger Weible, Louise’s next door neighbor, in August 2009, when Weible filed a complaint in ejectment against Louise and her husband, arguing that the Wellses installed landscaping and a driveway that allegedly encroached upon a portion of Weible’s yard.
Louise and her husband purchased their home in Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania, in August 1965. Thereafter, the Wellses caused landscaping and a driveway to be installed at their residence in 1974 and 1979, respectively. The Wellses’ landscaping and driveway remained in substantially the same condition and configuration from the respective dates of installation through the time of trial in September 2015 (and as of the date of this article).
From May 30, 1995 through December 22, 1998, the property now owned by Weible was owned by Jefferson County and Clearfield County, political subdivisions of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, operating through the Clearfield-Jefferson Mental Health/Mental Retardation Program. Weible purchased the property from Jefferson and Clearfield Counties by deed dated December 22, 1998.
The Wellses and Weible lived next to each other without incident until 2008. In 2008, a tree fell and caused damage to powerlines surrounding the residential lots. Louise and her husband offered to pay the Borough of Reynoldsville to repair the powerlines; however, they were informed that the fallen tree had come from Weible’s property and that they were not responsible for the cost of repairs. After the Borough attempted to collect payment from Weible for the damage, Weible hired a local surveyor to survey his property to delineate the boundary line between his lot and the lot owned by the Wellses. When Weible discovered that the Wellses’ landscaping and driveway appeared to encroach upon property that he believed he owned, Weible requested that the Wellses remove the landscaping. The instant legal battle ensued.
The Trial Court Proceedings
Weible’s civil complaint was intended to eject, or remove, the Wellses and their landscaping and driveway from the disputed property. The Wellses raised the defense of adverse possession and countersued Weible asserting ownership of the property in question by virtue of adverse possession. After a non-jury trial on September 11, 2015, the trial court of Jefferson County, Pennsylvania, found that, because Weible had received his residential lot from a political subdivision (i.e., Jefferson and Clearfield Counties), the Wellses were required to establish their exclusive, adverse possession of the property for 21 years from the date of conveyance from the Counties to Weible in 1998.
As twenty-one (21) years had not passed when Weible filed suit against the Wellses in 2009, the trial court ordered the Wellses to be ejected from the property. Louise Wells, represented by Zwick Law, appealed this decision by the lower court.
What is Adverse Possession?
The doctrine of adverse possession is a legal concept that allows a trespasser – sometimes a stranger, but more often a neighbor – to gain legal title over land that was once owned by someone else. The doctrine has developed as a way to achieve a fair result when a land owner has neglected or forgotten about a piece or portion of land, while another has been in possession of and using the land for an extended period of time, such that forcing that person, i.e., the adverse possessor, to depart or vacate the land would create hardship and/or inequity.
Adverse possession in Pennsylvania is established based on the character of a trespasser’s possession and the length of time he possesses the land in question. Under Pennsylvania law, to sustain a claim for title to real property through adverse possession, a litigant must prove her actual, continuous, open, notorious, exclusive, distinct, hostile, and adverse possession of the property in dispute for a period in excess of twenty-one (21) years.
While actions in ejectment are commonly employed by the rightful owner of land to recover property from those who have unauthorized possession of the disputed land, the rightful owner must commence an action in ejection within 21 years from the initial date of the unauthorized use.
The Superior Court Appeal
On appeal, Attorney Zwick successfully briefed and argued that Louise and her husband had adversely possessed and exclusively used the disputed property for 21 continuous years without actual interruption by Weible or any of his predecessors-in-interest. Upon review and oral argument, the Superior Court agreed and reversed the trial court’s decision, ruling that, although the disputed property had been owned by the Counties from 1995 through 1998, during which time the Counties would have been immune from claims of adverse possession themselves, the 21-year statutory period was merely tolled (or paused), rather than reset due to the Counties’ ownership. The statutory clock began to run again once the disputed property returned to Weible’s private ownership.
Newly Established Law on Adverse Possession
Thus, because the landscaping and driveway that were installed by Louise and her husband in the mid- to late-1970s remained in the same place and configuration through the date of trial in 2015, the Wellses “adversely” possessed the disputed property for well over 21 years. The Superior Court, therefore, reversed the trial court’s ruling and remanded the case for entry of an order vesting ownership of the disputed property in Louise Wells by virtue of adverse possession.
On behalf of its client, Zwick Law clarified and developed new adverse possession case law in Pennsylvania. This case illustrates how important it is to have aggressive attorneys fighting for you. The skilled litigation attorneys at Zwick Law are dedicated to preserving the legal rights of our clients. For a free consultation and case analysis, contact either our DuBois or Brookville office today. At Zwick Law, we are always here for you.