D and P owned property lots next to one another. They were small 25ftx100ft properties.
D made changes to the house in 1946 and built steps. In 1953 he raised the house and extended the steps.
This made the steps encroach onto P's property by 15 inches. D did not mean to encroach, and thought that the steps were still on D's property.
In 1969, P made a claim for trespass. D countered with a declaratory judgment for adverse possession.
Lower court held for P because D did not mean to encroach, and therefore did not satisfy the "hostile" element of adverse possession.
NJ SC reversed and remanded to address:
Whether the true owner had actual knowledge of the encroachment
If not, whether Ps should be obliged to convey the disputed tract to D, and
If they should, what consideration should be paid for the conveyance.
First issue: Does an entry and continuance of possession under the mistaken belief that the possessor has title to the lands involved exhibits the requisite hostile possession to sustain the obtaining of title by adverse possession?
Second issue: Does D's construction of stairs that encroach 15" onto P's property fulfill the requirement of "open and notorious" possession?
Any entry and possession for the required time that is exclusive, continuous, uninterrupted, visible and notorious is sufficient, even if it is based on mistaken claim of title.
When encroachment is not clearly apparent to the naked eye, only if the owner had actual knowledge of the encroachment can the possession be said to be open and notorious.
However, if the innocent trespasser of a small portion of land cannot without great expense or burden eliminate the encroachment, the true owner may be forced to convey the land to the possessor for payment of fair value of the land.
The Maine doctrine, which is the rule that possession as an element of title by adverse possession cannot be bottomed on mistake and that the intention of the possessor to claim adversely is an essential ingredient to adverse possession, is one potential option.
The other branch relies on French v. Pearce, which says that the court does not inquire into adverse possessor's mind, his motives, purposes, guilt or innocence.
Maine doctrine has been criticized as inexpedient, historically unsound, and resulting in better treatment for a ruthless wrongdoer than for the honest landowner. NJ SC agrees with these criticisms.
Whether or not the entry is caused by mistake or intent, in either case the true owner is ousted from possession because he neglected to seek recovery of possession within the allotted time.
However, the possession must be open and notorious. Reasons for this requirement:
The whole moral justification for adverse possession is that one who has reason to know that land belongs to him is in the possession of another and who neglects to do anything about it may be properly penalized.
Owner must have the opportunity to learn of the adverse claim.
When possession is clear and unequivocal and visible, owner can be presumed to have had knowledge of the encroachment. However, when encroachment is not clearly apparent to the naked eye, such a presumption is unwarranted.
In such cases, only if the owner had actual knowledge of the encroachment can the possession be said to be open and notorious.