Rensselaer County Neighbors in “Stump Law” Suit: Who Owned Land On Which Cut Trees Were Located?

This was originally posted on the SGR Blog.

The New York State Legislature has, over the years, passed hundreds of statutes. Some are generally known. But some are obscure. Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law Section 861, known in the trade as the “stump law,” covers allegations that a person impermissibly cut down trees on the property of another. And, as a recent case illustrates, “stump law” litigation raises unique factual and legal issues.

Daniel J. Holser owns rural property in the Town of Poestenkill, Rensselaer County, that adjoins a portion of property owned by Gregory T. Miller and Lauren R. Miller. Holser sued the Millers on December 30, 2016, after discovering that trees had been cut and removed from his property and there was damage to his land, including significant rutting. Alleging that the Millers directed Todd Geerholt and others to remove the trees on their property, the Holsers asserted causes of action for trespass, conversion, negligence and violations of RPAPL 861. Following discovery, Geerholt moved for dismissal of the complaint as untimely. And the Millers moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint against them. Supreme Court denied those motions. Geerholt and the Millers appealed.

A three-year statute of limitations applied to causes of action for conversion and actions to recover damages for an injury to property, including under RPAPL 861, trespass, and negligence. The statute of limitations accrued when such injury would have been apparent, which was when the trees were cut.

To support his motion, Geerholt submitted payment records and timber tallies of the company that purchased the logs to establish the dates of purchase. Those records showed dates from May 2013 to October 2014. Geerholt averred that he began cutting logs in 2013, and the logs he cut in 2014 were on a different portion of the property far removed from the area in controversy. But he had previously testified at a deposition that he was unsure what year he performed the logging and could only state that it occurred sometime between 2010 and 2016. Given that his later affidavit was self-serving and conflicted with his prior testimony, Geerholt failed to prove as a matter of law that the logging occurred prior to December 30, 2013. Thus, Supreme Court did not err in denying Geerholt’s motion.

As to the merits, the Millers primarily argued that they did not intend to have any trees harvested from Holser’s property, and Gregory Miller directed Geerholt to cut trees only on their property. However, the Millers did not submit a deed to their property. Gregory Miller testified that his property had not been surveyed prior to the logging, and he determined the boundary lines by using a football tape measure to connect the lines from survey pins on different neighbors’ properties.

Geerholt testified that Gregory Miller did not provide him with a map or survey but instead personally showed him the property boundary lines and which trees he wanted harvested. The Millers also submitted a survey of the eastern portion of their property conducted in 2018, though it was not clear from the map where the logging occurred in relation to the Millers’ and Holser’s property lines. Contrary to Gregory Miller’s description, the survey map did not portray a stone wall as a boundary line. Oddly, a notation on the survey stated that the lands claimed by Holser were now or formerly owned by his father (from whom he apparently inherited them), but that the land was assessed to the Millers under the same tax map number as their parcel. In sum, the Millers did not conclusively establish that they owned the property where the trees were cut. Moreover, their good faith belief that they owned that property did not absolve them, nor Geerholt, of liability. Accordingly, Supreme Court properly denied the motion as to Gregory Miller. But based on uncontradicted testimony that Lauren Miller had no involvement in or knowledge of the logging transactions, Lauren Miller was entitled to summary judgment dismissing the complaint against her.

The current version of RPAPL 861 was enacted in an effort to deter the illegal taking of timber by increasing the potential damages for that activity. If a person violated RPAPL 861 by cutting another person’s trees without the other’s consent, or by causing such cutting to occur, “an action may be maintained against such person for treble the stumpage value of the tree or timber or [$250] per tree, or both and for any permanent and substantial damage caused to the land or the improvements thereon as a result of such violation”. However, if a defendant in such an action “establishes[,] by clear and convincing evidence, that when the defendant committed the violation, he or she had cause to believe the land was his or her own, . . . then he or she shall be liable for the stumpage value or [$250] per tree, or both”. Thus, “a trespasser’s good faith belief in a legal right to harvest timber does not insulate that person from the imposition of statutory damages but merely saved him or her from having to pay treble damages. Whether treble damages pursuant to RPAPL 861 were warranted was generally a factual determination.

Although Gregory Miller testified that he intended to remove trees only from his own property, the record reflected that he did not have a survey of the property and relied on a determination of the boundary lines based on his own measurements. The Court concluded that a factual question existed, as Gregory Miller had failed at this stage of the proceedings to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he had a good faith belief that he owned the land where the trees were cut. Accordingly, the claim for treble damages must await trial.

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