Simmons Alleged That Forged Deed Gave Bell Title to Real Property in Queens

Was Motion to Dismiss Properly Denied– Was Suit Time-Barred?

Bessie Rogers ( Derrick Simmons’ decedent)  acquired title to real property located in Queens in 1987. Simmons started an action, pursuant to RPAPL article 15,  to quiet title to the property and for a judgment declaring that a deed allegedly executed in 1998 by Rogers, which gave Alfred Bell and others an interest in the property, was forged and was, therefore, void.  Simmons also sought to recover the proceeds of a subsequent sale of the property in 2007, of which Bell allegedly took possession, and was not entitled to on account of the forged deed.

Bell moved to dismiss the complaint as barred by the statute of limitations. Supreme Court denied the motion. Bell appealed.

Supreme Court properly determined that the complaint was not subject to dismissal as time-barred. Bell failed to meet the initial burden of establishing, prima facie, that the time in which to bring the action expired. The substance of a cause of action, not its form, was the controlling consideration in determining the applicable statute of limitations.. Thus, the six-year statute of limitations for fraud  did not apply to the causes of action which sought a declaration that the deed allegedly executed in 1998 was a nullity on the ground that is it forged. A forged deed, as opposed to a deed obtained by fraud,  is void ab initio and does not convey title. And a statute of limitations does not make an agreement that was void at its inception valid by the mere passage of time.

Because Simmons was seeking to quiet title and recover possession of the property, the statute of limitations  was 10 years from possession.  Rogers was in possession of the property within 10 years of the commencement of thes action. Accordingly, Supreme Court properly determined that this action was not barred by the statute of limitations.

And Supreme Court properly determined that the complaint was not subject to dismissal on the grounds of laches and equitable estoppel. Laches operates as a bar in a court of equity when there had been considerable delay in bringing a claim, resulting in prejudice to the opposing party. Laches requires (1) conduct by an offending party giving rise to the situation complained of,  (2) delay by the complainant in asserting his or her claim for relief despite the opportunity to do so, (3) lack of knowledge or notice on the part of the offending party that the complainant would assert his or her claim for relief, and (4) injury or prejudice to the offending party in the event that relief was accorded the complainant. Laches does not apply unless the facts establish equitable estoppel, which applies when a property owner inexcusably delayed in asserting a claim to the property, knowing that the opposing party had changed their position to their irreversible detriment.

Here, Bell failed to show that Simmons inexcusably delayed in asserting the allegation that the deed was forged. The allegation was, in fact, raised in a prior action commenced in 2008 and transferred to the Civil Court, which did not have jurisdiction over the cause of action pursuant to RPAPL article 15. Bell also failed to establish  an irreversibly detrimental change of position simply by defending the action in Civil Court. And in alleging that Bell forged the 1998 deed and improperly retained the 2007 sale proceeds, Simmons alleged that Bell had unclean hands. The equitable defense of laches was not available to a party with unclean hands.

Supreme Court also properly determined that the complaint was not subject to dismissal  based on documentary evidence. A cause of action may be  so dismissed  only if  the documentary evidence utterly refutes the underlying allegations and conclusively establishes a defense as a matter of law. Bell correctly contended that the 1998 deed qualified as documentary evidence. But the 1998 did not utterly refute Simmons’s allegations and conclusively dispose of Simmons’ causes of action as a matter of law. The 1998 deed contained a notary’s acknowledgment and certification of the acknowledgment in the manner prescribed by law for taking and certifying the acknowledgment or proof of a conveyance of real property within the state. But while the certification was prima facie evidence that the deed was executed by the person who purported to do so, the notary’s acknowledgment alone did not utterly refute the allegation that the 1998 deed was forged. Rather, it merely raised a presumption of due execution.

Supreme Court also properly determined that the complaint was not subject to dismissal for failure to state a cause of action. In considering such a motion to dismiss, the Court was required to accept the facts as alleged in the complaint as true, accord those allegations the benefit of every possible favorable inference, and determine whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory. If the court considers evidentiary material on a motion to dismiss, the criterion becomes whether the plaintiff has a cause of action, not whether he or she has stated one, The motion must be denied  unless it has been shown that a material fact as claimed by the plaintiff] o be one is not a fact at all and unless it could be said that no significant dispute exists regarding it.

Here, the complaint stated a cause of action to quiet title pursuant to RPAPL article 15. Simmons alleged actual or constructive possession of the property by Rogers prior to the sale in 2007 and the existence of an apparent title by deed that was actually invalid or inoperative . Concomitantly, the complaint stated a cause of action, based on the allegedly forged deed, to recover damages from the subsequent sale of the property. Bell did not submit evidence conclusively proving that Simmons was not entitled to damages representing the proceeds of the sale, where it was alleged that Bell  held no interest in the property.

Supreme Court properly denied Bell’s motion to dismiss Simmons’ complaint.

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