A Monumental Opinion by Judge Accurso in a “Title Raider” Case

Phoenix Pinelands Corp. v. Davidoff, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2021). Today’s opinion by Judge Accurso in this case clocked in at 175 pages. It is the longest opinion of the current Term and may be the longest opinion issued by the Appellate Division since this blog began. Here are the first few paragraphs of the opinion, which amply summarize what followed:

“The State of New Jersey, Department of Environmental Protection, appeals from a final judgment in this quia timet and ejectment action divesting it of its title to seven parcels of land in the Preservation Area of the Pinelands National Reserve, consisting of over 250 acres, and granting title to those properties to an adjoining landowner, plaintiff Phoenix Pinelands Corporation, operator of a grandfathered sand and gravel mine. Desirous of expanding its mining operation and believing the State would be ‘a reluctant seller,’ Phoenix made no attempt to purchase the State’s lands. Instead, Phoenix mounted a surreptitious two-decade-long quest to undermine and cloud the State’s title to the properties and establish its own competing chains of title. Phoenix spent over $1million hiring searchers, surveyors, genealogists and lawyers to exploit potential defects in the State’s titles that, regrettably, are not uncommon in land titles in the Pinelands. It tracked down putative heirs and purchased their fractional interests, sometimes for sums approximating actual value, by way of omnibus quitclaim deeds it drafted for the purpose.

“Then, in an effort to establish a presumption of peaceable possession of the State’s lands, the statutory prerequisite to a quiet title action, N.J.S.A. 2A:62-2, Phoenix, without notice to the State, presented the tax assessor for Little Egg Harbor Township with its newly drawn deeds and chains of title for the State’s properties and asked to be allowed to pay taxes on them. Little Egg Harbor, also without notice to the State, and while continuing to accept the State’s PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) fees for the properties, redrew its tax map at Phoenix’s behest, erasing the State’s parcels and replacing them with a single lot and block designation listing Phoenix as the assessed owner. Phoenix then instituted this action in the Chancery Division seeking equitable relief in the form of the voiding of the State’s recorded deeds.

“Critically, Phoenix held no interest whatsoever in any of the State’s seven properties when it began its quest to undermine the State’s record title and divest it of ownership of all seven parcels. Those actions, which Phoenix readily owns, are anathema to the principles undergirding New Jersey’s land title laws and brand it a ‘title raider,’ one ‘who seeks technical flaws in title in order to upset existing equities and clearly vested rights,’ Palamarg Realty Co.v. Rehac, 159 N.J. Super. 287, 297 (App. Div. 1978), vacated on other grounds, 80 N.J. 446, 453 (1979), and in whose ‘activities’ our courts ‘find no social value or contribution,’ O & Y Old Bridge Dev. Corp. v. Cont’l Searchers, Inc., 120 N.J. 454, 458 (1990) (citing Bron v. Weintraub, 42 N.J. 87, 95 (1964)).

“Phoenix’s nefarious actions permit it no relief in a court of equity. And allowing this judgment to stand risks destabilizing marketable titles in the Pinelands and does not ‘best support and maintain the integrity of the recording system,’ Palamarg, 80 N.J. at 453. Phoenix also did not succeed in establishing its title to six of the seven parcels ‘free from all reasonable doubt,’ Shotwell v. Shotwell, 24 N.J. Eq. 378, 387 (Ch. 1874). We therefore reverse the judgment and remand for reinstatement of title to all seven properties in the State, imposing a constructive trust on the ‘title’ “Phoenix acquired in one of the State’s parcels to which the State is equitably entitled on payment of the sum Phoenix expended in acquiring it, plus simple interest.”

The remainder of the opinion is a tour de force, expounding numerous equitable and title concepts in the context of the particular facts of the seven different properties. There is much to be found in this decision. Those who can take the time to read the entire opinion will benefit from doing so.