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Faison v Lewis, 25 N.Y.3d 220, 10 N.Y.S.3d 185 [2015]

            In a 4-3 decision, the Court of Appeals held here that claims challenging conveyances or encumbrances based on a forged deed are not subject to statutes of limitations.

            The claim here was that the interest of plaintiff’s decedent, her father Percy Lee Gogins, had been purportedly conveyed to his sister and niece, the defendants Dorothy and Tonya Lewis, by means of a forged deed, recorded in 2001. Plaintiff clearly knew of the claimed forgery as early as 2002, when she commenced an action to set aside the deed. That first action was dismissed for lack of capacity, since plaintiff was not at that time the administrator of Gogins’ estate. In 2009, the defendant Tonya Lewis over $269,000 from Bank of America, secured by a mortgage against the property. By August of 2010, plaintiff had been made administrator of Gogins’ estate, and commenced this action against Dorothy Lewis, Tonya Lewis, Bank of America and others, to declare both the deed and mortgage null and void as based on a forged deed. The defendants raised limitations defenses, and moved to dismiss. The plaintiff cross-moved to strike the defenses.

            A forged deed is void ab initio, that is, void in its inception, it is a legal nullity and conveys no interest at all in the property it purports to transfer. It follows that the holder of such a document has no interest in that property, and a mortgage granted to that holder also conveys no interest in the property. So much is settled law. (Marden v Dorthy, 160 N.Y. 39 [1899])

            The nullity of a forged deed must be distinguished from the status of a deed which was obtained by fraud. A deed obtained by fraud in the inducement is voidable and not void, and unless and until it is set aside it does transfer title to the fraudulent grantee, who may in turn convey an interest to a purchaser in good faith. (Marden v Dorthy, 160 N.Y. at 50)

            The majority in Faison held that the nullity of the void deed led to the conclusion that no limitations period applied. The forged deed being void, its “legal status cannot be changed, regardless of how long it may take for the forgery to be uncovered.”[3] Specifically, a forged deed cannot be regarded as simply a fraud, governed by CPLR 213 (8), even though that contains an extension for delayed discovery of the fraud. The Court analogized the situation of a forged deed with that of an illegal contract, also void in its inception, which carries no limitations period. (see, Riverside Syndicate, Inc. v. Munroe, 10 N.Y.3d 18 [2008]) The mere passage of time, or the expiration of a limitations period, cannot have the effect of validating what the law has expressly rejected.

            The dissent would have held that the discovery provisions of CPLR 213 (8) provide a sufficiently long period in which to discover and challenge a forged deed as well as a merely fraudulent one, and that the interests of protecting interests in property against stale claims mandated its applicability here.