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Some fun for your Thursday

Do the New York state courts believe in ghosts?

That’s the question The Legal Genealogist has to consider now that the case of Stambovsky v. Ackley has crossed this blog-writer’s radar.

ghost.BlackTenshiIt’s a 1991 decision of the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court,1 and you can read it yourself, online.2

And the opinion begins:

Plaintiff, to his horror, discovered that the house he had recently contracted to purchase was widely reputed to be possessed by poltergeists, reportedly seen by defendant seller and members of her family on numerous occasions over the last nine years. Plaintiff promptly commenced this action seeking rescission of the contract of sale. (The) Supreme Court reluctantly dismissed the complaint, holding that plaintiff has no remedy at law in this jurisdiction.3

Here, according to the court, were the facts:

… (T)he buyer …, as a resident of New York City, cannot be expected to have any familiarity with the folklore of the Village of Nyack. Not being a “local”, plaintiff could not readily learn that the home he had contracted to purchase is haunted. Whether the source of the spectral apparitions seen by defendant seller are parapsychic or psychogenic, having reported their presence in both a national publication (Readers’ Digest) and the local press (in 1977 and 1982, respectively), … no divination is required to conclude that it is defendant’s promotional efforts in publicizing her close encounters with these spirits which fostered the home’s reputation in the community. In 1989, the house was included in five-home walking tour of Nyack and described in a November 27th newspaper article as “a riverfront Victorian (with ghost).”4

The opinion was written for the court by Justice Israel Rubin, a graduate of St. John’s University both undergraduate and law school who became a judge in 1973, rising to the Appellate Division in 1989. He served on the Appellate Division until he reached mandatory retirement age in 2002; he died in 2014.5

And he was no slouch in the mental capacity departmemt:

Justice Rubin was an adjunct professor at St. John’s University School of Law, a frequent author and lecturer, and had won numerous professional awards, including the Distinguished Judicial Service Award from the New York County Lawyers’ Association; the Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone Memorial Award from the Association of Trial Lawyers of the City of New York; and the Benjamin N. Cardozo Award from the Jewish Lawyers Guild. In addition, he received an Honorary Doctorate from St. John’s University School of Law in 1992.6

And yet… and yet… with all that brain power, with all that experience and all those smarts, Justice Rubin still wrote some of the most amazing words ever to appear in a court opinion:

“As a matter of law,” he wrote, “the house is haunted.7

Now don’t go off the rails here, folks. I know very well that what the good judge was really saying was that the seller of the house couldn’t have it both ways: the seller couldn’t make a buck by telling the locals the house was haunted and then turn around and not tell the buyer about the reputation the sellers had been building up for the house.

Justice Rubin went on to note that “Where a condition which has been created by the seller materially impairs the value of the contract and is peculiarly within the knowledge of the seller or unlikely to be discovered by a prudent purchaser exercising due care with respect to the subject transaction, nondisclosure constitutes a basis for rescission as a matter of equity.”8 To hold otherwise — to put the duty to discover the issue on the buyer —

conjures up visions of a psychic or medium routinely accompanying the structural engineer and Terminix man on an inspection of every home subject to a contract of sale. It portends that the prudent attorney will establish an escrow account lest the subject of the transaction come back to haunt him and his client — or pray that his malpractice insurance coverage extends to supernatural disasters. In the interest of avoiding such untenable consequences, the notion that a haunting is a condition which can and should be ascertained upon reasonable inspection of the premises is a hobgoblin which should be exorcised from the body of legal precedent and laid quietly to rest.9

So it really is a legally defensible — and quite reasonable — decision.

Except …

Don’t you just love the idea of writing up a family history, or a family house history, that includes a positive assertion by a learned jurist that…

“As a matter of law, the house is haunted.

And people wonder why I love court records…


SOURCES

Image: OpenClipArt.org, user BlackTenshi.

  1. Don’t get confused here. The Supreme Court in New York isn’t really a supreme court at all; it’s a trial level court. From that trial court, you get an appeal to the Appellate Division, and then to the New York Court of Appeals. It’s that Court of Appeals that — anywhere else — would be called the Supreme Court.
  2. Stambovsky v. Ackley, 169 AD 2d 254 (N.Y. Appellate Div., 1st Dept. 1991); online at Google Scholar (https://scholar.google.com/scholar?as_sdt=6,31&hl=en : accessed 16 Sep 2015).
  3. Stambovsky v. Ackley, 169 AD 2d at 255-256.
  4. Ibid. at 256.
  5. Israel Rubin,” Justices of the Court (Historical), Appellate Division, First Judicial Department, Supreme Court of the State of New York (http://www.nycourts.gov/courts/ad1/ : accessed 16 Sep 2014).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Stambovsky v. Ackley, 169 AD 2d at 256.
  8. Ibid. at 259.
  9. Ibid. at 257.
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