Paul Smith’s College of Arts & Sciences v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg

130 N.Y.S.3d 547 (2021)

Quick Summary

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Paul Smith’s College (plaintiff) and Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg (defendant) disputed ownership of land originally deeded for church purposes. The college claimed ownership after the diocese ceased religious services.

The central issue was whether cessation constituted a breach reverting ownership.

The Appellate Court ruled that upon breach, ownership reverted automatically to Paul Smith’s College because the original deed established a fee on limitation with possibility of reverter.

Facts of the Case

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In the late 19th century, the Paul Smith Hotel Company (the hotel) transferred a piece of land to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg (the diocese) (defendant), with a clear stipulation that the land was to be used exclusively for church purposes.

The agreement included a clause that should the land be used for anything other than church purposes, the deed would become void, and the hotel would have the right to reclaim the property. Fast forward to 1963, and the hotel delegated all reentry rights to Paul Smith’s College of Arts and Sciences (the college) (plaintiff).

Years later, in 2015, the diocese decided that the church on the land would no longer serve religious functions and began removing sacred objects. This action prompted the college to assert its ownership over the land, claiming the diocese had breached the original agreement. The diocese contested this, leading to legal proceedings to establish rightful ownership.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. The college filed an action seeking a declaratory judgment that it owned the land due to the diocese’s breach of use.
  2. The diocese argued it owned the property in fee simple and any reentry rights were extinguished by the 1963 deed.
  3. The trial court ruled in favor of the diocese, stating that the right of reentry had been extinguished with the 1963 deed.
  4. The college appealed the trial court’s decision.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg’s cessation of church services and removal of sacred objects constituted a breach of the original deed’s conditions, thus reverting ownership of the property to Paul Smith’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Rule of Law

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At common law, a grantor retains a possibility of reverter automatically upon a grantee’s failure to adhere to a deed’s stipulated conditions, as opposed to a condition subsequent which requires active reentry by the grantor to reclaim the property.

Reasoning and Analysis

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The Appellate Court scrutinized the original 1896 deed and emphasized the term ‘void’ used in it, which indicated an automatic reversion of property rights back to the grantor upon breach of conditions, rather than creating a condition subsequent.

The Court found that the language of ‘right to re-enter’ in the 1896 deed did not imply a permissive condition but rather supported an automatic forfeiture. Therefore, it was concluded that the original deed established a fee on limitation with a possibility of reverter, not subject to a condition subsequent.

Furthermore, contrary to the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Court determined that the 1963 deed did not extinguish this possibility of reverter and instead validly transferred it from the hotel to the college. The cessation of church services by the diocese in 2015 was deemed a breach of this limitation, thus triggering an automatic reversion of property rights to Paul Smith’s College.


Conclusion Icon

The Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s decision, denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment, granted plaintiff’s cross motion for summary judgment, and declared that Paul Smith’s College is the owner in fee simple of the subject property.

Key Takeaways

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  1. A possibility of reverter automatically returns property rights to a grantor if grantee violates conditions set in an original deed.
  2. The term ‘void’ in a deed signifies an automatic reversion as opposed to ‘voidable,’ which requires active reentry by a grantor.
  3. The Appellate Court found that rights under a possibility of reverter are transferable, and thus were validly passed from Paul Smith Hotel Company to Paul Smith’s College in 1963.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What differentiates a 'fee simple determinable' from other types of fee simple estates in property law?

A ‘fee simple determinable’ is a type of fee simple estate that automatically terminates and reverts to the grantor upon the occurrence of a specified event, without the need for any additional action by the grantor. It’s marked by language such as ‘so long as,’ ‘while,’ or ‘during’ in a deed.

  • For example: If an individual donates land to a city with the provision that it must be used for a park, and it states ‘so long as’ the land is used for that purpose, the estate would automatically revert to the original owner if the city builds a library there instead.

How can the right of reentry in a deed impact the enforcement of conditions subsequent to property transactions?

The right of reentry allows a grantor to reclaim ownership of property if a condition specified in the deed is breached by the grantee. However, this right must be expressly stated and requires affirmative action by the grantor to enforce it, unlike an automatic revertible interest.

  • For example: If a non-profit organization is granted land on condition it remains undeveloped, and years later, they attempt to build on it, the original owner must actively enforce their right of reentry to reclaim the property.

What does 'possibility of reverter' mean concerning conditions placed on real estate deeds?

‘Possibility of reverter’ refers to the potential that property ownership will revert back to the grantor if a condition set forth in the deed is violated by the grantee. Unlike conditions subsequent requiring active reclaiming procedures, this creates an automatic transition of ownership upon breach.

  • For example: A landowner gives property to a school with the stipulation that it must be used for educational purposes indefinitely; if the school decides to use it as commercial real estate, ownership would automatically revert back to the original landowner.


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