The Massachusetts Property Law Blog is proud to have Attorney Joseph N. Schneiderman guest blog on an upcoming Appeals Court decision regarding attorney fees for a lis pendens appeal. Attorney Schneiderman is an appellate attorney licensed in Massachusetts and Connecticut and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In DeCicco v. 180 Grant Street, LLC, SJC-12831, the Supreme Judicial Court is considering whether a party may seek appellate attorney’s fees in a lis pendens appeal in addition to attorney’s fees in the trial court.
A memorandum of lis pendens is a judicially endorsed document filed with land records at the Registry of Deeds land indicating that litigation is pending that may affect title to and interest in the land. A comprehensive statute governs issuing and challenging a lis pendens. See e.g. Ferguson v. Maxim, 96 Mass. App. Ct. 385, 388-392 (2019), citing G.L. c.184, §15.
A defendant may challenge the lis pendens by filing a special motion to dismiss the lis pendens as frivolous or “devoid of any reasonable factual support [or] arguable basis in law [or] is subject to dismissal based on a valid legal defense such as the statute of frauds.” G.L. c.184, §15(c).
Filing a special motion to dismiss stays discovery but also expedites the case; the court shall hear the motion within three days of the date “notice of the motion was given to the claimaint.” Ferguson, 96 Mass. App. Ct. at 389, n.12. Whoever loses the special motion to dismiss also has an immediate right to pursue an interlocutory appeal-and the ultimate prevailing party has the right to recover attorney’s fees and costs. Id. , n.13.
This case stems from a purchase and sale agreement for a large, new $2M home in Lexington that went awry. The buyers (DeCicco) later filed a suit asserting breach of contract, implied warranty of good faith and fair dealing and obtained a memorandum of lis pendens.
The sellers (180 Grant Street) brought a special motion to dismiss and dissolve the lis pendens. A judge of the Superior Court allowed the motion to dismiss and concluded that the facts did not support that the buyers and sellers intended to be bound by the purchase and sale agreement-and was therefore frivolous. The judge also awarded slightly less than $18,000 in attorneys fees to the sellers. The buyers unsuccessfully appealed. However, the Appeals Court disagreed with the seller’s claim that the appeal was frivolous and declined to award attorney’s fees and cost on appeal. The sellers successfully sought further appellate review of this specific point.
The case distills to two apparently colliding definitions and applications of the term “frivolous.” As earlier, the lis pendens statute defines frivolous as a claim lacking factual or legal support or barred by an established legal defense. G.L. c.184, §15(c). A trial court that finds a frivolous claim shall award the moving party fees and costs.
On the other hand, an appeal is frivolous when: (1) under settled law, an appellant harbors no reasonable expectation of reversal or (2) when a litigant engages in such egregious conduct during briefing (like personally attacking a party or making claims without any good faith basis) that their conduct fatally quagmires any meritorious arguments. See e.g. Avery v. Steele, 414 Mass. 450, 455-456 (1993), citing, inter alia, Mass. R.A.P. 25.
However,“unpersuasive arguments do not render an appeal frivolous”-the appellate court has broad discretion to determine whether an appeal is frivolous. Steele, 414 Mass. at 455. Put another way, frivolous appeals are very much the exception and not the rule. Compare US Bank National v. Johnson, 96 Mass. App. Ct. 291, 297 (2019) (cleaned up.) (Frivolous claims are “[futile and without] a ‘prayer of a chance.’”)
The buyers argue that the express absence of a provision relating to appellate attorney’s fees in the lis pendens statute should favor them. Indeed, attorney’s fee awards are very much the exception and not the rule in American jurisprudence and in the absence of express authority for attorney’s fees, parties bear their own costs.
On the other hand, the sellers (supported by the Real Estate Bar Association [REBA] as amicus curiae) contend that the 2002 amendments to the lis pendens statute creating the expedited special motion to dismiss function to avoid long clouds over title from litigation. Awards of attorney fees are integral to those amendments to avoid those clouds and not awarding them thwarts that purpose. REBA recalls that before 2002, there was rampant abuse of lis pendens and the 2002 amendments were remedial.
The sellers further emphasize that other fee award statutes that do not explicitly mention appellate attorney’s fees are still inherent in those statutes to fulfill the purpose of those statutes. The sellers and REBA specifically analogize the lis pendens procedure to special motions to dismiss under the Anti-SLAPP statute (G.L. c.231, §59H) where appellate fee awards are available. Compare Ferguson, 96 Mass. App. Ct. at 390-391.
The sellers also argue that, in the context of lis pendens, the definition of frivolous at trial must also follow to an appeal. REBA clarifies this by arguing that the two standards are different and a finding of a frivolous claim for purposes of lis pendens is independent of a frivolous appeal.
On the one hand, the buyer’s points follow the established rule because courts do not add words to a statute that the Legislature explicitly did not include. Commonwealth v. Calvaire, 476 Mass. 242, 245 (2017). Indeed, courts cannot insert otherwise absent words by interpretive “surgery.” Commonwealth v. Dayton, 477 Mass. 224, 226 (2017). Courts also construe statutes creating appellate review strictly. Boston Five Cents Savings Bank v. Assessors of Boston, 317 Mass. 694, 699 (1943).
On the other hand, resolving silence in a statute must also operate to further the statute or statutory scheme. Charbonneau v. Presiding Justice, 473 Mass. 515, 519 (2016). Courts also always interpret statutes as a whole. Silva v. Carmel, 468 Mass. 18, 23 (2014). If attorney’s fees are fundamental to accomplishing how the special motion to dismiss avoiding clouding title, the seller’s and REBA’s points are especially compelling.
One of REBA’s points feels hollow: how often do appeals actually result in dissolution of lis pendens? Put another way, in the context of lis pendens, is frivolous the rule rather than the exception? Having two different standards and applications of “frivolous” are sensible. Compare Commonwealth v. Trussell, 68 Mass App. Ct. 452, 454-459 (2007) (the standard of good cause to file a late appeal in criminal cases is less exacting than in civil cases because of the liberty interests at stake.) But REBA did not discuss or answer that in their brief.
At the same time, appellate review should not be so costly that there would be no review of lis pendens. This would follow from awarding attorney’s fees across the board and would potentially be an absurd and irrational result and is one that courts avoid. Compare i.e. City of Revere v. Gaming Commission, 476 Mass. 591, 606-607 (2017).
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 crisis, unfortunately, the SJC is not hearing oral arguments in this case. Nevertheless, as the SJC often does, they will strike a thoughtful balance between these clashing principles.
Joe Schneiderman practices appellate advocacy exclusively in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Joe recently won, as amicus curiae, Youghal v. Entwistle, 484 Mass. 1019 (2020), involving appellate procedure in eviction cases, and in June 2019, Joe also successfully co-authored and appeared for oral argument on behalf of the amici in the similar case of Ten Diamond Street Realty Trust v. Farrar, 95 Mass. App. Ct. 1118 (No. 19-P-315, Rule 1:28 Decision, June 24, 2019). Joe gratefully thanks Adam for his sixth opportunity to guest blog!