Land Court Jurisdiction Over Cases Affecting Title to Registered Land: How Exclusive is Exclusive?

by Donald R. Pinto, Jr.

Legal Analysis

Introduction

The Massachusetts Land Court is one of a kind. Created in 1898 to administer the then-new land registration system, the court’s jurisdiction has since expanded to encompass an extraordinarily wide range of real estate and land use disputes. The only other state with a Land Court is Hawaii, and that court’s jurisdiction remains limited to land registration matters.[1] The Massachusetts Land Court stands alone as the nation’s only all-purpose real estate specialty court.

Among the many types of cases it now hears, the Land Court has exclusive original jurisdiction over complaints for the confirmation and registration of land, as well as (except for certain domestic relations cases), “[c]omplaints affecting title to registered land . . . .” M.G.L. c. 185, §§ 1(a) & 1(a ½). From time to time this provision prompts questions concerning the jurisdiction of other trial courts over claims involving registered land. The Appeals Court recently addressed such a question in Johnson v. Christ Apostle Church, Mt. Bethel, 99 Mass. App. Ct. 699 (2019). Before turning to Johnson, some background on the development of the Land Court’s expansive jurisdiction will provide useful context.

The Evolution of the Land Court’s Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Originally named the Court of Registration, the Land Court was created by Chapter 562 of the Acts of 1898. The court’s jurisdiction was limited to “exclusive original jurisdiction over all applications for the registration of title to land within the Commonwealth, with power to hear and determine all questions arising upon such applications, and also . . . jurisdiction over such other questions as may come before it under this act . . . .” After a brief period as the Court of Land Registration, in 1904 the court was re-named the Land Court and its exclusive original jurisdiction was expanded to include four causes previously heard by the Superior Court: writs of entry; petitions to require actions to try title; petitions to determine the validity of encumbrances; and petitions to discharge mortgages.[2] During the next 15 years the court was given exclusive original jurisdiction over petitions to: determine the boundaries of tidal flats (another transfer from the Superior Court);[3] determine the existence and extent of a person’s authority to transfer interests in real estate;[4] determine the enforceability of equitable restrictions on land;[5] foreclose tax titles;[6] and determine county, city, town, and district boundaries.[7]

The 1930s saw an even greater expansion of the Land Court’s jurisdiction. In 1931, the court was given original jurisdiction concurrent with the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) and the Superior Court over suits in equity to quiet or establish title to land and to remove clouds from title.[8] In 1934, one of the most significant expansions of Land Court jurisdiction occurred: the court was given original jurisdiction concurrent with the SJC and the Superior Court over “[a]ll cases and matters of equity cognizable under the general principles of equity jurisprudence where any right, title or interest in land is involved, except suits in equity for specific performance of contracts.”[9] In 1934 and 1935, the court also was given exclusive original jurisdiction over petitions under M.G.L. c. 240, § 14A to determine the validity and extent of municipal zoning ordinances, bylaws, and regulations,[10] and original jurisdiction concurrent with the SJC and the Superior Court over suits in equity involving: redemption of tax titles; claims between joint trustees, co-executors and co-administrators; fraudulently conveyed real estate; and conveyances of real estate to municipalities, counties, and other subdivisions of the Commonwealth for specific purposes.[11]

The Land Court’s jurisdiction remained relatively static for the next 40 years. In 1975, the legislature enacted the Zoning Act, M.G.L. c. 40A, and the court’s existing jurisdiction under M.G.L. c. 240, § 14A, was broadened, empowering it to hear (concurrently with the Superior Court) appeals from zoning boards of appeals and special permit granting authorities.[12] Jurisdiction over appeals from planning board decisions under the subdivision control law was added in 1982.[13]

In 1986, in response to confusion over the scope of the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction over the land registration system – particularly regarding other trial courts’ ability to decide claims involving registered land – the legislature added to the Land Court’s list of exclusive jurisdictional grants, “[c]omplaints affecting title to registered land . . . .”[14] As will be discussed below, while this language clarified the issue to a degree, it left important questions unanswered.

In 2002, the Land Court’s jurisdiction was again significantly expanded. The court was given original jurisdiction concurrent with the Probate and Family Court (the “Probate Court”) over petitions for partition,[15] and original jurisdiction concurrent with the SJC and the Superior Court over civil actions for trespass to real estate and actions for specific performance of contracts where any right, title, or interest in land is involved.  The legislation also expanded the court’s jurisdiction over land-use disputes, granting the court jurisdiction to hear certiorari and mandamus actions under M.G.L. c. 249, §§ 4 and 5 where any right, title, or interest in land is involved “or which arise under or involve the subdivision control law, the zoning act, or municipal zoning, subdivision, or land-use ordinances, by-laws or regulations.”  Two notable exceptions to this latter grant of jurisdiction are appeals from decisions of conservation commissions under local wetlands protection ordinances and bylaws and appeals from decisions of boards of health under Title 5 of the state sanitary code.

The most recent expansion of the Land Court’s jurisdiction occurred in 2006, when the legislature established a special “permit session” within the court.[16] This special session provides more intensive case management and expedited handling of cases involving larger real estate developments, defined as those comprising 25 or more dwelling units, or 25,000 or more square feet of gross floor area, or both.[17] In cases accepted into the permit session, the Land Court’s original jurisdiction (which is concurrent with the Superior Court) is even more expansive than its regular jurisdiction, encompassing virtually every type of local, regional, and state land-use permit, approval, order, and certificate. This sweeping jurisdiction includes, for example, appeals from decisions under the Boston zoning code, local wetlands protection ordinances and bylaws, and Title 5 of the state sanitary code – actions that are outside the Land Court’s regular jurisdiction.

It should be noted that in addition to the elements of the Land Court’s jurisdiction compiled in M.G.L. c. 185, § 1, and its permit session jurisdiction set forth in M.G.L. c. 185, § 3A, other statutes confer jurisdiction on the Land Court over other categories of cases. Two notable examples are M.G.L. c. 240, §§ 10A, which gives the Land Court jurisdiction concurrent with the Superior Court over actions to determine the scope and enforceability of restrictions on land, and St. 1943, c. 57, under which the court has jurisdiction concurrent with the Superior Court over suits in equity to determine, in connection with mortgage foreclosures, whether the mortgagor is a servicemember entitled to protection under the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, 50 U.S.C.A. § 3901.

St. 1986, c. 463, § 1

Before 1986, there was uncertainty over the extent to which trial courts other than the Land Court could decide cases involving registered land. For example, a damages claim for breach of a purchase and sale agreement for a parcel of registered land does not affect the title to that land, and thus can be brought in Superior Court. However, a case involving the scope of an easement over registered land presents a more difficult question. In Deacy v. Berberian, 344 Mass. 321 (1962), the plaintiff filed suit in Superior Court seeking to enjoin the defendants from interfering with her use of a right of way over registered land. Based on the language of the original Land Court decree, the defendants claimed that the plaintiff’s use of the way was limited to passage “on foot and with teams,” and that passage by automobiles was precluded. 344 Mass. at 326. On appeal from a judgment for the plaintiff, the defendants argued that the Superior Court lacked jurisdiction to decide the issue. Id. at 328. In response the SJC stated, without further comment or analysis, “[w]e are of opinion [sic] that the purposes of the Land Court Act are not violated by the Superior Court interpreting the original decree so as to give effect to a common mode of transportation.” Id.  Similarly, in Cesarone v. Femino, 340 Mass. 638 (1960), the plaintiff filed suit in Superior Court seeking a declaration that he was the owner of a parcel of registered land because his signature on a deed purportedly conveying that parcel was forged. 340 Mass. at 639. On appeal from a judgment for the plaintiff, the defendants argued that because it involved ownership of registered land, the plaintiff’s claim was within the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction. Id. The SJC disagreed, characterizing the claim as one based on general principles of equity, concluding, “it appears that either the Land Court or the Superior Court could take jurisdiction.” Id. at 639-640.

In an effort to clarify the scope of the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction over registered land and, by implication, the scope of other courts’ jurisdiction over cases involving registered land, in 1986 the legislature – as noted above – amended the court’s main jurisdictional statute, M.G.L. c. 185, § 1, to provide that the court has exclusive jurisdiction over “[c]omplaints affecting title to registered land . . . .” St. 1986, c. 463, § 1; M.G.L. c. 185, §1(a ½). However, it appears this amendment has failed in its mission: while the question whether a claim “affects title” to registered land seems like a simple one, in practice it has proved difficult for our appellate courts to answer in a consistent fashion.

Johnson v. Christ Apostle Church, Mt. Bethel

Such a question was at the center of the Appeals Court’s decision in Johnson v. Christ Apostle Church, Mt. Bethel, 96 Mass. App. Ct. 699 (2019). Johnson involved a dispute between the plaintiff homeowner (“Johnson”) and an adjacent church over Johnson’s use of a driveway on the church’s property that provided access to Johnson’s property. Both properties are registered land. 96 Mass. App. Ct. at 700. After years of peaceful coexistence, in 2013, the church installed a six-foot fence on the property line, which prevented Johnson from continuing to use the driveway. Id. Johnson filed suit in Superior Court asserting claims of negligence, adverse possession, and violation of the “spite fence” statute, M.G.L. c. 49, § 21, which deems certain fences a form of private nuisance. Id. After a trial solely on the nuisance claim, the court ruled for Johnson and ordered the church to install gates in its fence to restore Johnson’s access. Id. at 700-701.

On appeal, though neither side raised the issue, the Appeals Court vacated the judgment on the ground that it effectively granted Johnson “a permanent easement to use the church’s property.” Id. at 701. Citing M.G.L. c. 185, §1(a ½), the Appeals Court held, “[t]he Superior Court does not have jurisdiction to so encumber registered land.” Id. In support of its holding the Appeals Court cited Feinzig v. Ficksman, 42 Mass. App. Ct. 113 (1997), which also involved use of a driveway on registered land. In Feinzig, the Superior Court had entered a judgment enjoining the defendant from interfering with the plaintiffs’ use of the defendant’s land. 42 Mass. App. Ct. at 115. The Appeals Court vacated that judgment, characterizing it as “a de facto encumbrance in the nature of an easement” that affected the defendant’s registered title, and therefore was within the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction and outside the jurisdiction of the Superior Court. Id. at 117. The Appeals Court observed, “while a Superior Court judge may order the discontinuance of a trespass on registered land, that judge may not fashion a judgment which has the effect of imposing an encumbrance on the registered title.” Id. at 115-116.

The Appeals Court’s Johnson decision omits any reference to O’Donnell v. O’Donnell, 74 Mass. App. Ct. 409 (2009), a decision that is hard to square with Johnson. In O’Donnell, the defendant mother was embroiled in litigation in the Probate Court with one of her sons over the validity of deeds to two parcels of registered land. 74 Mass. App. Ct. at 411. The mother claimed that those deeds had been procured by undue influence and fraud, and in breach of the son’s fiduciary duty. Id. The son unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the Probate Court action on the ground that it fell within the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction over registered land. Id. In response, the son and his brothers filed a new case in the Land Court seeking a declaration that the deeds were valid. Id. The Land Court dismissed that case on the ground of the prior pending Probate Court action, concluding that the judgment the mother sought in the Probate Court “would not of its own force purport to modify the registered title,” and therefore did not intrude on the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction over claims “affecting title to registered land.” Id. The Appeals Court affirmed, noting that both the Land Court and the Probate Court have general equity jurisdiction and can decide claims concerning registered land, “as long as the action desired would not have the effect of altering the registered title.” Id. at 412, citing Steele v. Kelley, 46 Mass. App. Ct. 712, 725 (1999). The Appeals Court added that, if a Probate Court judge were to find the deeds valid, “they still would represent no more than ‘a contract between the parties, and . . . evidence of authority to the recorder or assistant recorder [of the Land Court] to make registration.’ A separate act of registration would remain necessary to modify the title directly.” Id., quoting Steele, supra.

It is true that under our system of land registration, with a few narrow exceptions, no matter can formally affect a registered title unless it appears in the certificate of title or is noted on that certificate’s memorandum of encumbrances. M.G.L. c. 185, § 57 crisply states, “[t]he act of registration only shall be the operative act to convey or affect the land.” This is the principle on which O’Donnell rests. But if the Probate Court can enter a judgment determining the validity of a deed to registered land because that judgment itself does not affect the title, why is the Superior Court, in the exercise of its equity jurisdiction, precluded from entering a judgment ordering a defendant to install gates in its fence so that the plaintiff can use the defendant’s registered land (Johnson), or enjoining a defendant from interfering with the plaintiffs’ use of the defendant’s registered land (Feinzig)? After all, such judgments would not of their own force purport to modify the registered title. They would stand simply as adjudications of the parties’ respective rights, and “evidence of authority to the recorder or assistant recorder to make registration.” O’Donnell, supra at 412. Under the reasoning of O’Donnell, it appears, other courts would be free to adjudicate virtually any dispute involving registered land – not only claims concerning the validity of deeds, but claims involving easements and other lesser interests in registered land.

If there is a reasoned way to harmonize the Johnson/Feinzig view of the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction over registered land with the O’Donnell view, it is not readily apparent. The Johnson/Feinzig view is preferable in that it comports with the legislature’s presumed intent in 1986 to curb decisions like Deacy and Cesarone, supra, and reserve most disputes involving registered land for resolution by the Land Court, which is solely responsible for administering the registration system and has over a century of expertise in handling such disputes. The distinction that the Feinzig court drew between a claim of trespass on registered land, which does not affect title (at least where the trespasser claims no rights in the land), and a claim of a right to use registered land (whether direct or de facto), which does affect title, is sound and consistent with M.G.L. c. 185, §1(a ½). The O’Donnell view, in contrast, allows for no limiting principle and could lead to a significant erosion of the Land Court’s exclusive jurisdiction over registered land. The real estate bar will be grateful if a future appellate decision resolves the contradiction between these two approaches and finally provides the clarity that the legislature sought to achieve in 1986.

[1]See HRS § 501-1.

[2] St. 1904, c. 448, § 1.

[3] St. 1906, c. 50, § 1.

[4] St. 1906, c. 344, § 1.

[5] St. 1915, c. 112, § 1.

[6] St. 1915, c. 237, § 3.

[7] St. 1919, c. 262, § 1.

[8] St. 1931, c. 387, § 1.

[9] St. 1934, c. 67, § 1.

[10] St. 1934, c. 263, § 1.

[11] St. 1935, c. 318, §§ 1-5.

[12] St. 1975, c. 808, § 3.

[13] St. 1982, c. 533, §§ 1 & 2.

[14] St. 1986, c. 463, § 1.

[15] St. 2002, c. 393.

[16] St. 2006, c. 205, § 15.

[17] M.G.L. c. 185, § 3A.

 

Donald R. Pinto, Jr. is a partner of Pierce Atwood LLP based in the firm’s Boston office. He has over 30 years of experience representing clients in all aspects of real estate and land-use litigation in the trial and appellate courts.



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