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.


SCVNGR, Inc. v. Punchh, Inc.: The SJC Instructs Trial Courts and Litigants on Analyzing Challenges to Personal Jurisdiction

fraywitzerby Evan Fray-Witzer

Case Focus

In SCVNGR, Inc. v. Punchh, Inc., 478 Mass. 324 (2017), the Supreme Judicial Court reversed a Superior Court Business Litigation Session decision that had dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction.  Notably, the SJC’s opinion prohibits the trial courts, when deciding a challenge to personal jurisdiction, from engaging in the frequently employed practice of skipping the analysis under the long-arm statute and jumping directly to the analysis under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  In reaching this conclusion, the SJC “clarif[ied]” that “the long-arm statute’s reach is not coextensive with what due process allows.” Id. at 330 n.9.

Background

SCVNGR, Inc., a Massachusetts-based company doing business as LevelUp, sued Punchh, Inc., a California-based competitor, for defamation.   Punchh moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Id. at 325. After allowing some limited jurisdictional discovery, Judge Kaplan of the Business Litigation Section allowed Punchh’s motion to dismiss, finding that Punchh lacked the minimum contacts with Massachusetts necessary for an exercise of personal jurisdiction to comport with the Due Process requirements of the U. S. Constitution. Id.  Although Judge Kaplan recognized that “typically a Superior Court judge presented with a Rule 12(b)(2) argument begins with an analysis of whether the requirements of the long-arm statute have been met,” he nevertheless proceeded directly to the federal Due Process considerations, noting that this was where “both parties ha[d] focused their arguments.”  Id.

LevelUp appealed the dismissal to the Appeals Court.  The SJC, of its own accord, took direct appellate review.  Id.

Analysis

“Prior to exercising personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant, a judge must determine that doing so comports with both the forum’s long-arm statute and the requirements of the United States Constitution.”  Id. at 325 (citing World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 290 (1980)).  Massachusetts’s long-arm statute, G.L. c. 223A, § 3, provides eight enumerated categories of actions which can give rise to personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant.  Two of those categories address claims arising out of domestic relationships (marriage, divorce, child custody, and the like); one from the ownership of real estate within Massachusetts; and one from offering insurance within the Commonwealth.  The remaining four categories address claims that arise out of a defendant’s: (a) transacting business within Massachusetts; (b) contracting for goods or services within Massachusetts; (c) committing a tort within Massachusetts; and (d) committing a tort outside of Massachusetts that causes injury within Massachusetts if the Defendant also does or solicits business within Massachusetts or derives substantial revenues from goods or services provided in Massachusetts.

Unlike a number of other states, Massachusetts’s long-arm statute does not explicitly extend personal jurisdiction to the limits of the U. S. Constitution.  Nevertheless, two seminal SJC cases had seemed to interpret the statute to have the same broad scope.  In “Automatic” Sprinkler Corp. v. Seneca Foods Corp., 361 Mass. 441, 443 (1972), the SJC held: “We see the function of the long arm statute as an assertion of jurisdiction over the person to the limits allowed by the Constitution of the United States.”  Likewise, in Good Hope Indus., Inc. v. Ryder Scott Co., 378 Mass. 1, 5-6 (1979), the SJC held: “Since we have stated that our long arm statute, G. L. c. 223A, functions as ‘an assertion of jurisdiction over the person to the limits allowed by the Constitution of the United States,’ …the two questions tend to converge” (quoting “Automatic” Sprinkler). Good Hope also, however, contained the seeds of SCVNGR’s “clarif[ication],” stating that the long-arm statute “asserts jurisdiction over the person to the constitutional limit only when some basis for jurisdiction enumerated in the statute has been established.”  Good Hope, 378 Mass. at 1 (emphasis added).

Prior to SCVNGR, state and federal cases applying Massachusetts law frequently cited “Automatic” Sprinkler and/or Good Hope in support of the proposition that Massachusetts’s long-arm statute extended to the outer reaches of the Due Process Clause and that, as a result, the two-step inquiry could be addressed in a single inquiry.  See, e.g., OpenRisk, LLC v. Roston, 90 Mass. App. Ct. 1107 (2016) (Rule 1:28) (“The Massachusetts long-arm statute, G. L. c. 223A, § 3, however, allows for an assertion of jurisdiction over the person to the limits allowed by the Constitution of the United States. …It is appropriate, therefore, for the court to sidestep the statutory inquiry and proceed directly to the constitutional analysis”) (citations omitted); FTI, LLC v. Duffy, 2017 Mass. Super. LEXIS 93, at *8 (Suffolk Super. Ct. 2017); Let’s Adopt! Glob., Inc. v. Macey, 32 Mass. L. Rep. 573 (Worcester Super. Ct. 2015); Daynard v. Ness, Motley, Loadholt, Richardson & Poole, P.A., 290 F.3d 42, 52 (1st Cir. 2002).

In light of this precedent, the SCVNGR parties’ decision to focus exclusively on the question of whether the Court could exercise jurisdiction consistent with Due Process made perfect sense.  In baseball terms (this is, after all, summer in New England): since the runner cannot advance to third without touching both first and second bases, if the runner missed second, the question of whether he touched first is moot.  Indeed, in at least two cases pre-dating SCVNGR the First Circuit noted that even if Massachusetts’ long-arm statute might not extend to the limits of Due Process, examining the long-arm statute was not necessary if the claims clearly failed to meet the requirements of Due Process.  See A Corp. v. All Am. Plumbing, Inc., 812 F.3d 54, 58-59 (1st Cir. 2016); Copia Communs., LLC v. AMResorts, L.P., 812 F.3d 1, 3-4 (1st Cir. 2016).

In SCVNGR, though, the SJC was having none of it. It first clarified that “Automatic” Sprinkler’s sweeping language was more limited than might first appear:

To the extent that “Automatic” Sprinkler …identifies “the function of the long arm statute as an assertion of jurisdiction over the person to the limits allowed by the Constitution of the United States,” we take this opportunity to clarify that, in accordance with Good Hope. . . the long-arm statute’s reach is not coextensive with what due process allows.

SCVNGR, 478 Mass. at 330 n.9.

The SJC then stated that the order in which a lower court examines the two prongs of personal jurisdiction does indeed matter:

Our jurisprudence since Good Hope also makes clear that courts should consider the long-arm statute first, before approaching the constitutional question. …In this regard, it is canonical that courts should, where possible, avoid unnecessary constitutional decisions. … Determining first whether the long-arm statute’s requirements are satisfied is consonant with the “duty to avoid unnecessary decisions of serious constitutional issues. … [W]e cannot let the actions of private litigants force us to decide unnecessarily a serious question of constitutional law.”

Id. at 330 (citations omitted).

As a result, the SJC remanded the case to the Superior Court for a determination, first, as to whether the long-arm statute’s requirements were met and only then for a determination as to whether an exercise of jurisdiction comports with the requirements of Due Process.  In doing so, the SJC noted that the subsequent re-examination of the constitutional due process question would likely take place “on a presumably fuller record,” apparently assuming that the trial court would allow the parties some additional jurisdictional discovery before ruling on the remanded motion (id. at 330).

Another recent SJC opinion drives home the point that neither the parties nor the court can leapfrog over the long-arm statute and proceed directly to the constitutional question.  In Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Attorney General, 479 Mass. 312, 317 n.3 (2018), citing SCVNGR, the SJC noted that although the parties’ argument on the jurisdictional issues focused exclusively on the due process question, the Court would first analyze them under the long-arm statute, which it proceeded to do.

Takeaways

Two practical takeaways are clear:

  1. Notwithstanding any suggestion to the contrary in prior precedent, “the long-arm statute’s reach is not coextensive with what due process allows.”
  2. Neither practitioners nor the Court should address whether an assertion of personal jurisdiction comports with the requirements of the Due Process Clause without first addressing whether the plaintiff’s claims assert a cause of action that brings the case within the parameters of the Massachusetts long-arm statute.  In short, although the plaintiff may still get tagged-out for failing to touch second base, we will not know until a call is made at first.

Evan Fray-Witzer is a founding partner of Ciampa Fray-Witzer. He maintains an active employment litigation, counseling, and defense practice; a sophisticated litigation and counseling practice, representing businesses in a wide range of commercial disputes; and a thriving appellate practice in both the state and Federal Courts.