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Massachusetts property transfers involve legal considerations that, if not taken into account, may have unintended consequences.  A July 3, 2019 case before the Appeals Court of Massachusetts illustrates how some of these issues may arise.  The case centered around the parties’ oral agreement for the purchase and sale of a house, and the subject of their legal dispute was the defendants’ failure to assume the mortgages on the property.

In late 2010, facing possible foreclosure on his house, the plaintiff in the case reportedly entered into an oral agreement to sell his house to the defendants.  In exchange, the plaintiff would receive a cash payment, the defendants’ assumption of the mortgages on the property, and payment of all property-related expenses.  In April of 2013, over two years after the defendants took possession of the house, and despite their good faith efforts, they failed to complete the assumption of the mortgage.  The plaintiff then filed an action in Land Court seeking to rescind the transaction and cancel the deed to the defendants.

In Massachusetts, rescission is a potential remedy for breach of contract, but rescission is not an available remedy for any and all breaches.  Generally, rescission is disfavored as a remedy for a mere failure to perform a promise.  To justify the remedy, a plaintiff seeking rescission must show that the breach deprived him of the essence of the agreement.  In the absence of fraud, the conduct of the defendant must be fundamentally adverse to the purpose of contact in order to be a ground for rescission of it by the other party.

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In Massachusetts, land owners may file a petition in Land Court to determine the validity of, or the extent to which, a zoning bylaw or land use ordinance may affect the use, improvement, or development of their land.  In a July 1, 2019 Massachusetts real estate case, the plaintiff brought an action against his town, seeking a declaration as to how its zoning bylaw applied to his property.  Because the issue turned on undisputed facts, the Land Court decided the case on summary judgment.

The local ordinance at issue required that any type of residence must be setback at least 10 feet from a property line and at least 20 feet from the street.  However, an exception was provided for properties with existing buildings, if they were located less than 10 feet from the property line, or less than 20 feet from the street.  Such properties are allowed a setback equal to that of the nearer building line, as established by the existing buildings.

The plaintiff in the case owned property with an existing house and barn, among other structures.  Having reportedly been granted approval to divide his property into six single-family lots, the plaintiff wanted greater flexibility to develop the 6.5-acre property.  Correspondingly, if the bylaw exception applied, he would not be restrained by the 10-foot property line and 20-foot street setback requirements.  The issue in the case, therefore, was whether the house and barn created a nearer “building line” under the bylaw, thus exempting the plaintiff’s property from the bylaw’s setback requirements.

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In Massachusetts, there are two systems of tracking property title records.  Recorded land makes up the majority of property title record keeping, while a smaller percentage of properties in Massachusetts are governed by the registered land system.  Massachusetts guarantees title to registered land and as such, the requirements to register land are stricter.

As illustrated in a June 1, 2018 Massachusetts real estate case, there are advantages to the strict protections afforded to a property owner under the land registration system.  The dispute centered around the use and ownership of two parking spots in a condominium building.  The prior owners of the plaintiffs’ property had entered into an easement agreement allowing them to park two vehicles on a portion of their next-door neighbors’ registered land.  However, the easement agreement was not accepted for filing with the Land Court because it was not properly and fully executed, and a corrected, executed document was never registered.

In 2001, the plaintiffs purchased a condo unit with the understanding that they were acquiring an easement for the two parking spaces on the registered land next door.  For the next fourteen years, the plaintiffs parked in the spaces, until the defendants purchased the next-door neighbors’ property.  The plaintiff filed an action seeking to amend the certificates of title to both parties’ land to reflect a parking easement on the defendants’ property for the plaintiffs’ use.

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Constructing a dwelling on a vacant lot usually involves some legal considerations, as well as approval from the local Massachusetts zoning authority.  Individuals who are denied a building permit may appeal to ensure that the matter was correctly decided under the law.  In a June 3, 2019 Massachusetts property case, the plaintiff brought an appeal before the Land Court after she was denied a building permit to construct a single-family home on her land.  The central issue in the case was whether the doctrine of merger precluded her lot from being treated as a preexisting, nonconforming lot exempt from local zoning ordinances.

The plaintiff’s lot was conveyed to her by her grandfather, who had also conveyed a second lot to the plaintiff’s sister.  The two lots were divided by a private way that continued through the subdivision.  The local zoning board concluded that the two adjacent lots had merged when they were held under common ownership by the plaintiff’s grandfather.  As such, the zoning board determined that the plaintiff’s lot did not meet the requirements of a preexisting, nonconforming lot.  The zoning board therefore denied the permit, finding that the lot was unbuildable under the requirements of the local ordinance and not subject to any exemption as a preexisting, nonconforming lot.  The plaintiff, in turn, asserted that her lot was entitled to grandfathering protections and argued that the private way running between the lots precluded merger.

Massachusetts law protects some preexisting lots from having to comply with increased area, frontage, width, yard and depth requirements of subsequently enacted zoning ordinances in some situations.  To fall within the exemption provided under the statute, however, the lot may not have been held in common ownership with any adjoining land.  In other words, the lot cannot have merged with any other lot, or it may lose its grandfather status.

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In many  adverse possession cases, the plaintiffs’ claim to property arises from a long-held, yet mistaken, belief that they own the land at issue.  This situation was presented in a May 28, 2019 Massachusetts real estate case before the Land Court.  The plaintiffs in the case filed an action against their neighbor, claiming title by adverse possession to a strip of land they had long believed was part of their property.

The land at issue in the case was a narrow, 13 foot wide strip of land on the side yard of the plaintiffs’ residence.  The plaintiffs’ property consisted of two lots, both of which had been owned by their parents, and before that, their grandparents.  From the time the second lot was conveyed to the plaintiffs’ family in 1949, they believed that two iron surveyors’ pipes marked the lot’s side boundary.  They cleared, used, and improved that area in the same ways they did for the rest of their property, fully incorporating it.

As a matter of record title, however, the plaintiffs were wrong about their ownership over the strip of land.  A survey of the lot conducted in 1948 had erroneously shifted its boundaries, and the two surveyors’ pipes were approximately 13 feet beyond the true record boundary of the second lot.  In fact, the record owner of the strip was the plaintiffs’ neighbor and the defendant in the case, who had acquired the adjacent lot in 1991.  The plaintiffs subsequently filed a claim in Land Court seeking a declaration that they acquired title to the strip by adverse possession.

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Making a significant change to residential property in Massachusetts typically requires approval from the local zoning authority.  That decision may be subject to several levels of appeals by the homeowners and other parties aggrieved by the outcome.  Proceeding with the changes, despite a pending appeal, may cause complications further down the road, as illustrated in a May 30, 2019 Massachusetts real estate case before the Court of Appeal.

In 2008, the owner sought a building permit to construct a 6,800-square-foot residence on his property overlooking Cape Cod Bay, and to convert the existing cottage into a studio.  The proposal was put forth as an alteration of the existing cottage, which was a pre-existing non-conforming structure.  The permit was approved, but a group of individuals filed multiple appeals.  Nevertheless, the owner began construction of the residence immediately, despite the Land Court’s warning that he was proceeding at his own risk.

In 2011, the Court of Appeals revoked the building permit, holding that as a matter of law, the house could not be considered an alteration of the existing cottage.  After that decision, the local building commissioner issued an order requiring that the house be torn down, which the owner appealed.  Ultimately, the owner and the town settled the matter, and the house was allowed to stand in exchange for a significant cash payment to the town and a multi-million dollar payment characterized as a charitable gift.

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If another person interferes with your easement rights or over-burdens it with an impermissible use, you may have legal recourse to protect your property interests.  In some situations, the court may issue a preliminary injunction to keep the status quo or restrain certain conduct before a final decision has been reached, as in a May 24, 2019 Massachusetts real estate case.  The plaintiffs in the case filed a lawsuit claiming an easement to use a beach area.  The plaintiffs then requested a preliminary injunction from the court to enforce those rights.  In turn, the defendants sought a preliminary injunction against the plaintiffs to cease many of their activities the beach, alleging that such uses were destructive.

The plaintiffs claimed that they had the right to deploy and maintain a dock, use a boat ramp, and park vehicles and trailers on the beach.  In their motion for a preliminary injunction, they claimed that the defendants had interfered with those rights.  The defendants argued that any easements rights of the plaintiff were based on the permissive use allowed by the previous owner of the property, and such use had been revoked after his death.  The defendants further alleged that the plaintiffs had overburdened the easement and that their activities constituted a nuisance and trespass on the beach.  They sought to prevent the plaintiffs from installing a dock, launching boats, parking and storing trailers, boats, and vehicles, planting invasive species, leaving trash, having large parties and drinking alcohol on the beach, and lighting fireworks.

In Massachusetts, the court may issue a preliminary injunction only if the moving party demonstrates the following: (1) a likelihood of success on the merits, (2) that he or she faces a substantial risk of irreparable harm if the injunction is not issued, and (3) that this risk of irreparable harm outweighs any risk of irreparable harm which granting the injunction would create for the non-moving party.

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An easement is a property right that may, in some situations, be abandoned or extinguished by law.  In a May 2, 2019 Massachusetts real estate case, the Land Court considered whether the defendant held an easement over an area abutting its property.  The area in dispute was a “paper way”, as it was conveyed and described in the deed as a right of way but had never been constructed.

The defendant in the case owned a large apartment complex.  The paper street was located between the plaintiff’s properties and, in the deed, continued through to the defendant’s property.  In 1993, the prior owner of the apartment complex installed a six-foot fence, cutting off its own access to the paper street.  Since then, the plaintiffs claimed to have used the paved portion of the paper street as a driveway and parking area, and the unpaved portion as a lawn, grilling area, and wooded area.

The plaintiffs filed an action against the defendant in Land Court, seeking a declaratory judgment that it owned the paper street in fee and that the defendant had no property rights over it.  The Land Court addressed the issue of the defendant’s easement rights when the parties moved for summary judgment.  The plaintiffs argued that any rights the defendant had in the paper street were extinguished by prescription or abandoned.

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Massachusetts foreclosure proceedings may involve multiple legal challenges from different parties and extend over many years.  In a May 13, 2019 case, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts reviewed a dispute over the surplus sale proceeds following a real estate tax taking.  The action was brought by an individual plaintiff against the defendant, who was the owner of a foreclosed property.

In 2010, the town executed a tax taking on property owned by the defendant.  The town subsequently filed a petition in Land Court to foreclose all rights of redemption on the property, and in 2014, obtained a foreclosure judgment in its favor.  The town sold the property at auction for approximately $815,000 in 2016.

The plaintiff in the case had brought a Massachusetts Wage Act claim against the defendant in 2012.  She was awarded a judgment in the amount of $250,000, to be secured by a mortgage on the defendant’s property, which the plaintiff recorded in August of 2014.  After learning that the town planned to sell the property at auction, the plaintiff filed an action against the defendant and the town seeking a declaratory judgment that she was entitled to the surplus of the tax debt from the sale.  After the judge entered summary judgment in favor of the town, the plaintiff filed the instant appeal.

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Some homeowners impacted by a proposed change to a nearby property may have a way to legally oppose approval of the plan.  In a May 3, 2019 Massachusetts real estate case, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts reviewed the issuance of a building permit to the defendant, a real estate developer.  The plaintiffs filed the appeal after the local zoning board allowed the permit, and the Land Court subsequently upheld that decision.

The defendant in the case owned one lot in a small subdivision that consisted of four other lots with homes.  The plaintiffs resided on the lot abutting the defendant’s property.  After the defendant was issued a building permit to construct a home on the lot, the plaintiffs filed an action in Land Court to challenge the validity of the permit.  The plaintiffs argued that the defendant’s lot did not comply with the rear lot dimensional requirements of the local zoning bylaws.

Under the local bylaws, a rear lot is defined as a parcel of land not fronting or abutting a street, and which has limited access to a street due to the shape of the lot, an easement, or a private right-of-way as shown on the recorded deed or subdivision plan.  For a two-family rear lot in a multi-residence zone created after December of 1953, the bylaws require a minimum lot size of 12,000 square feet, which is subject to a maximum floor area ratio.

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