Problematic Property Conveyance Results in Litigation Among Massachusetts Landowners

Property conveyances are typically complex, and errors or ambiguities in the deed can lead to litigation years into the future.  This point is demonstrated in a recent case, Powell v. Ashley (Mass. Land Ct. Nov. 21, 2016), which concerns a 1973 deed that became the source of a years-long dispute between neighbors.

In Powell, the defendants recorded a deed conveying the garage located on their property to the previous owners of the plaintiffs’ property in 1979.  The conveyance was problematic.  The deed was dated 1973, but the notary public’s commission indicated that the earliest it could have been witnessed was 1977.  The deed also lacked a metes and bounds description and was subject to an existing mortgage.  In addition, the previous owners lost their property through a foreclosure in 1978, and the property was sold a week before the deed was recorded.  Thereafter, the defendants resumed occupation and use of the garage.

In 2003, the plaintiffs brought an action in Land Court, seeking a declaration that they were the record owners of the garage, free of the defendants’ claims of record ownership and ownership by adverse possession.  While that litigation was ongoing, the plaintiffs also commenced an action in the Housing Court against the defendants.  After a hearing, the Housing Court entered judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor regarding record ownership of the garage.  The Land Court concluded that the Housing Court’s ruling was binding in the Land Court action on the basis of res judicata, a legal principle that prohibits parties from re-litigating the same issue.  The Land Court also held that since the defendants did not raise the defense of adverse possession in the Housing Court action, they were barred from arguing it in the present case.

Despite its finding that the defendants’ claims were precluded, the Land Court went on to agree with the Housing Court’s ruling.  The court explained that, assuming the deed was valid, the conveyance must be recorded in the registry of deeds before it can be enforced against someone without actual notice of it.  In Powell, there was no evidence that the plaintiffs had notice of the deed before it was recorded in 1979.  Furthermore, since the garage was subject to a mortgage, only an equity of redemption—not title—could be conveyed, and the equity of redemption as well as the defendants’ claim of record title was wiped out after the foreclosure sale in 1978.  The Land Court also dismissed the defendants’ claim of adverse possession, since they did not occupy the garage without the permission of the true owner exclusively, openly, notoriously, adversely, and continuously for 20 years.

Property law can be complicated, but a knowledgeable lawyer can help you understand your legal options and rights.  At Pulgini & Norton, our Massachusetts land use attorneys have experience in all of the aspects of real estate transactions.  We can guide individuals through the home buying process, zoning and permit applications, quiet title actions, and many other property matters.  To discuss your concerns with one of our trusted professionals, contact Pulgini & Norton at (781) 843-2200 or online and schedule your free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Landowners Successfully Challenge Permit Issued for Housing Development Next to Their Property, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published September 19, 2016

Massachusetts Land Court Vacates Foreclosure Judgment on Basis of Health Issues and Due Process Rights, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published August 1, 2016

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