If you’re suing a neighbor because you claim title to a piece of her property, the last thing you want to see happen is for her to sell it to the Little Sisters of the Poor before your lawsuit is completed. The neighbor makes off with the money from selling your property, and when you finally win, you have the sticky PR problem of the bailiff dragging a gaggle of nuns off your land while TV crews report your heartlessness live on CNN.
It was for precisely this reason — well, maybe not precisely for this reason — that the law has developed a mechanism known as lis pendens. A lis pendens — literally, “lawsuit pending” – is a filing with the office of the county responsible for deeds (often the county recorder) that places the world on notice that litigation is going on that relates to ownership of the piece of land at issue. Practically speaking, the filing will send prospective buyers and lenders fleeing for the next county.
The purpose of lis pendens is laudable: it keeps wily defendants from transferring interests in land that is subject to a lawsuit, so a plaintiff doesn’t have to endlessly sue new buyers and lessees in order to collect on a judgment. But like with any reasonable and necessary mechanism, there are those who — as the legendary trickster Dick Tuck would have said — who want to run it into the ground.
In today’s case, the plaintiff sued the defendant over a large tree on the boundary between their properties, alleging that it had been negligently trimmed to lean onto their property, that it constituted a “spite fence,” and that its size and location constituted a nuisance. Of interest to us was the last allegation, that in a prior lawsuit between the parties, the defendant’s lawyer had filed a lis pendens on the plaintiff’s lot that caused a sale to fall through. The plaintiffs said that the lis pendens — which a court had later thrown out — constituted a tort known as “slander of title.” This was so because the underlying litigation had nothing to do with whether the defendant claimed title or the right to possess the plaintiff’s property. Defendant’s lawyer filed it simply as a club with which to bludgeon the plaintiffs, as part of a take-no-prisoners litigation strategy.
The defendant’s lawyer argued the slander of title had to be dismissed because as counsel for the other side, he owed no duty to the plaintiffs. The California court conceded that he didn’t, but said that was irrelevant: slander of title is an intentional tort (like a judge hauling off and slugging a public defender). Unfortunately, the Court said, the plaintiffs’ pleading wasn’t very well written, and the Court couldn’t be sure that they had alleged malice. The more prudent course, the Court thought, was to offer them a chance to amend their complaint to make clear that they were alleging the defendant’s attorney had acted maliciously.
Castelanellis v. Becker, 2008 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 165 *, 2008 WL 101729 (Cal.App, Jan. 10, 2008). The Castelanellis owned real estate in Humboldt County. They sued the owner of the neighboring home, Kristine Mooney, and her lawyer Thomas Becker, alleging that on the border between their unimproved lot and Mooney’s property, “a large tree” curves from the bottom portion of its trunk toward the Castelanellis’ property and takes up so much space that “the subject property cannot reasonably be developed as a residential property.” They also claimed that Mooney’s house tree blocked light to the tree and caused the tree to grow almost exclusively over their property and that Mooney had trimmed or negligently maintained the tree to contribute to its “odd and unusual angle.”
The complaint maintained that the tree constituted a spite fence within the meaning of California law, and was “maliciously maintained for the purpose of annoying the plaintiffs and in an attempt to gain ownership of plaintiffs’ land at less than fair value.” The complaint alleged nuisance, trespass, tortious interference with contractual relations, and tortious interference with economic relations. The Castelanellis alleged that Mooney sought to “purchase plaintiffs’ property at below fair market value” and had “threatened legal action if plaintiffs trimmed the subject tree in order to make their property capable of being developed and sold.” Finally, they alleged that Mooney and Becker published “false statements” in a lis pendens filed as to the Castelanellis’ property, and this lis pendens — later thrown out by another court — had prevented the Castelanellis from selling the property. The trial court agreed that because Mooney and Becker owed the Castelanellis no duty, there could be no slander.
The Castelanellis appealed.
Held: The Castelanellis had made out an adequate cause of action against Attorney Becker. A party to an action who asserts a real property claim may record a notice of pendency of action in which that real property claim is alleged, called a lis pendens. Such a notice places a cloud on the title and effectively keeps any willing buyer from wanting to close on a transaction until the lis pendens is cleared. In order to be privileged, so that no party may later sue a party or its attorney for filing such a notice, a notice of lis pendens must both (1) identify a specific action “previously filed” with a superior court and (2) show that the previously-filed action affects “the title or right of possession of real property.
In this case, the notice of lis pendens clearly identified that it was signed and filed in conjunction with litigation involving a tree growing upon a shared property line. But nothing in the record enabled the Court to determine that litigation involved the “right of possession” of either of the two properties involved in that litigation. If it did, a litigation privilege clearly applied, and the action against Attorney Becker could not stand.
Becker argued that he had no duty to the Castelanellis, and he could therefore not be sued by them. The Court pointed out that this would be true if the action were based on negligence. However, the action was an intentional tort, like the tort of malicious prosecution, and there need not be a duty of care owed to the victim by the perpetrator before an intentional tort can be inflicted. The Court said that while an attorney cannot be liable for negligence to a formerly adverse party, that rule does not exempt the attorney from liability for malicious prosecution.
The tort of slander of title does not rise to the level of either malicious prosecution or abuse of process. The elements of the tort have traditionally been held to be publication, falsity, absence of privilege, and disparagement of another’s land which is relied upon by a third party and results in a pecuniary loss. Slander of title does not include express malice as an intrinsic factor. Here, while the Castelanellis did not specifically plead malicious prosecution in their amended complaint, that complaint does include allegations that the actions “were done knowingly, willfully, and with malicious intent.” The allegations seemed to the Court sufficient to inject into the slander of title cause of action an allegation of malice, even as to attorney Becker.
In any event, the Court said, the law is clear that in evaluating a complaint against a general demurrer, it is not necessary that the cause of action be the one intended by the plaintiff. The test is whether the complaint states any valid claim entitling the plaintiff to relief. Thus, the plaintiff may be mistaken as to the nature of the case, or the legal theory on which he or she can prevail. But if the essential facts of some valid cause of action is alleged, the complaint is good against a general demurrer.
The Court held that the absence of any suggestion in the Castelanellis’ opposition to Becker’s demurrer that they either wished to amend or intended to plead some sort of intentional tort via their fifth cause of action left the Court reluctant to rule that the trial court abused its discretion by sustaining the demurrer without leave to amend. Under all the circumstances, the Court thought the better course of action was to remand this matter to the trial court with instructions to consider whether any intentional tort — as distinguished from a claim of negligence — was in fact pled by the Castelanellis and (2) if not, whether the Castelanellis wish to and can plead a valid intentional tort cause of action against Becker regarding the allegedly improper lis pendens.
– Tom Root