Established in 1898 and still staffed with only a handful of judges, the Massachusetts Land Court is the smallest of all the Massachusetts trial courts. But for real estate practitioners, it is the most important court in the Commonwealth.
The Land Court is known for its real estate expertise, and is the starting place for almost all foreclosures. Its judges, most of whom were practicing real estate attorneys, are widely regarded as experts in the intricacies of Massachusetts real estate law. Indeed, the diminutive Land Court has recently been at the forefront of national foreclosure law with Judge Keith Long’s seminal decision in U.S. Bank v. Ibanez which made national front page news for several days.
The Land Court was originally established to oversee the Massachusetts land registration system. Approximately 15-20% of all property in Massachusetts is registered land. Non-registered land is referred to as recorded land.
The purpose of the registered land system — modeled after the Australian Torrens system — is to make land titles as clear and defect-free as possible. To register land, property owners have to go through a fairly rigorous process where a land court title examiner searches and certifies title and a formal plan of the land is approved. All defects and title issues are fully vetted and resolved, if possible, and upon registration, the land is deemed free of defects except noted by the examiner, including claims of adverse possession.
Registered land is freely transferable, and there is no discernible difference in examining title to registered land, other than recording which involves a few more steps than non-registered land.
The Land Court is widely known as the starting point for the vast majority of foreclosures in Massachusetts. Although Massachusetts is considered a “non-judicial” foreclosure state — that is, where a mortgage holder does not need a court order to foreclosure — the state has held onto the U.S. Soldier’s and Sailor’s Civil Relief Act which gives military members protections against foreclosure. In Massachusetts, mortgage holders bring a “Soldier’s and Sailor’s Act” proceeding in the Land Court to ensure that the property owner is not an active military member. Once the Land Court issues a judgment, the foreclosure can move forward. A Soldier’s and Sailor’s proceeding is not the forum in which to challenge a foreclosure. A homeowner needs to file a separate lawsuit in Superior Court or Land Court to do so.
Quiet Title, Partition and Title Disputes
In the last 20 years, lawmakers have widely expanded the Land Court’s jurisdiction to hear more types of cases. Today, the Land Court regularly hears cases involving zoning and subdivision appeals, quiet title and actions to try title, disputes involving mortgage priorities, tax takings, adverse possession, real estate contract disputes, petitions to partition, and more. I do most of my litigation work in the Land Court’s civil session.
Strategically, certain cases are better off in the Land Court and vice-versa. An important distinction with Land Court is that there are no jury trials. Thus, if you want a jury trial, the case should be filed in Superior Court, not Land Court. For cases which are based on the interpretation of contractual language or complex real estate legal issues, Land Court is probably a good choice. For cases which have an “emotional” component and less complex, a Superior Court jury session is probably the better choice.
New Permitting Session
Most recently, in 2007, the Legislature created a special Land Court permitting session to hear zoning and subdivision appeals for larger projects involving over 25 units or over 25,000 square feet of gross floor area. With the goal to expedite zoning disputes which have roadblocked development, cases in the new session will be assigned to a single judge for the life of the case and will be assigned one of three expedited tracks. For the first time, these tracks provide deadlines for both getting to trial (ranging from six to 12 months) and for receiving a decision after trial or summary judgment (ranging from two months to four months).
Land Court decisions aren’t widely available, but recent rulings can be found here.
If you have a complicated real estate dispute, your attorney should always seriously consider bringing the claim in the Land Court where the judge will understand the issues and keep tight control over the case.
Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Land Court Attorney who has litigated numerous cases in the Massachusetts Land Court. For further information you can contact him at email@example.com.