For most folks, litigation and courtrooms are as foreign as Belgium. When a new clients comes to me with a potential litigation matter, I spend most of our first consultation discussing the process of litigation and how it works. Then inevitably we have to talk about the cost and expense, which for most lawsuits is a lot more than people expect. In this post, I wanted to provide you with a summary of what happens when you decide to file a Massachusetts real estate litigation and lawsuit, or if you have to defend yourself against one.
First Steps: Filing Or Answering The Complaint & Selecting A Venue
The first step in every Massachusetts lawsuit is the filing of the Complaint, along with a filing fee ($285 in Superior Court). The Complaint sets forth the factual allegations of the lawsuit, along with the formal legal claims such as breach of contract, zoning appeal, adverse possession or fraud.
Most real estate litigation cases where the damages exceed $25,000 are filed in either the Superior Court or the Land Court. (For smaller matters under $25,000 you can file in the local District Court; small claims cases are for $7,500 or less).
The Land Court is a specialized court with expertise in real estate disputes. I’ve written about the Land Court here. The Superior Court is the “jack of all trades” trial court, and hears just about every type of civil and criminal dispute at the trial level. Depending on the facts of the case, there are strategic advantages to filing in either Superior or Land Court.
After the complaint is filed, a Summons is issued which must be formally served by constable or sheriff on the “defendants” in the case. The attorney will arrange for service of the summons and complaint to be made and a sheriff will show up at the defendant’s home or business with the legal papers. Defendants have 20 days to “answer” the complaint. The Answer is a formal response to the Complaint, and the defendants can also assert any “counterclaims” he or she may have against the plaintiff.
Many real estate litigation cases involve asking the court for some type of relief or action during the initial stages of the lawsuit. This is called “pre-judgment relief.” In many real estate cases, a litigant will ask the court for a lis pendens on property, which is a formal notice of the claim recorded on title. In other cases, a litigant will ask for an injunction or restraining order stopping a landowner from building or taking other adverse action which would injure their property.
Asking a court for such pre-judgment relief requires filing motion papers, legal memoranda and often multiple court hearings where the lawyers will argue the issues before the judge. This will add another level of expense on the case, often quite a bit. I usually give clients a ballpark figure of $5,000 for taking a case through the pre-judgment relief stage–could be less, could be more, depending on the response from the other side.
Often cases can be won or lost at these early stages as a lis pendens can stifle a potential sale or an injunction can shut down a construction site, thereby forcing a favorable settlement. Thus, it is very important to have an experienced and savvy Massachusetts real estate litigation attorney work up the case properly and argue the case forcefully during a pre-judgment remedy proceeding. There are certain ways to increase your chances of success at this stage and even obtain relief without the other side even knowing you are going to court, called ex parte relief, if the situation warrants. (Ex parte in Latin means “from (by or for) one party.”)
For cases on the normal track, once the answer is filed and all factual allegations and legal claims are raised in the case, it moves to the next stage: discovery. Discovery is the process where each side shares information about the case with each other. Litigation is not supposed to be a cat-and-mouse-hide-the-ball game.
This is a good time to discuss how long it takes to get to a trial in a Massachusetts lawsuit. With huge budget cuts in the courts, it is taking up to 2+ years for most civil cases to reach trial. Yes, you read that correctly. It can take even more time in some cases. I’ve had a case in Norfolk County (Dedham) ready for trial 3 different times, only to get bumped at the last minute, each time costing the client thousands of dollars in legal fees and months of delay. There is really nothing a litigant can do about these delays (save for settling the case out of court).
The discovery stage is the most labor intensive and expensive part of the case, with lawyers taking depositions of witnesses and filing and answering formal written questions, called interrogatories, and responding to requests for document production. There are often disputes and motions which have to be resolved in this stage. Depositions can easily cost $1,000 each, and discovery in a fairly involved case can run easily up to $10,000 + in legal fees.
For the next post, we will discuss Phase 3: Summary Judgment/Pre-Trial, Going To Trial, and Appeals (click here). Stay tuned!
Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Litigation Attorney who has litigated hundreds of cases in the Massachusetts Land and Superior Courts. For further information you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.