Specific Performance, Lis Pendens, and The Special Motion to Dismiss: Enforcing and Defending Real Estate Contract Claims

by Rich Vetstein on December 28, 2021

in Land Court, Massachusetts Real Estate Law, Offer To Purchase, Purchase and Sale Agreements, Real Estate Litigation

The Difference Between Winning and Losing A Real Estate Contract Lawsuit

I have handled a myriad of cases enforcing and defending real estate contracts, particularly involving Offers to Purchase and Purchase and Sale Agreements. For buyers, these cases typically involve the standard form Offer (or Contract) to Purchase, a one or two page short form contract, which under Massachusetts law (McCarthy v. Tobin) is a binding and enforceable contract. The seller then usually attempts to wriggle out of the deal or may even receive a higher or better offer. Sometimes the transaction has progressed past the execution of the Purchase and Sale Agreement and falls apart, and the buyer still wants to close, or the seller believes the buyer has violated the agreement and wants to retain the buyer’s deposits. When that occurs, litigation often ensues.

Specific Performance

The buyer wants to pursue the deal, and asks “Can a judge make the seller perform and close?” The answer is yes, under the theory of “specific performance.” However, the buyer must establish several elements for such a claim.  The buyer must establish: (1) the existence of a written contract containing reasonably specific terms signed by or duly authorized by the other party and otherwise binding upon such party, and (2) the breach of that contract by the seller.  The breach of contract may be shown by (i) a clear repudiation of the contract by the seller, (ii) the buyer’s tender of performance, formally or by notice, and (iii) a demand for performance with the buyer ready, willing, and able to proceed to a closing.

A solid paper trail is critical to winning these cases. The parties and their transactional lawyers in the underlying deal should always document the seller’s repudiation or breach of contract and the buyer’s willingness to close, preferably by letter or email. These days, text messages can also be helpful, but often open to differing interpretations. Armed with exhibits of emails and texts, the buyer’s attorney can often persuade the judge that the seller has unjustifiably breached the contract and issue a lis pendens (discussed below), and after trial or summary judgment, an award of specific performance.

Obtaining Leverage — The Lis Pendens

The difference between winning and losing (or settling favorably) is for the buyer to obtain a Lis Pendens from the court. As I have written about in this article, a lis pendens is Latin for “a suit pending.” The lis pendens is recorded at the registry of deeds against the property and its owner(s), creating a cloud on the title to the affected property. A lis pendens will, in many cases, effectively prevent the owner from selling the property while the lawsuit is pending — which could be years, thereby giving a buyer incredible leverage in the case. In order to obtain a Lis Pendens, a buyer must show that the claim “affects the title to real property or the use and occupation thereof or the buildings thereon.” A buyer should file a motion for lis pendens right from the start of the case, seeking a quick hearing on the motion, or even ex parte (without the seller getting advance notice, if there is a clear danger that the property will be conveyed).

Defending the Lis Pendens and Claim for Specific Performance

If you are a seller defending a claim for specific performance and a motion for lis pendens, the deck is often stacked against you out of the starting gate. The standard of review favors the buyer because unlike obtaining an attachment or other pre-judgment lien, a lis pendens does not require a showing a likelihood of success on the claim. A lower standard is used — the claim must not be frivolous or lack an arguable basis in fact or law. Further, buyers typically run into court quickly, and there is often a time crunch to gather and marshal all the evidence before the initial hearing on the motion for lis pendens. Nevertheless, I have been successful in beating back lis pendens motions by raising defenses such as the Statute of Frauds, which requires a writing signed by the party to be charged, and other contractual defenses.

Special Motion to Dismiss and Certification That No Material Facts Have Been Omitted

In defending claims for specific performance and lis pendens’, I have been most successful using the “special motion to dismiss” and raising the requirement that plaintiffs must certify that no material facts have been omitted from their complaint.

The “special motion to dismiss” is a newer tool which allows defending parties to dismiss a lawsuit seeking a lis pendens by showing: that the action or claim is frivolous because (1) it is devoid of any reasonable factual support; or (2) it is devoid of any arguable basis in law; or (3) the action or claim is subject to dismissal based on a valid legal defense such as the statute of frauds. This standard is relatively high, however, it can be reached with the right factual record and defenses in play.

I’ve also had success pushing another one of the new requirements of the amended Lis Pendens Statute: the requirement of a verification on a complaint to “include a certification by the complainant made under the penalties of perjury that . . .  that no material facts have been omitted therefrom.” Courts have ruled that a party’s failure to include all material facts in its complaint may result in the dismissal of that party’s claims where the omitted facts establish that those claims are devoid of reasonable factual support or arguable basis in law. If the plaintiff has failed to disclose all of the relevant facts in the case, often those which are unfavorable, you can raise this defense which may give you some traction with the judge.

As you can see, this area of law is quite complex for the layperson. Consultation with an experienced real estate litigator is paramount. If you are dealing with such a case, feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].

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