The Appeals Court’s decision yesterday in Johnson v. Christ Apostle Church, Mt. Bethel (pdf) is a useful reminder that the Land Court’s jurisdiction over cases affecting title to registered land is exclusive. Johnson involved a dispute between the plaintiff homeowner and a neighboring church over Johnson’s longstanding use of a driveway on the church’s property for parking and for access to Johnson’s property. After years of amicable relations, in 2013 the church erected a six-foot fence along the property line that prevented Johnson from continuing to use the driveway. Johnson filed suit in Superior Court alleging that the fence was an unlawful “spite fence” under M.G.L. c. 49, § 21, which makes such fences a form of private nuisance. She also brought claims of negligence and adverse possession. The case went to trial solely on the nuisance claim, and the judge found for Johnson and ordered the church to install a series of gates in the fence to restore Johnson’s access.
There was a wrinkle, however, and it proved dispositive. The church’s land is registered, and under M.G.L. 185, § 1(a 1/2) (yes, that’s Section 1 a-and-a-half), the Land Court has “exclusive original jurisdiction” over complaints affecting title to registered land. On appeal, though neither party raised the issue, the Appeals Court vacated the judgment because, by effectively granting Johnson an easement over the church’s land, the judgment affected the church’s registered title and the Superior Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to impose such a remedy. As the Appeals Court noted, the mere presence of registered land in a case doesn’t deprive the Superior Court of jurisdiction. The Superior Court can and does hear a range of cases that involve registered land in some fashion (for example, contract claims). It is only precluded from entering judgments affecting title to the land in question. So the Appeals Court remanded the case for transfer to the Land Court, where Johnson’s claims will live to see another day.