Donald R. Pinto, Jr.

In Massachusetts, Defendant Who Prevails on Special Motion to Dismiss Lis Pendens Case Can Recover Appellate Attorneys’ Fees

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In its decision last week in DeCicco v. 180 Grant Street, LLC, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) answered a previously open question, confirming that a defendant who successfully moves to dismiss a complaint in which the plaintiff obtained a lis pendens is entitled to recover not only its trial court attorneys’ fees but also the fees it incurs on appeal, assuming the trial court’s decision is affirmed.

In DeCicco, the plaintiffs made a written offer to purchase the defendant’s property. The defendant accepted the offer but refused to complete the transaction. The plaintiffs filed suit for, among other things, breach of contract and specific performance, and obtained court approval of a memorandum of lis pendens. This is a document that gets recorded at the registry of deeds to provide public notice that the land at issue is the subject of a lawsuit that may affect its title.

Under the Massachusetts lis pendens statute, M.G.L. c. 184, §

Breaking: City of Boston Announces New Protocol for Resumption of “Essential” Construction This Month

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Late yesterday Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s office announced a new protocol for re-starting city construction projects deemed “essential.” In mid-March, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Walsh ordered most construction in the city to cease. Since April 27, 2020, all projects involving essential construction have been required to file with the city a COVID-19 Safety Plan and an affidavit pledging to implement that plan. Starting yesterday, projects with approved safety plans and signed affidavits were allowed to begin preparing their construction sites with project-specific COVID-19 safety measures.

Under the new protocol, starting May 18, 2020, projects that (1) have all necessary permits in place, (2) have approved safety plans and signed affidavits on file, and (3) are sufficiently prepared to implement their safety plans, can resume construction, but only if the work is for:

  • hospitals;
  • public schools;
  • residential buildings of 1-3 units;
  • road and utility work; or
  • “other outdoor/open-air work such as steel

In Rare Move, SJC Enters Immediate Order Reversing Decision That Broadened Density-Based Standing in Zoning Appeals

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In what passes for high drama in the world of Massachusetts land use law, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), after hearing oral argument last Thursday in an important case involving standing in zoning appeals, entered an order the next day reversing the Appeals Court decision under review and reinstating the trial court’s decision dismissing the complaint. The SJC’s order reads simply, “The judgment of the Land Court dated June 5, 2018, dismissing the plaintiffs’ complaint for lack of standing, is hereby affirmed. Opinion to follow.”

The case is Murchison v. Zoning Bd. of Appeals of Sherborn. The Appeals Court’s decision, which came out last fall, caused a mini-earthquake within the real estate development bar. The case involves a neighbor’s challenge to a building permit authorizing the construction of a house on a vacant lot that the neighbor claims doesn’t meet the applicable lot-width requirement. The lot, which is wooded, is across a street from the neighbor’s house. Both lots are

Breaking: Mass. High Court Rules Municipality’s Acquisition of Prescriptive Easement Isn’t a Taking

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In a rescript opinion issued this morning in Gentili v. Town of Sturbridge (pdf), the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that a municipality’s acquisition of a prescriptive easement over private property is not an eminent domain taking.  In prior proceedings in Gentili, the Land Court ruled that the defendant town had acquired a prescriptive easement to discharge surface water through a culvert onto the plaintiffs’ property. Instead of appealing, the plaintiffs filed a Superior Court case seeking damages under M.G.L. c. 79, the state’s eminent domain statute. The Superior Court granted summary judgment to the town and the plaintiffs appealed. The SJC transferred the appeal to itself for decision.

In briskly affirming the Superior Court, the SJC said, “[t]he problem with the [plaintiff] trust’s argument is that the theories and laws of prescriptive easements and takings do not interact in the way that the trust suggests.” Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Texaco, Inc.

Appeals Court Registers Objection to Superior Court Judgment Affecting Registered Land

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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 exclusiveJohnson 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

Mass. SJC Reaffirms that Zoning Exemption for Educational Uses is Expansive; Residential Psychiatric Program for Adolescents Easily Qualifies

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In a noteworthy decision today, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) reaffirmed that the exemption in the state’s Zoning Act, M.G.L. c. 40A, for uses deemed to be “for educational purposes,” is construed very broadly.  That exemption, which appears in Section 3 of Chapter 40A and is known as the Dover Amendment, provides in relevant part that:

[n]o zoning ordinance or by-law shall . . . prohibit, regulate or restrict the use of land or structures for religious purposes or educational purposes on land owned or leased by . . . a religious sect or denomination, or by a nonprofit educational corporation . . . .

The statute goes on to say that such land or structures may be subject to reasonable regulations concerning the bulk and height of structures, yard sizes, lot area, setbacks, open space, etc.

In The McLean Hospital Corp. v. Town of Lincoln (pdf), the high court considered a

Mass. High Court Says Not All Divisions of Land Require Planning Board Approval, Dismisses Prospect of “Wild Deeds”

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In its recent decision in RCA Development, Inc. v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Brockton (pdf), Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) considered whether a division of land into two lots accomplished solely by deeds describing the new lots, with no plan having been drawn or approved by the local planning board, is valid. Without hesitation the SJC held that it is.

In 1964 the owner of a lot in Brockton conveyed the northern half of the lot to the owner of a northerly abutting lot, and the southern half of the lot (the locus) to the owner of a southerly abutting lot. Each half of the original lot independently complied with the then-existing frontage, lot-depth, and area requirements. Going forward, the locus and the southerly abutting lot were conveyed together but continued to be separately described. At some point a house was built on the southerly abutting lot but the locus remained vacant.

In 2016 the plaintiff applied for a permit to

Breaking: Mass. SJC Holds That Real Estate Statute of Repose Bars Tort Claims Arising From Asbestos Exposure After Six Years

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In a decision of great importance to property owners, developers, architects, engineers, and contractors, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) this morning ruled that the state’s six-year statute of repose, M.G.L. c. 260, § 2B, applies to tort claims based on asbestos exposure and other diseases with long latency periods.  The decision is Stearns v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

The statute of repose applies to “Action[s] of tort for damages arising out of any deficiency in the design, planning, construction or general administration of an improvement to real property . . .” and states, “in no event shall such actions be commenced more than six years after the earlier of the dates of (1) the opening of the improvement to use; or (2) substantial completion of the improvement and the taking possession for occupancy by the owner.”

Unlike statutes of limitation, which start to run when a claim “accrues” (generally when the injured party becomes aware of the

Late-Filed Appeal to Zoning Board is a Nullity, Not a Springboard to Constructive Approval

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The Massachusetts Appeals Court’s recent decision in McIntyre v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Braintree demonstrates the importance of subject matter jurisdiction in the context of administrative proceedings.  The plaintiffs appealed the issuance of a building permit authorizing construction of a single-family house on an abutting lot.  Though they knew immediately that the permit had issued, the plaintiffs didn’t file their appeal until 44 days later, well past the 30-day deadline imposed by M.G.L. c. 40A, § 15.  Despite the lateness of the appeal, the Braintree zoning board of appeals (ZBA) held two hearings before determining that it had no jurisdiction to consider the merits of the appeal.  At the second hearing the ZBA voted unanimously to deny the appeal but did not issue a written decision that day.

If these were all the facts there probably wouldn’t have been a court case.  But of course there’s more.  The same statute that imposes the filing deadline – M.G.L. c. 40A, §

Mass. Appeals Court Ventures Onto High Wire of Zoning Standing Doctrine, Answers Vexing Question

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It’s about time!  Not since the notable 1961 adverse possession case Kershaw v. Zecchini have real estate litigators had an important decision inspired by circus performers.

In its recent decision in Murrow v. ESH Circus Arts, LLC, the Appeals Court answers a question that concurring Justice Peter J. Rubin notes “has vexed the judges of the trial court, who have reached different conclusions about it.”  In zoning appeals under M.G.L. c. 40A (the Zoning Act), plaintiffs may have the benefit of a rebuttable presumption that they are “persons aggrieved” – meaning they have standing to appeal.  This judicially-created presumption, which originated in the 1957 case Marotta v. Board of Appeals of Revere, is conferred on “parties in interest” as described in Section 11 of the Zoning Act.  Section 11 defines “parties in interest” as:

the petitioner [i.e., the applicant for zoning relief], abutters, owners of land directly opposite on any public or private