Termination on the merits is required for malicious prosecution claim
A lis pendens is a handy tool for real estate lawyers. When litigation is brought affecting title to real estate, a lis pendens gives notice to third parties that sales, loans and construction draws should, most likely, come to a screeching halt until the issues affecting title are resolved.
Back in the days when I was in private practice, malicious prosecution claims arose relatively routinely when lis pendens were filed in cases where the title to real estate was not in question. That situation is the subject of a Court of Appeals case from early this year.*
The case involved Somerset Point at Lady’s Island, a subdivision in beautiful Beaufort County. The developer, Coosaw, and River City, one of the construction companies building homes in the subdivision, became involved in a dispute about design and construction standards. River City accused Coosaw of failing to enforce the standards with other builders, and Coosaw, in turn, accused River City of failing to comply with the standards.
River City brought suit in 2011 alleging causes of action for breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, and unfair trade practices. Coosaw counterclaimed and crossclaimed against River City for violating the design standards and sought a temporary injunction against continued construction. Coosaw also filed a lis pendens describing one property, Lot 16, in Somerset Point.
River City moved to strike the lis pendens on the ground that title to Lot 16 was not at issue. The master-in-equity agreed and struck the notice of lis pendens. On reconsideration, the master stated, in part, that striking the lis pendens would allow River City’s construction lender to resume providing construction draws and would allow River’s City’s project to be completed. Coosaw appealed but ultimately withdrew the appeal after River City’s sale of Lot 16 rendered the issue moot.
In late 2014, River City filed the lawsuit at issue, alleging causes of action for malicious prosecution and abuse of process based on Coosaw’s filing the lis pendens in the 2011 action. River City argued the cause of action for malicious prosecution was proper because the lis pendens had been terminated in its favor.
The Court of Appeals listed the elements of malicious prosecution to include termination of the proceedings in the plaintiff’s favor. River City argued that a lis pendens is an ancillary proceeding, and termination of an ancillary proceeding will support a malicious prosecution claim. The Court of Appeals held, however, that a lis pendens is not an ancillary proceeding but is simply a notice of the proceeding.
Citing earlier cases, the Court reviewed the law of lis pendens:
- A lis pendens is a statutory doctrine designed to inform prospective purchasers or encumbrancers that a particular piece of property is subject to litigation.
- A properly filed lis pendens binds subsequent purchasers or encumbrancers to all proceedings evolving from the litigation.
- Generally, the filing of a lis pendens places a cloud on title which prevents the owner from freely disposing of the property before the litigation is resolved.
- The lis pendens mechanism is not designed to aid either side in a dispute between private parties. Rather, the lis pendens is designed to protect third parties by alerting them of pending litigation that may affect title.
- When no real property is implicated, no lis pendens should be filed.
- A lis pendens is merely a form of pleading that does not provide any substantive right. It is simply a notice.
The Court held that the termination of a lis pendens to support a malicious prosecution cause of action must be a victory on the merits of the litigation, not a termination based solely on technical or procedural considerations. In the case at hand, the underlying merits remained pending after the termination of the lis pendens. The Court held that the subject action is, therefore, premature.
In short, the Court held that a maliciously filed lis pendens can act as the primary basis for a malicious prosecution claim, provided the plaintiff can establish a favorable termination of the lis pendens reflective of the merits of the underlying action.
*Gecy v. Somerset Point at Lady’s Island Homeowners Association, Inc., South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion 5622 (January 30, 2019).