Advanced commercial real estate law: The power of Lis Pendens in Ohio

Lis Pendens, Latin for “suit pending,” means that any interest in real property acquired while a case is pending relating to that property is subject to the final determination of the case.

As set forth in R.C. 2703.26: “When a complaint is filed, the action is pending so as to charge a third person with notice of its pendency. While pending, no interest can be acquired by third persons in the subject of the action, as against the plaintiff’s title.”  Under this doctrine, the outcome of the litigation applies to, and is binding upon, any person who acquires an interest in the property; whether a party to the lawsuit or not. Indeed the purpose of the doctrine is to bind non-parties.

“The effect of lis pendens is that if a third party acquires an interest in the property while the lawsuit is pending, the third party takes the property subject to the final outcome of the suit.” Gunlock v. Z.B.P. Partnership, 1997 WL 598394, at *1 (Ohio App. 12 Dist., 1997). Indeed, “if the trial court awards the plaintiff rights in the property, the plaintiff takes free of any interest acquired by third parties during the lawsuit.” Martin, Rochford & Durr v. Lawyer’s Title Ins. Corp., 619 N.E.2d 1130, 1131, 86 Ohio App.3d 20, 22 (Ohio App. 9 Dist., 1993).

“In order for the plaintiff to utilize the doctrine of lis pendens, the property that is described for the purpose of invoking lis pendens must be at the very essence of the controversy between the litigants.” Levin v. George Fraam & Sons, Inc., 585 N.E.2d 527, 530, 65 Ohio App.3d 841, 846 (Ohio App. 9 Dist., 1990).

If the property is Unregistered Land, and the lawsuit is filed in the same county in which all of the property is located, Lis Pendens attaches upon the initial filing of a complaint relating to the ownership of real property and a description of the property in the complaint. Any interest in the property that is recorded after the filing of the lawsuit is subject to the Judge’s final ruling. If the suit is brought in a county other than that in which the property is located, a certified copy of the complaint must be filed with the Common Pleas Court in which the property is located (this also applies to property that straddles two or more county lines). See Civil Rule 3(F).

In a recent case we represented a buyer in a specific performance case.  Our client was under contract to purchase a parcel of unregistered land in Hamilton County. The seller informed our client that the seller would not complete the sale; rather he would sell to another buyer for a higher price. Our client was insistent on completing the purchase and forcing the sale.

Before the seller recorded the deed transferring the property to the third party, we filed suit for specific performance and included a notice of Lis Pendens in the complaint. After we filed the complaint, not only did the third party record a deed, that third party then sold the property to another third party who also recorded a deed. Bear in mind though, that each of these deeds were recorded after the lawsuit had been initiated, and thus those purchasers’ interests were subject to the outcome of our lawsuit.

Ultimately, we prevailed and the property was re-titled in the name of our client and the interests of the two third party purchasers were extinguished.  The third party purchasers now have to look to the original seller to recoup their money.

For Registered Land, Lis Pendens does not attach until after the complaint is filed with the Court and a Notice of Lis Pendens is filed with the County Recorder. Civil Rule 3(F) also applies where the suit is brought in county other than that in which all of the property is located.  What this means for purchasers of Unregistered Land is that certainty of your interest requires not only that you search the title, but that you also search the court filings for any litigation involving the property.

For a party seeking to invoke Lis Pendens over registered land, the process is slightly more complex. The party must first file the complaint with the court, then present a certified certificate of the pendency of the suit with the county recorder and a memorial of the suit entered on the certificate of title by the county recorder.

While the road to Lis Pendens against registered land is more cumbersome for the plaintiff, the third party buyer can rest easy that he has good title by simply looking at the county recorder’s certificate of title for the property to see if there is a memorial of a lawsuit on the certificate. Simply stated with registered land, the certificate of title tells the whole story.

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