DAVID J. WILLIS ATTORNEY
http://www.LoneStarLandLaw.com
Copyright 2015. All rights reserved worldwide.

LIS PENDENS IN TEXAS REAL ESTATE


by David J. Willis, J.D., LL.M.

Introduction

Alis pendens (or more properly, a “notice of lis pendens”) is an affidavit filed in the county clerk’s real property records announcing that a lawsuit involving local real estate is pending in a certain court. “Generally speaking, the purpose of lis pendens notice is twofold: (1) to protect the filing party's alleged rights to the property that is in dispute in the lawsuit and (2) to put those interested in the property on notice of the lawsuit.” David Powers Homes, Inc. V. M.L. Rendleman Co., Inc. 355 S.W.3d 327,336 (Tex.App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2011, no pet.).

A lis pendens indicates that a civil action is pending pertaining to title to real property, the establishment of an interest in real property, or enforcement of an encumbrance against real property. These are specific statutory categories (Prop. Code sec. 12.007(a)). Another way to say this is that the law will not support the filing of a lis pendens unless the property itself is truly the subject of the suit. A notice that indirectly affects the property (merely “collateral” to it, in the parlance of the case law) is not valid. Flores v. Haberman, 915 S.W.2d 477, 478 (Tex.1995). For instance, a suit seeking only monetary damages would not justify the filing of a lis pendens, nor would a suit to specifically enforce or set aside an earnest money contract, because neither of these pertain to the property itself—only to a breach of contract to convey the property, a subtle but meaningful legal distinction.

Rule Relating to Bona Fide Purchasers

Although a lis pendens is not a lien, it is often viewed in a similar light and can therefore have the effect of stopping a sale. Why? Because constructive notice of litigation has now been given to potential buyers.  Prop. Code sec. 13.004(a) states that a “recorded lis pendens is notice to the world of its contents.” If this were not the case, the rule regarding a bona fide purchaser (“BFP”) would apply—i.e., a buyer who purchases real property for valuable consideration without notice of a disputed claim or prior interest does so free of that claim or interest. Accordingly, if a notice of lis pendens is properly filed, then a buyer (by definition) cannot be a BFP; at best the buyer becomes a purchaser pendente lite, meaning that he or she would take title subject to the outcome of the litigation. Additionally, a title company will not usually issue an owner’s policy of title insurance to a buyer until the lawsuit is cleared up and/or the lis pendens is canceled. The result is that a seller involved in litigation concerning a property cannot easily get rid of the problem by selling that property to someone else. Without this rule, the parties could be prevented from justly resolving their litigation and the authority of the courts defeated.

Note that if a prospective purchaser has actual notice of a pending suit, then the lis pendens doctrine applies whether or not a statutory notice has been filed in the real property records. A buyer cannot know about a lawsuit (from whatever source) and still claim to be a BFP.

Governing Law

The law governing lis pendens arises from equitable common law but has been significantly enhanced by statute.  Property Code sections 12.007, 12.0071, and 12.008 state that the notice itself must contain specific facts. Section 12.007(b) and (d) state:

(b) The party filing a lis pendens or the party’s agent or attorney shall sign the lis pendens, which must state

(1) the style and number, if any, of the proceeding;
(2) the court in which the proceeding is pending;
(3) the names of the parties;
(4) the kind of proceeding; and
(5) a description of the property affected.

(d) Not later than the third day after the date a person files a notice for record under this section the person must serve a copy of the notice on each party to the action who has an interest in the real property affected by the notice.

A notice that does not satisfy the requirements of the statute may, upon motion, be ordered canceled or expunged by the court. Property Code section 12.0071 contains the requirements for a motion to expunge. Section 12.008 further addresses the subject of cancellation:

(a) On the motion of a party . . . the court hearing the action may cancel the lis pendens . . . if the court determines that the party seeking affirmative relief can be adequately protected by the deposit of money into court or by the giving of an undertaking.

Duration of a Lis Pendens

“A lis pendens operates only during the pendency of the [underlying] suit, and only as to those matters that are involved in the suit.  It terminates with the judgment, in the absence of an appeal.” Rosborough v. Cook, 108 Tex. 364, 367, 194 S.W. 131, 132 (1917). A timely appeal or motion for new trial extends the operative effect of the lis pendens. “Because the recording of a lis pendens is specifically authorized by statute and has no existence separate and apart from the litigation of which it gives notice . . . the filing of a notice of lis pendens . . . is a part of the ‘judicial proceeding.’” Kropp v. Prather, 526 S.W.2d 283 (Tex.Civ.App.—Tyler 1975, write ref’d n.r.e.). In other words, a lis pendens has no life of its own apart from the lawsuit that underlies it. A lis pendens does not represent a stand-alone claim of its own. Collins v. Tex Mall, L.P., 297 S.W.3d 409, 419 (Tex.App.—Fort Worth 2009, no pet.).

Cancellation of a Lis Pendens

If a lis pendens is wrongfully filed, a court may order it canceled by means of a motion to expunge In the hearing on the motion, “the curt shall order the notice of lis pendens expunged if the court determines that . . . that claimant fails to establish by a preponderance of the evidence the probable validity of the real property claim. . . .” (Prop. Code sec. 12.0071(c)(2)). In other words, it can be expected that a lis pendens that is based on tenuous or bogus assertions regarding the subject property will not survive a challenge.

Penalties for Wrongful or Fraudulent Filings

The Property Code does not grant an express penalty for filing a wrongful or fraudulent lis pendens. As a result, “courts have given a broad reading to § 12.008, so as to grant an effective remedy.” See Prappas v. Meyerland Cmty. Improvement Ass’n, 795 S.W.2d 794, 798 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1990, writ denied). 

Although lis pendens are generally considered to be privileged, even if filed with malice (just as all that is said in the underlying litigation is privileged), this protection does not extend to all aspects of the lawsuit. Rule 13 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure provides sanctions if lawsuits are “groundless and brought in bad faith or groundless and brought for the purpose of harassment. . . . ‘Groundless’ for purposes of this rule means no basis in law or fact and not warranted by good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law.” So a word of caution is in order: the filing of a frivolous lis pendens could potentially open the door to Rule 13 sanctions in connection with the conduct of the lawsuit generally.  

It is also worth looking at Civil Practice and Remedies Code section 12.002 which addresses “liability related to . . . a fraudulent lien or claim filed against real or personal property.” Since a lis pendens could be interpreted as a claim of sorts, or at least the memorandum of one, the filer could potentially incur liability under this statute if aspects of the lis pendens or the underlying suit are found to be fraudulent. A person who knowingly and intentionally files a fraudulent lien may be held liable in civil district court for the greater of $10,000 or actual damages, exemplary damages, and recovery of attorney’s fees and costs. It is also a criminal offense. See Tex. Penal Code § 37.01. If applicable, a cause of action under Chapter 12 should be included in any suit against the filer of the lis pendens. 

Additionally, the filing of a fraudulent lien or claim may under certain circumstances form the basis of a cause of action under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act, Tex. Bus. & Com. Code §§ 17.44 et seq.

Conclusion

Lis pendensare a useful tool but are subject to abuse as well as potential consequences. They must be employed in strict compliance with the statute and not merely to gain advantage in a dispute over a real estate closing.

DISCLAIMER

Information in this article is proved for general educational purposes only and is not offered as legal advice upon which anyone may rely.  The law changes. Legal counsel relating to your individual needs and circumstances is advisable before taking any action that has legal consequences.  Consult your tax advisor as well since we do not offer tax advice.  This firm does not represent you unless and until it is retained and expressly retained in writing to do so.

Copyright © 2015 by David J. Willis. All rights reserved worldwide. David J. Willis is board certified in both residential and commercial real estate law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. More information is available at his website, http://www.LoneStarLandLaw.com