Defective Lis Pendens In Wisc. Suit Doesn’t Warrant Contempt Sanctions Against NY Lawyer – Seventh Circuit Says

imageThe Seventh Circuit recently considered the scope of civil contempt of court and the range of permissible sanctions for an out-of-state attorney who misfiles a document that potentially impedes the sale of real estate.

In Trade Well International v. United Central Bank, (http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1691932.html) a New York attorney admitted temporarily in Wisconsin to pursue a Federal case there mistakenly filed a construction lien when he meant to file a lis pendens in a replevin suit seeking the return of furnishings his client provided to a Wisconsin hotel.  The lien clouded the hotel’s title and put a wrench in the defendant’s efforts to sell it to a third party.

As a sanction for the faulty filing, the district judge revoked the lawyer’s pro hac vice status (this allows a lawyer from state to practice temporarily in another), held him in contempt and fined him $500.  The lawyer appealed.

Held: Reversed. The sanction was too harsh.

Q: Why?

A: Under Wisconsin law, a lis pendens must be filed whenever legal relief is sought affecting real property that could confirm or change interests in that property.  The lis pendens must be filed in the register of deeds for the county where the real estate is located.  Fixtures are classified as real property by Wisconsin statute.

When a lis pendens is filed, a subsequent purchaser or lender on the property is bound by the proceedings in the same manner as a party to the lawsuit.

A lis pendens prepared by a member of the Wisconsin Bar doesn’t have to be authenticated. But where a non-member of the Wisconsin Bar prepares it, the lis pendens must be authenticated (sworn to under oath by a public officer of the State).

The purpose of the lis pendens is to give constructive notice to third parties that there is a pending judicial proceeding involving real estate.  A  lis pendens differs from a construction lien in that (unlike the construction lien) it doesn’t create a lien on real property.

Here, the attorney’s lis pendens was facially deficient since it referenced Wisc’s construction lien statute and it wasn’t properly authenticated.

The court then discussed the applicable contempt of court nomenclature.  A contempt sanction is civil if it is “remedial” but criminal if “punitive.” Where a litigant or lawyer is punished for out-of-court conduct, the contempt is “indirect.” For criminal contempt, the court must give notice to the party that it is being charged (with criminal contempt) and must ask the government to prosecute the contempt.

Before holding someone in civil contempt, the court must specify what “unequivocal” court order or command was violated by the person being sanctioned.  An order of contempt is immediately appealable.

Reversing the district court’s contempt finding, the Seventh Circuit held it was unclear whether the contempt finding was criminal or civil since the trial judge didn’t specify in the order.

The record also showed that the attorney was at most negligent: he mistakenly recorded a lis pendens that referenced (but shouldn’t have) Wisconsin’s construction lien statute. The Seventh Circuit stressed that negligence or hasty drafting isn’t enough to support a finding of bad faith under the law.

Since the district court couldn’t articulate the basis for its contempt finding against the NY attorney and because there was no evidence of intentional conduct by him, the contempt sanctions were improper and the contempt order was vacated.

Take-aways:

1/ Out-of-state counsel must familiarize himself with applicable law in the jurisdiction he’s temporarily admitted to practice in and should probably retain local counsel to assist who is more versed in the specifics of the forum/foreign jurisdiction;

2/ A contempt order must specify whether it’s civil or criminal and must explicitly reference the court order that was violated;

3/ Criminal contempt has a due process component: the sanctioned party must be given notice and an opportunity to be heard and the government must prosecute the formal civil contempt proceeding.

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.