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, ( 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.


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.

Land Trust Beneficial Interest is Personal Property; Related Realty Can’t Be Liened by Creditor (IL Law)

It’s easy to robotically parrot the “beneficial interest in a land trust is personal property” rule but First Clover Leaf Bank v. Bank of Edwarsville, 2014 WL 6612947 (5th Dist. 2014) actually examines the rule’s impact against the factual backdrop of a judgment creditor trying to lien a debtor’s residence.

The creditor plaintiff obtained a $400,000-plus judgment against a husband and wife (the “Shareholders”) on various commercial guaranties they signed.  A corporation that the Shareholders each held a 50% stake in was the beneficiary of a land trust that held title to the Shareholders’ home (the “Property”).

When plaintiff learned that the Shareholders were trying to sell the Property for over $700,000, it recorded a lis pendens based on its earlier breach of guaranty judgment.  The lis pendens filing dissuaded the Property’s contract purchaser from closing and a lender later sued to foreclose on the Property.

The plaintiff then filed suit against the land trust, the corporate beneficiary (the Shareholders’ company) and the Shareholders to impose a constructive trust over the foreclosure sale proceeds.  The trial court granted plaintiff’s summary judgment motion and imposed a constructive trust on the proceeds.  The court also held that the corporate beneficiary was the alter ego of the Shareholders and so plaintiff was entitled to a constructive trust on each Shareholder’s equitable interest in the foreclosure sale proceeds.  The land trust appealed.

Held: reversed.  Land trust beneficial interest is personal property; not real property.  As a result, the lis pendens recording didn’t affect the corporate beneficiary’s interest in the Property.


A beneficiary’s interest in a land trust is personal property and is not considered real estate;

– To create a security interest in personal property, a creditor must look to Article 9 of the UCC;

– Assignment of a beneficial interest in an Illinois land trust transfers an interest in personal property and does not give the assignee a direct interest in the real estate subject to the trust;

– A lien on a beneficial interest is not a lien on the real estate itself;

– A corporation will be deemed an alter ego of a controlling shareholder where the corporation is inadequately capitalized, doesn’t issue stock or observe corporate formalities, fails to pay dividends, is insolvent, has no records and nonfunctioning officers;

– Illinois has a general reluctance to pierce the corporate veil and a party seeking to pierce must make a substantial showing on all these factors;

– A lis pendens notice can only be filed when real estate is involved (735 ILCS 5/2-1901); it is not proper to file in connection with a personal judgment against someone

(¶¶ 15-18)

Here, the Shareholders had no legal interest in the Property.  They were shareholders in a corporation that was a beneficiary of the land trust that held title to the Property.  The corporate beneficiary’s interest in the land trust was personal property.  Because of this, the Shareholders interest in that corporate beneficiary was also personal property.

The net effect: plaintiff could not impress a lien against the Property in efforts to enforce its guaranty judgments against the Shareholders. Instead, Plaintiff should have filed a UCC financing statement (in the Secretary of State’s office) to lien the beneficial interest in the land trust.  Since the shareholders had no definable legal interest in the Property (it was owned by the land trust), plaintiff couldn’t assert a constructive trust against the Property foreclosure sale proceeds.

Take-away:  A factually convoluted and tortured case that illustrates the challenges creditors face trying to untangle complex webs of corporate protection to reach a controlling individual’s assets.  If in the creditor’s position, in addition to filing a UCC statement, I think I would issue third-party citations on the land trust entity and the corporate beneficiary.  Then, I would try to impress a lien or seek a turnover order as to any of the Shareholders interests in either the land trust or the corporate beneficiary.