Shhh…Quiet Title

The Court of Appeals Likes Our Quiet Title Statute and Mentions Us Several Times in Estate of Zimmerman v. Blatter 458 Md. 698 (2018)

quiet titleWe saw a need and we fixed the problem.  And now the Maryland Court of Appeals has recognized us for it.   In the opinion, the Court quotes the Fiscal and Policy Note prepared by the Department of Legislative Services that was provided to the legislators considering our bill to establish uniform process for quieting title to real property stating:

The purpose of an action to quiet title is to determine conflicting claims to real property or remove a cloud on title to property. However, State law does not specify the procedures to be followed in an action to quiet title.

The Maryland Land Title Association reports that its members are seeing inconsistent processes used from case to case and county to county. In addition, because of the uncertainty concerning the process under existing laws, title insurance underwriters may refuse to insure the title of a person who has brought an action to quiet title.

This language came right out of our written testimony in support of the bill.  And the Court of Appeals repeats it several times in the opinion.

The case is an example of the problem the legislation sought to correct.  In a nut shell, there were six acers of land between two large farms in Frederick County which had not been conveyed of record since 1886.  Thus, record title to the land remained vested in the heirs of the recorded owner who died more than 110 years ago and/or the Personal Representative the Estate of the last remaining heir who died in the 1970’s.  There was no mention of the property in such heir’s estate filings.

The plaintiff did not include the heirs or personal representatives of the record owner as defendant because of the apparent herculean effort that would have been required to make them parties.  Instead, the plaintiff sought a ruling that as between the two competing land owners, the plaintiff had a better claim to it.  But a quiet title action is designed to determine  title against the entire world so that title may be made marketable, and thus, freely alienable.  Without including record owners in the proceeding, that cannot be done.

Notwithstanding that a necessary party was not made a party to the action and over the defendant’s objection, the Circuit Court allowed the trial to move forward and issued an order stating “as between the parties, the right to posses the [six acres] is with the [plaintiff] . . . and that henceforth, between the parties the [plaintiff] has the right to use [it]. I cannot rule that the [plaintiff] has absolute ownership of the [six acres] . . . .”  Thereafter, the defendant appealed.  While the appeal was pending our quiet title statute became law.  But the Court of Special Appeals reversed the decision holding that the case should never have been tried given that an indispensable party (namely the record owner) had not been a party to the action, and thus, it directed the Circuit Court to dismiss the case.  Thereafter, the plaintiff sought a writ of certiorari.

In addition to creating a standard for prosecuting quiet title actions, we included a method for serving the heirs of deceased persons when no personal representative has been appointed.  According to the plaintiff’s counsel, under existing law when the case began, the plaintiff would have been required to open at least three estates for persons who had been deceased for more than 60 years; one of which had been dead for close to 120 years.  The new law, however, provides that if a person required to be named as a defendant is dead, or is believed  by the plaintiff to be dead, and the plaintiff knows of no personal representative, the plaintiff must state those facts in an affidavit filed with the complaint, name such persons in the complaint in a certain manner and then served them if they can be found or seek to serve them by publication after obtaining an order allowing same based on an affidavit detailing the efforts made by the plaintiff to locate such persons.  None of this requires opening estates.

In the end, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the Court of Special Appeals holding that the case should not have been dismissed given the change in the law during the proceeding.  The Court held that the new law was retroactive to cases that were then pending when the statute became law.  Given that there was now a method for including the record owners of the six acres, the court allowed the plaintiff to file an amended complaint and follow the procedures set out in our statute for including such persons as defendants.

This case is another example of what the MLTA an accomplish when we all work together for the benefit of Marylanders and the title insurance and settlement services industry.  Many members of the MLTA worked hard for two years to get the legislation passed.  Without it, we would still be getting results in the courts that served no one’s interests.

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