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Despite Lis Pendens, Onus Generally On Plaintiffs (Mortgagees), Not Tenants, To Deal With Leasehold Interests In Mortgage Foreclosure Actions

This follows-up my June 28th post about Myers v. Leedy, “To Terminate Post-Mortgage Leases, Tenants Generally Must Be Named In Foreclosure Actions.”  What actions must the tenant take if it knows or should know about a pending foreclosure action? 

Seller’s contention.  One of the arguments of the land contract seller on appeal of the Myers case was that the tenant had both constructive and actual knowledge of the pending breach of contract action at the time the tenant entered into the lease for the 2006 crop season.  The seller claimed it should not have been forced to name the tenant as a defendant in the action; rather, the tenant should himself have intervened in that action in order to protect his interests. 

Lis pendens, generally.  The seller’s argument triggered the Court’s analysis of Indiana lis pendens law.  See, Ind. Code §§ 32-30-11-1 to 10 and Indiana T. R. 63.1.  “Lis pendens” is Latin for “pending suit.”  The Court outlined that, historically, lis pendens provided that one who acquires an interest in real estate during the pendency of a lawsuit concerning the title to that real estate takes notice of such lawsuit and has to take its interest in the real estate subject to any subsequent judgment.  Ind. Code § 32-30-11-2 modified the common law and requires that the plaintiff file a separate, written notice with the county clerk’s office to perfect the lis pendens protections.  (I also wrote about lis pendens on 12-27-07 and 9-20-07.) 

Lis pendens, exception.  Statutory written notice is not required if the suit is founded upon a written instrument executed by the party having title to the real estate (like a mortgage) as appears from the properly-filed county records.  Thus the filing of the mortgage foreclosure complaint itself will provide the requisite constructive notice to post-suit claimants.  From the Court: 

We have no quarrel with the general proposition that the commencement of a foreclosure action standing alone provides third parties with constructive notice of a pending lawsuit. 

Constructive notice, but . . ..  In Myers, the seller retained legal title to the subject real estate, which interest was reflected by the memorandum of contract recorded in the county recorder’s office.  Under Indiana lis pendens law, therefore, the tenant was deemed to have constructive notice of the suit on the land contract against the buyer commenced two years before the subject lease.  But the Court did not adopt the seller’s lis pendens-related argument, reasoning that it “makes no sense” to say that a lis pendens notice of a foreclosure proceeding should bind a tenant already in possession.  To hold otherwise, a tenant in possession “must regularly check the records of the County Recorder’s office to determine whether a foreclosure action has been filed.” 

Actual notice side-stepped.  The Court also addressed the issue of the tenant’s alleged actual notice of the underlying lawsuit.  Should the tenant have intervened in the pending litigation of which he was aware?  In the final analysis, it appears that the Court may have simply concluded that the evidence was not altogether clear on whether, or to what extent, the tenant knew of the suit as it may have related to the real estate and his rights.  The Court ultimately affirmed the trial court’s finding that, among other things, the tenant should have been allowed to finish planting and harvesting his crop in 2006.  The Court had to choose a side, and it did.

“Should have known.”  As noted in my June 28th post, one of the critical factors in the Court’s decision was that the seller had actual knowledge that the tenant was farming the property at the time seller filed suit.  Thus the Court did not expand on the “upon reasonable diligence should have known” part of the test.  The Court appears to be deliberate in its requirement of notice of a tenant’s “possession” of the property.  The Court’s charge seems to be that lenders must undertake reasonable measures to determine whether there is a tenant in possession of the property.  To me, this implies observing the real estate.  Perhaps a site visit or property inspection may need to occur.  Having said that, we must remember that Myers was not a mortgage foreclosure case and dealt with the unique situation of a single tenant (farmer) on the property.  Ultimately, a secured lender’s “reasonable diligence” will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. 

Business decision.  As a practical matter, in most commercial mortgage foreclosure actions the lender/mortgagee will not want to terminate any of the existing leases.  The leases generate income and thus increase the value of the property.  There are, however, instances where one or more tenants of a subject property may be undesirable and thus the target of termination.  If a business decision is made to terminate such post-mortgage leasehold interests, I recommend that you and your counsel ensure that those tenants are named as defendants in the foreclosure action.