A Lis Pendens Is A Powerful, But Limited, Tool For Hawaii Real Estate Litigation Lawyers

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In Hawaii, a Notice of Pendency of Action, or Lis Pendens, is a written notice, filed in the Bureau of Conveyances, stating that there is a pending lawsuit regarding the ownership of that specific real property.  Although seemingly simple, a Notice of Pendency of Action is an enormous encumbrance on a piece of property, and should be used sparingly.  In fact, once the lis pendens is filed, the property becomes nearly impossible to transfer because a buyer will not purchase property whose title is in question.  HRS § 634–51, which authorizes a Notice of Pendency of Action provides as follows:

Recording notice of pendency of action. In any action concerning real property or affecting title or the right of possession of real property, the plaintiff, at the time of filing the complaint, and any other party at the time of filing a pleading in which affirmative relief is claimed, or at any time afterwards, may record in the bureau of conveyances a notice of the pendency of the action, containing the names or designations of the parties, as set out in the summons or pleading, the object of the action or claim for affirmative relief, and a description of the property affected thereby. From and after the time of recording the notice, a person who becomes a purchaser or incumbrancer of the property affected shall be deemed to have constructive notice of the pendency of the action and be bound by any judgment entered therein if the person claims through a party to the action; provided that in the case of registered land, section 501–151 shall govern.

The Notice of Pendency of Action had such a potential for litigation abuse that in 1994, the Hawaii Supreme Court in S. Utsunomiya Enterprises, Inc. v. Moomuku Country Club, 75 Haw. 480, 866 P.2d 951 (Hawaii 1994), clarified the limited use of the NOPA.  In Utsunomiya, the Hawaii Supreme Court wrote that “a lis pendens may only be filed in connection with an action (1) ‘concerning real property,’ (2) ‘affecting title’ to real property, or (3) ‘affecting … the right of possession of real property.’” (quoting Kaapu v. Aloha Tower Dev. Corp., 72 Haw. 267, 269–70, 814 P.2d 396, 397 (1991) (citing HRS § 634–51)).  Furthermore, the Court stated that, “although the lis pendens doctrine may be applied to actions other than foreclosures, application of the doctrine must be restricted ‘in order to avoid its abuse.'”  Utsunomiya, 75 Haw. at 513.  Finally, the court held that “the lis pendens statute must be strictly construed and … the application of lis pendens should be limited to actions directly seeking to obtain title to or possession of real property.” Id. at 510.