Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Civil Division (CAR1066-08) (Hon. Jeanette Jackson Clark, Trial Judge).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blackburne-rigsby, Associate Judge
Before BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, THOMPSON, and OBERLY, Associate Judges.
Appellant Bank of America ("Bank") appeals from the trial court's summary judgment award in favor of appellee, Trustee Mark G. Griffin. This case requires us to interpret the District of Columbia's lis pendens statute, D.C. Code § 42-1207 (2000), and decide (for the first time) whether it has retroactive effect vis-à-vis the common-law rights of priority that existed as of June 24, 2000, the day on which the statute took effect.*fn1 We conclude that it does not, and for the reasons explained more fully below, we affirm.
The instant quiet-title action concerns a piece of property (the "Property") whose ownership had been contested in an earlier, separate lawsuit (the "Original Lawsuit"). The Original Lawsuit was filed June 11, 1999, by Charles T. Durosko's stepchildren to challenge his ownership of the Property. Durosko's stepchildren alleged that he had improperly transferred the Property from a marital trust into his own name. More than seven years after the Original Lawsuit was filed, on August 21, 2006, the trial court entered judgment in favor of Durosko's stepchildren, imposing a constructive trust (the "Trust") on the Property and ordering Durosko to convey it to the Trust free of all encumbrances.*fn2
During the seven years in which the Original Lawsuit was pending, however, there were two important developments that are particularly relevant for our purposes here. First, the D.C. Council enacted a lis pendens statute that upended the common-law rule regarding rights of priority in the District of Columbia. See D.C. Code § 42-1207.*fn3 The "Notice of pendency of action (lis pendens)" statute went into effect on June 24, 2000, approximately one year after Durosko's stepchildren filed the Original Lawsuit. Second, about five months before the final judgment was entered in the Original Lawsuit, in March 2006, Mr. Durosko took out a mortgage on the Property from Seattle Mortgage Company ("Original Lender"). Mr. Durosko borrowed more than $250,000 and the Original Lender secured the loan with a deed of trust (the "Deed of Trust"). Appellant Bank is now the beneficiary of the Deed of Trust.
It is undisputed that Durosko's stepchildren never filed a statutory notice of lis pendens in accordance with D.C. Code § 42-1207. Appellee argues that such a filing was unnecessary, though, because Durosko's stepchildren's right of priority traces back (via the common-law rule in effect at the time) to the filing of the Original Lawsuit, on June 11, 1999. Appellant, on the other hand, argues that the Original Lender reasonably relied on D.C. Code § 42-1207 - which, at that point, had been in effect for six years already - when it searched only the statutory notices of lis pendens that had been filed with the Recorder of Deeds. Ultimately, then, the outcome of this case turns on whether D.C. Code § 42-1207 has retroactive effect vis-à-vis the common-law rights of priority that existed before the statute went into effect.
Appellant challenges the trial court's summary judgment award, which we review de novo. Rockler v. Sevareid, 691 A.2d 97, 99 (D.C. 1997). We view the record in the light most favorable to appellant, and "[o]ur role is to determin[e] whether the trial court properly concluded there was no genuine issue of material fact and that [appellee] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). The ultimate issue in this case concerns the proper interpretation of D.C. Code § 42-1207, which involves a "clear question of law" that we review de novo. District of Columbia v. Morrissey, 668 A.2d 792, 796 (D.C. 1995).
As noted above, before D.C. Code § 42-1207 took effect on June 24, 2000, the District of Columbia adhered to the common-law doctrine of lis pendens. See, e.g., Tillerson, supra, 916 A.2d at 156. In general, the concept of lis pendens - whether defined by statute or by common law - "has the legal effect of providing constructive notice of pending litigation involving real property interests." Id.*fn4 As we reiterated in Tillerson:
Under lis pendens, nothing relating to the subject matter of the suit could be changed while it was pending and one acquiring an interest in the property involved therein from a party thereto took such interest subject to the parties' rights as finally determined, and was conclusively bound by the results of the litigation. The property may still be transferred but the purchaser or encumbrancer (historically named the "purchaser pendente lite") takes the property subject to the final judgment rendered in the pending litigation. The resulting judgment and the interest preserved or obtained through the judgment relate back to the lis pendens date, and any party whose interest in the property arose during the interim period is subject to the final judgment.
Id. at 156-57 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted; italics in original).
Under the common-law doctrine of lis pendens, the mere filing of an action affecting title to real property in the District was sufficient to put potential purchasers on notice. See, e.g., Lewis v. Jordan Inv., Inc., 725 A.2d 495, 500 (D.C. 1999). In Lewis, we applied the common-law rule of lis pendens even though we recognized that it imposed a "potentially harsh" result in that case. Id. There, the trial court concluded that the appellee was a purchaser in good faith because it had no notice of the appellants' claim to the property. Id. We reversed, however, reasoning that the "status of our law" at the time dictated - as a matter of law, via the common-law doctrine of lis pendens - ...