By Giles L. Krill
Last October, the Rules Committee of the Supreme Judicial Court approved “Proposed Land Court
Rule 14: Binding Summary Decision Following Bench Trial: Waiver by Parties of Special Findings of Fact and Separate Rules of Law.” The Land Court Department of the Trial Court promulgated Rule 14 as one of multiple initiatives carried out in accordance with SJC Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants’ request that each Trial Court Department convene a working group of judges, court staff, and attorneys to develop a “menu of options in civil cases that will ensure litigants the opportunity to have a cost-effective means to resolve their dispute in a court of law.”
Rule 14 provides litigants and their counsel with the option to proceed to a bench trial under a stipulation waiving the requirement in Mass. R. Civ. P. 52(a) that the court “shall find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law thereon.” If such stipulation is approved by the trial judge, the trial decision need not include “detailed written findings of fact and rulings of law” but will instead be in a written or oral form “comparable to a jury verdict.” Such decision must also, at a minimum, “answer special questions on the elements of each claim, at a level of detail comparable to a special jury verdict form pursuant to Mass. R. Civ. P. 49(a).” In addition, the trial decision may include special or subsidiary findings of fact in a form “comparable to the general verdict form of a jury accompanied by answers to interrogatories in a case submitted to a jury as provided in Mass. R. Civ. P. 49(b).”
Rule 14 is a purely elective rule that not only requires the parties to voluntarily opt in, but also requires that their attorneys put significant thought into the stipulation that they submit for court approval. In addition to waiving Mass. R. Civ. P. 52(a) findings and rulings, the parties’ stipulation must: i) set forth the form of any questions of fact they request to have answered by the trial judge, ii) indicate whether they waive rights of appeal, iii) waive any argument, both at trial and on appeal, that depends on the existence of detailed written findings of fact, and iv) acknowledge that the appellate standard of review shall be “that which would apply to a verdict by a jury in a case tried to a jury and to the judgment entered thereon.” In order to obtain court approval of the Rule 14 stipulation, it logically follows that the parties should agree to a substantial number of undisputed facts and frame the trial issues in a manner that is susceptible to a ruling in the nature of a jury verdict, including by proposing the form of the “special questions on the elements of each claim” that must be answered by the trial judge. While the court retains discretion to render full Mass. R. Civ. P. 52(a) findings of fact and conclusions of law, Rule 14 specifically provides that once the court accepts the parties’ stipulation, it shall not make findings or rulings without first giving the parties a chance to object and be heard.
Rule 14 provides Land Court litigants with a means to obtain a speedier resolution of their disputes. Land Court cases often exact a toll on the parties regardless of outcome. After all, the pendency of litigation can frustrate attempts to sell, mortgage, develop or otherwise make profitable use of the land subject to the litigation. Clients feel this hardship with every passing day that they await a decision and entry of final judgment. However, in certain cases the divisive issue can be reduced to a discrete “yes or no” question, such as: i) whether a party can carry its burden of proving title by adverse possession, ii) whether a municipal by-law applies to a certain land use activity, or iii) whether a signature on a deed was forged. In such cases, Rule 14 presents an opportunity for parties to obtain the answer they need to move on with their lives at or near the conclusion of the trial evidence in much the same way a jury trial provides more immediate closure. At the same time, because the Land Court has an individual calendar system, the parties receive the benefit of a particular Land Court judge serving as the trier of fact in a case the judge knows well on its unique facts, in addition to the judge’s extensive background in commonly occurring issues of law and fact that can permeate real property controversies.
The final version of Rule 14 differs from the original version submitted for public comment in March of 2016. Among other differences, the original proposal simply required the court to “decide only the ultimate issue(s) tried”, whereas the final version requires at a minimum, that the decision “answer special questions on the elements of each claim, at a level of detail comparable to a special jury verdict form.” This revision ensures that in cases where appellate rights are preserved, the appellate courts will have some insight into the reasoning of the Land Court judge.
Wile most parties opting for Rule 14 disposition will likely reserve rights of appeal, as a practical matter Rule 14 makes the most sense in controversies where the parties do not intend to appeal. Appeals from civil jury verdicts are typically confined to issues such as evidentiary rulings and jury instructions, and it is harder to envision a tenable appeal on such grounds after Rule 14 forces the parties to collaborate on a thoughtful stipulation that streamlines the case into a discrete set of questions. Furthermore, the appellate process will add to the delay that is avoided by opting for a Rule 14 trial decision, and certain categories of Land Court cases that proceed to trial are unlikely to be disturbed on appeal regardless of outcome. For example, the appellate courts will give substantial deference to the fact-finding of the Land Court judge in assessing matters such as witness credibility or land characteristics gleaned from a “view” of the property in question. In cases where the outcome turns on such factual assessments by the trial judge, the parties are not necessarily making a sacrifice by foregoing the broader spectrum of appellate argument that findings and rulings under Mass. R. Civ. P. 52(a) might afford. In short, in certain classes of cases in which the law is long decided and an appellate reversal is unlikely, Rule 14 provides Land Court litigants with a viable path to quicker case closure.
A member of the Association’s litigation section, Giles Krill has over fifteen years of diverse legal experience, focusing on commercial litigation, real estate, environmental and land use law. He served as a REBA representative on the Land Court’s working group which developed Rule 14. His practice includes the representation of individuals and businesses, including developers, insurers, and lenders. Giles can be reached at email@example.com.