The client-Law Firm, which specializes in representing condominium and community entities, initiated a lawsuit against a condominium developer seeking monetary and declaratory relief. The suit was based on a statute that appeared to mandate the automatic reversion of legal title of unbuilt condominium units to the Condo Owner Association if, after ten years, the Developer failed to build and complete those units per a filed Master Plan.
After a ten-year building hiatus, the Developer began undertaking the build out of three lots (out of dozens still unbuilt) and was in the process of selling one of the lots. The Law Firm, citing the statute, filed a Claim of Interest in the real estate records, on behalf of its client (the Condo Owner Association), asserting property rights in all unbuilt lots, including the three under construction.
A lawsuit followed by the client-Law Firm (on behalf of the Condo Association) against the Developer. Developer filed separate legal claims against the Law Firm claiming that its legal advice and actions constituted slander of title and tortious interference with contractual relations and interference with the economic expectancies of the Developer.
The Lipson, Neilson team argued that no improper tortious interfering conduct existed to sustain the interference claims, only lawful and professional legal advice to clients proffered in good faith to assist in protecting disputed property rights. The trial judge agreed and dismissed the interference claims, noting that the filing of a lawsuit to declare disputed property rights is the essence of proper – not tortious – conduct. The Trial Court also agreed that no slander of title claims could survive because of the lack of legal malice – namely, the law firm engaged in a good faith interpretation of a statute that had never been the subject of a legal opinion by any appellate court or the Michigan Supreme Court.
Under this circumstance, malice did not exist when the position advocated by the law firm is in good faith and posited a reasonable belief in a valid protectable property interest. The non-existence of malice was underscored by the lack of any existing legal authority to contradict the Law Firm’s reasoned belief (even if it is later determined to be legally inaccurate.)