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Supreme Judicial Court Eliminates Sovereign Immunity for Certain Property-Related Declaratory Judgment Actions

While the Commonwealth enjoys sovereign immunity from suits in many cases, today the Supreme Judicial Court in Walter E. Fernald Corp. v. Governor, SJC-11801 (May 29, 2015) limited its ability to avoid litigation in respect to challenges to ownership of parcels of recorded land.

The Plaintiff, the charitable Walter E. Fernald Corporation, established in 1850, brought suit in the Land Court seeking a declaratory judgment under G.L. c. 231A that it was the owner of certain parcels of land on Norcross Hill in Templeton, some of which the Commonwealth had asserted ownership of for conservation and public recreational purposes.  The Commonwealth claimed that it was immune from suit by virtue of the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

The Land Court denied the Commonwealth’s motion to dismiss the corporation’s suit on grounds of sovereign immunity, and allowed the Corporation’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that there could be no genuine dispute that, although a school established by the corporation has become an agency of the Commonwealth in the early 20th century, the corporation itself remained independent of the Commonwealth, and purchased the Templeton parcels on its own behalf.  The Commonwealth appealed.

The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the Land Court’s decision, holding “that our common-law sovereign immunity doctrine does not reach the specific type of suit at issue here, namely, one in which a plaintiff asserts its own ownership of specified parcels of recorded land.”  This is in keeping with the Court’s view, implemented through a number of cases, that “sovereign immunity creates an ‘inversion of the law,’ shielding the government from liability for wrongs that ordinarily would be redressed,” and that sovereign immunity “strains against constitutionally protected values.”  The rule announced today is effective immediately.  Walter E. Fernald Corp. v. Governor (“By contrast, where we have held only that sovereign immunity does not reach a narrow, well-defined type of suit, we have applied those holdings without delay. We follow the same course today.”).

Examining the record and the Land Court’s analysis of the facts, the SJC confirmed that the Corporation has remained separate from the Commonwealth, and that therefore the parcels were purchased by, and still owned by, the Corporation, not the Commonwealth.

It is important to note that today’s decision does not invalidate sovereign immunity for all claims brought under the declaratory judgment statute – only those where a party challenges ownership of certain parcels of recorded land.  Additionally, as the Court noted, in cases concerning registered land the Commonwealth can be named a party by virtue of G. L. c. 185, § 45 (judgment of registration “shall be conclusive upon and against all persons, including the [C]ommonwealth”).

Link to the decision to follow once released.