Winter 2005-03 Government immune from liability for mistakes of property registrars

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Number 58
Winter 2005

Government immune from liability for mistakes of property registrars

In Nelly Santiago, et al v. E.L.A., a decision rendered on October 20, 2004, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico decided that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is entitled to raise the defense of state immunity for the negligent act of a registrar of property, when he failed to include the name of a co-defendant in recording a court judgment in the judgment record kept for his district.

The Court held that the responsibility of registrars of passing judgment on the legality of documents is similar to a judicial function ("quasi-judicial"); thus, the government cannot be held liable for this omission.

The facts

In the case of Torres et al. v. Figueroa et al., the trial court had entered judgment in favor of the plaintiffs for the sum of $72,000.00, plus interest and court costs. Torres had died at the time when the judgment was entered, and his wife had been appointed administrator of the estate. To secure the collection of the debt, the administrator filed a petition with the Registry of Property regarding the recordation of the judgment against the defendants. Another petition was subsequently filed, indicating two parcels of land that were to be encumbered by the judgment.

However, when the judgment was recorded, the registrar did not include the name of co-defendant Marina Figueroa Hernandez-apparently an oversight of the registrar and his staff. Eight months later, Figueroa Hernandez segregated and sold a parcel.

Approximately three months after the parcel was sold, realizing his omission, the registrar entered a notation expressing that "the judgment recorded is against Ms. Cruz Figueroa Delgado and Mrs. Marina Figueroa Hernandez." It was, however, too late.

Complaint

The administrator of the estate then filed a complaint against the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, claiming damages for the negligent act of the Registrar.

The trial court dismissed it on the grounds that Law Number 104 of June 29, 1955, 32 P.R. Laws Ann. § 3081(b), provides that the Commonwealth is not liable for the "negligent acts or omissions of its functionaries and employees . . . when it involves a duty that requires the exercise of their discretionary powers, even though there might have been an abuse of discretion." The Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed the decision on the same grounds.

The administrator then appealed to the Supreme Court. She mainly argued that the action of the registrar of recording the judgment was not a discretionary function, but, rather, that it was his ministerial or administrative duty to do it properly. Therefore, she concluded, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was liable in damages for the negligent act of the registrar.

The decision

The Court rejected the argument in a split four-to-three decision.

In its opinion the Court asserted that the registrar must pass judgment on every document that is presented for recordation. This process requires the interpretation and application of the law to determine if the document can be recorded with all the legal consequences that the Registry of Property affords. Although it cannot be said that this legal exercise is a "judicial function," the Court added, it does carry certain judicial attributes that are separate and distinct from performing a routine action.

A judgment that is recorded in the judgment record serves as notice that all properties to the name of the defendant located within the territorial range of that district of the Registry have been attached to secure the collection of the judgment. Although the lien does not prevent the sale of the property, it survives the sale and attaches to the property no matter who the owner is. That is why the registrar must, before recording a judgment, pass judgment on:

the jurisdiction of the court and the scope of the judgment rendered, and whether the legal proceedings were observed,

"the extrinsic reliability of the documents presented," and

"the Registry data." ◙

§ 1806. Recorded judgment as lien on real property.

When a judgment has been recorded and indexed, as provided for in the preceding sections, it shall at once operate as a lien upon all the immovable property of the defendant or defendants, not exempt from execution, situated in the district where such abstract is recorded, and upon the immovable property which the defendant or defendants may thereafter acquire in such district, and such lien shall be of like nature and preference as those mentioned in subsection (5) of § 5193 of Title 31.


© 2005 Goldman Antonetti