Actions For Slander Of Title

Everyone's familiar with claims for defamation. Defamation occurs when one party makes a false statement about the other. The party that's been defamed can sue for money damages.

There's a special type of defamation claim, "slander of title," that is rarely used under Iowa law. Slander of title claims concern false claims about property. That can include any type of property, although slander of title claims are traditionally and most commonly used for real estate.

To win a slander of title claim, the plaintiff must prove:  (1) an uttering and publication of slanderous words; (2) falsity of those words; (3) malice; (4) special damages; and (5) an estate or interest of the plaintiff in the property slandered. If the plaintiff fails to prove any of those elements, the plaintiff loses. If the plaintiff proves all of the elements, the plaintiff wins and may be able to recover money for slander of title.

The first element requires an actual statement about the property at issue. That statement must be "published." That usually means that the statement must be made to a third party. In rare instances, simple communication of the statement among the parties can be sufficient to constitute the requisite publication, but only if the party the statement's about repeats that statement to a third party. 

The second element speaks for itself. The statement has to be false. True statements, no matter how bad or malicious, can never form the basis for a slander of title claim.

The third element, malice, of often the saving grace for defendants in slander of title cases. Even if the first two elements are met, the defendant can escape liability for slander of title if the plaintiff fails to prove that the defendants made the false statements maliciously. To prove malice, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant made the false statement in bad faith and without probable cause or a reasonable belief in the truthfulness of the statement. A mistaken belief is not sufficient to establish the malice element.

The plaintiff also has to prove damages stemming from the slander of title. The damages can't be speculative or hypothetical. At least involving real estate, common damages in a slander of title case are loss of market value because of the slander or attorney fees incurred in addressing any issues with the property ownership records or title chain caused by the slander.

One reason why slander of title cases are rare is that there is absolute immunity from slander claims for statements made during or related to judicial proceedings. The great majority of comments about someone's property occur during the court process. Iowa does not allow claims for slander based on such statements. It doesn't matter how false or malicious the statement was -- If it's related to a legal claim and confined to that legal claim and not repeated outside the court process, the statement's absolutely privileged and can't form the basis for a slander of title claim. That means that the most common type of statement about someone's property -- one made during the judicial process -- is not eligible for a slander of title claim, this eliminating many possible such claims and making them a rare event.  

Harley Erbe