November 21, 2014
Among the controversies of the mortgage foreclosure crisis is that of “Robo-Signing.” A homeowner may receive notice that the original mortgage lender assigned their rights under the loan documents to another financial institution. When a representative of a lender signs paperwork to foreclose on a property, how does the borrower (or anyone else) know whether that company has authority from the originating lender to foreclose?
Janis O’Connor owned real estate near the Appomattox-Buckingham Virginia State Forest. On March 31, 2011, Deutsche Bank foreclosed on her property for nonpayment. After the foreclosure sale, Ms. O’Connor filed suit, alleging that the foreclosure was not valid because the bank lacked the authority of a proper successor to the mortgage company that originated her loan. O’Connor filed suit on her own, without an attorney representing her.
Can a Borrower Sue for “Wrongful Foreclosure?”
Janis O’Connor sued her lender (and others) on a number of legal theories, including “Wrongful Foreclosure.” She alleges that unknown persons forged assignments of her mortgage in a fraudulent scheme to foreclose on her home. She writes that this robo-signing was exposed on the television program, “60 Minutes.” The bank brought a Motion to Dismiss. On October 6, 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia found that Virginia law does not recognize a claim called “Wrongful Foreclosure.” Judge Moon observed that the borrower must be able to allege a claim for breach of loan documents, fraud, or some other recognized legal theory. Judge Moon expressed a concern that Ms. O’Connor inadequately alleged any causal relationship between the “robo-signing” and her losses.
On May 14, 2014, I posted an article to this blog about legal challenges to the validity of foreclosures on the grounds that the lender committed technical errors in navigating the loan default through the trustee’s auction. Courts are reluctant to set aside a completed foreclosure sale. The technical breaches must have a strong connection to the relief requested by the borrower.
“Show Me the Note”
The Code of Virginia addresses situations where the lender struggles to come up with documents evidencing its authority to proceed with the foreclosure. Va. Code § 55-59.1(B) requires the lender to submit to the trustee what’s called a Lost Note Affidavit. These provisions also require the lender to notify the borrower in writing that the promissory note is lost and that it will request the trustee to proceed after 14 days. The lender must include language notifying the borrower that if she believes that some other party is the true holder of the note, she must file a lawsuit asking the local circuit court to order the foreclosing bank to post bond or make some other protection against any conflicting claims. That Court would then decide whether a bond or some other security must be posted to protect the borrower. The mere absence of the original note cannot serve as a basis to reverse a foreclosure: “If the trustee proceeds to sale, the fact that the instrument is lost or cannot be produced shall not affect the authority of the trustee to sell or the validity of the sale.” Va. Code § 55-59.1(B). These provisions require borrowers to file suit before the foreclosure takes place in order to litigate over “show me the note” issues. Ms. O’Connor did not file suit until almost two years after the foreclosure sale. From the borrower’s perspective, she hasn’t been damaged until the foreclosure is complete. From the Court’s perspective, it is sometimes easier to evaluate matters prospectively than to undo the completed transaction.
Judge Moon remarks that this statute does not actually require the lender to provide the borrower with the lost note affidavit itself. The failure to provide this item cannot serve as the legal basis to reverse a bank foreclosure. Technical breaches of the notice requirements cannot, on their own, serve as a basis to invalidate a completed foreclosure sale.
Judge Moon dismissed Ms. O’Connor’s complaint, giving her leave to amend her claims for Breach of Contract and Fraud. Ms. O’Connor has filed an Amended Complaint, and the sufficiency of the amended lawsuit has not been decided by the court as of this blog post. Regardless as to how Ms. O’Connor’s case is resolved, it provides some important reminders about foreclosure contests:
- Timing of Foreclosure Contest: If a borrower wants to challenge the validity of a foreclosure, their best interests may be served in filing suit after the foreclosure notice is submitted and before the auction occurs. This does not guarantee that the “show me the note” allegation will provide a remedy for the borrower, but it does preserve the issue.
- Value of Title Insurance: Investors who desire to purchase a property in foreclosure without obtaining title insurance run the risk of being made a party to a lawsuit like Ms. O’Connor’s which may go on for months or years.
- Duties of Foreclosure Trustees: An attorney acting in the capacity as a foreclosure trustee under the loan documents may owe duties to parties other than the bank. I discuss this issue in a related May 21, 2014 blog post. However, he doesn’t have an attorney-client relationship with non-clients.
Lenders and borrowers are not the only parties that may have a property interest challenged by title problems from a past, present or future foreclosure. The purchaser in the foreclosure sale, the spouse of the borrower or purchaser, an investor in a real estate company, or a tenant may have rights at stake in foreclosure title litigation. If your property rights are threatened by such an action, contact a qualified attorney.
November 11, 2014
Today, on Veterans Day, I would like to honor veterans who have served our country. Many of them return to civilian life and make additional, substantial contributions to their communities. A few go on to struggle to protect the property rights of themselves and others. In some cases, HOA’s may even attempt to foreclose on home of a veteran for flying the flag of the United States.
Larry Murphree’s Experience in Florida with Association Flower Pot Rules:
Larry Murphree is a U.S. military veteran who owns a residential unit in the Tides Condominium at Sweetwater in Florida. In 2011, he began to display a small 11″ x 17″ flag in a flower-pot outside his front door. His Association asserted fines against Mr. Murphree and the parties found themselves in litigation. The parties reached a settlement wherein Murphree agreed to display the flag in accordance with the condominium instruments. I first heard Mr. Murphree’s story on an October 18, 2014 interview by Shu Bartholomew on her radio show and podcast, “On the Commons.”
After the settlement, the Association adopted new guidelines which permitted display of one american flag, but only in a bracket near the street number plate. The new rules prohibited owners from displaying the flag during bad weather or at night. The military and other U.S. government facilities have more rigorous etiquette for display of the American flag than what is required of private citizens. The new rules the Tides Condominium may have been an attempt to shame Mr. Murphree for not following the military flag etiquette, which a private citizen is not ordinarily required to observe.
The Association also adopted new rules for potted plants. The Association only allowed one pot, which may only contain plants and a maximum of three self-watering devices. This Association found it is necessary to regulate what items may be placed in flower-pots on the doorstep of unit owners. Undoubtedly, there are cases where neighbors erect obstructions which infringe upon the rights of their neighbors. However, Mr. Murphree’s flag does not appear to be an albatross. At Mr. Murphree’s website, http://letmeflytheflag.com, you can see the small flag display from the street view.
Mr. Murphree decided to continue to display the American flag in the flower-pot. The Association began to assess fines a $100.00 per day. They now want to foreclose on his property for the unpaid fines. The parties are in litigation again. On March 32, 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida published an opinion deciding, among other things, that the First Amendment protections do not apply against non-governmental entities like a homeowner’s association. The Court also ruled that the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005 does not provide for a right to sue a property association. It is my understanding that the litigation currently continues in Florida state court.
What About Virginia?:
In 2009, retired army veteran Colonel Van Thomas Barfoot’s association ordered him to remove a 21-foot flagpole that he used to fly the American flag. Mr. Barfoot earned the Medal of Honor and served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Barfoot won his dispute, but not without help from two senators and a former governor. Ted Strong discusses Mr. Barfoot’s story in a November 2, 2014 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
In Virginia, both the Property Owners Association Act and the Condominium Act contain provisions relating to the federal Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005. These state laws disallow associations from prohibiting owners, “from displaying upon property to which the unit owner has a separate ownership interest or a right to exclusive possession or us of the flag of the United States” where such display complies with federal law. However, the statutes do allow the association to:
establish reasonable restrictions as to the size, place, duration, and manner or placement or display of the flag on such property provided such restrictions are necessary to protect a substantial interest of the association.
In condominiums, balconies, patios and doorways are usually what’s called “limited common elements.” This would limit the usefulness of these legal protections to a homeowner desiring to display the flag in such areas.The statute does not define what “substantial interests” an association may have that would need to be protected from display of the American flag. The provisions state that the association bears the burden of proving the legitimacy of the restrictions. It is remarkable that the same government that authorize a HOA’s exercise of power would allow them to restrict or forbid a citizen’s right to display that government’s flag. The Richmond Times-Dispatch article does not discuss what federal or state statutes played a role in the outcome of Mr. Barfoot’s case.
Associations become more prevalent each year. Kirk Turner, Director of Planning of Chesterfield County told Mr. Strong that around 100% of new developments of at least 20 lots have mandatory associations: “From our standpoint, we actually encourage the creation of an HOA.” Henrico County Attorney Joseph Rapisarda explained: “To me, the HOA is like a mini-government.” If a HOA is indeed a “mini-government,” then a homeowner might expect constitutional protections normally provided against governmental intrusion. From the owner’s perspective, if the HOA has the authority of a mini-government but not the legal restrictions, that makes homes subject to association covenants less valuable. In her interview of Mr. Murphree, Ms. Bartholomew observed that to the owner, the value of property is what the owner does with the property, not what it would sell for. I can see how difficult it might be for a comparable sales analysis to account for the exercise of association powers.
If your association is taking action against you for display of the American flag or any other political or religious symbols, contact a qualified attorney.
November 4, 2014
Today’s blog post is the third installment in a series on the emerging trend of foreclosure of condominium association liens on private property owners. In a previous article, I discussed a new appellate court decision, Chase Plaza Condominium v. Wachovia Bank, recognizing the right of an association under the D.C. Code to sell a condo unit in foreclosure to satisfy unpaid assessments, thereby extinguishing the much larger bank mortgage. This installment examines how future, similar attempts may be viewed under the Virginia Condominium Act.
Presently, Lenders Have Priority over Association Liens in Virginia:
In 2003, the Supreme Court of Virginia heard a case involving similar facts as in the Chase Plaza case under the corresponding portion of the Virginia Condominium Act. Va. Code Sect. 55-79.84 provides that a properly recorded Condo assessment lien has priority over other encumbrances except for:
- Real Estate Tax Liens;
- Liens Recorded Before the Condominium Declaration;
- First Mortgages or First Deeds of Trusts Recorded Before the Assessment Lien.
That same code section provides for the distribution of the proceeds of the association foreclosure sale, differing materially from the aforesaid lien priorities:
- Reasonable Expenses of the Sale & Attorney’s Fees;
- Lien for Unit Owner’s Assessments;
- Any Remaining Inferior Claims of Record;
- The Unit Owners Themselves.
Since the statute provides for differing priorities for liens and distribution, I’m not surprised that this issue was litigated. At the Virginia Supreme Court, Colchester Towne Condominium Council argued that these provisions permitted foreclosure of a unit for its owner’s failure to pay assessments. This Association asserted that before the bank received anything, the proceeds would first be paid for expenses, taxes or the assessments.
Wachovia Bank argued that it had a priority over the Condominium Association for both the lien and payment. In a narrow 4-3 decision, the majority agreed with the bank. Justice Lawrence Koontz found that the General Assembly intended for the first mortgage to get paid before the association assessment liens. The Court observed that purchase money mortgages are the “primary fuel that drives the development engine in a condominium complex.” Justice Koontz remarked that a contrary result (the D.C. and Nevada cases come to mind as examples) would not adequately protect the lender’s interests.
Justice Elizabeth Lacy wrote for the three justice minority, which included now-incumbent Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser and Chief Justice-elect Donald Lemons. They favored permitting the association to conduct the foreclosure sale and give the unpaid assessments priority over the mortgage. However, they would permit the lender’s lien to survive the foreclosure process, burdening the property purchased at the auction. None of the justices on the Supreme Court at that time published an opinion that would give an Association powers like those found in the Chase Plaza case.
As of the date of this article, the conventional wisdom followed by many owners of distressed condominium properties in Virginia has a legal basis on this 4-3 decision from 11 years ago. I predict that in a matter of months or years, this same issue will resurface in the General Assembly or the Supreme Court. I don’t know to what extent the national sea change will have a ripple effect in Virginia. It is not possible to predict to what extent, if any, associations may acquire greater rights against banks and homeowners. However, local governments rely on associations to pay to maintain certain common areas and services. Cities and counties continue to seek ways to avoid budget shortfalls. New land development brings the prospect of additional tax dollars. These associations have a financial crisis of their own for the reasons I spoke of in my prior post. The financial crisis is greater today than 11 years ago, and so are the challenges to private property rights.
Where Does All This Leave Property Owners and Their Advisors?
For a homeowner, keeping one’s home and paying bills is a more immediate human concern than ending the larger rescission. What do these storm clouds mean to Virginia condominium owners? A few thoughts:
- Escrow Accounts. Courts and pundits suggest bank escrow of HOA dues may be the answer. Writer Megan McArdle points out, a “vast regulatory thicket surrounds mortgage lending.” Throwing association governance and budget issues into that thicket does not seem like an attractive option to owners, who don’t always find themselves aligned with their association’s decisions. Making banks party to disputes between Associations and owners would complicate matters further.
- Banks Shy From Financing Condos. The Wall Street Journal Reports that David Stevens, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association, expects mortgage rates to rise in Nevada. The Mortgage Bankers Association also reports that sometimes HOAs won’t accept payments from them or even tell them the amount due. I expect banks to strengthen due diligence of a condominium association’s governing documents, policies and financials before agreeing to lend on a property subject to its covenants.
- Home Buyer’s Focus on Contingency. In purchasing a condominium or another type of property in an association, a buyer has a window of time to review the association disclosures and either get out of the deal or move forward. If the banks start escrowing association fines, etc., this may become a greater focus in the home-buying process.
- Cash Only Trend Prevails in Condominium Sales. In many condominiums, unit sales are conducted in all cash. The cash only option certainly cuts out the problem of the purchase money-lender. This also cuts most owner-occupants out of the house hunt, and decreases the number of owner-occupants in the association, making the place less attractive to lenders. This does not seem to be a solution.
One option that I haven’t seem discussed elsewhere is this: What if, when unit owners default on their obligations, the property is put up for foreclosure, and the lender, association (or any other investor), could submit competing bids to a trustee? The HOA would get paid, and the lender could get the collateral property. I doubt this would work under the existing statutory framework, but perhaps it would work better than an escrow.
If you own a property that is subject to the covenants of a condominium or homeowners association, and the association has threatened to enforce its lien against your property, contact a qualified real estate attorney to protect your rights. In order to protect your rights, you may need to prepare for a sea change in the balance of powers in home ownership.
If you are considering an opportunity to purchase a property at an association assessment lien foreclosure sale, retain qualified counsel to advise you regarding related risks, and carefully consider purchase of title insurance.
Case opinions discussed: Colchester Towne Condominium Council v. Wachovia Bank, 266 Va. 46, 581 S.E.2d 201 (2003)