February 27, 2015
On December 4, 2014, I wrote a blog post about a borrower who brought a lawsuit against her lender after the Richmond law firm that conducted the foreclosure went out of business. The federal judge denied the bank’s motion to dismiss the borrower’s claims based on a faulty loan default notice. In that post, I mentioned that the involved law firm, Friedman & MacFadyen, was the target of class action litigation arising out of their debt collection and foreclosure practices. Of the several bases to the class action, the only one that will be discussed here has to do with False Representation liability under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The lawsuit accused Friedman & MacFadyen of sending correspondence to borrowers containing false threats of lawsuits followed by notices with references to court actions that had not been filed. Put another way, the class action claimed that there was a legal thriller published in foreclosure notices to borrowers.
Someone with legal training knows whether a lawsuit is pending. A case cannot proceed unless the party is properly served with a copy. If one knows where to look, one can search court records to verify whether someone is party to a pending lawsuit. But the process of determining this is not common public knowledge. In its opinion, the federal court discussed the alleged practices of the law firm. F&M initially wrote to the borrowers to tell them, among other things, that their, “loan[s][had] been referred to this office for legal action based on a default under the terms of your Mortgage/Deed of Trust and Note.” Later correspondence suggested that a lawsuit was pending or about to be filed. However, the law firm never intended to file a lawsuit against these borrowers. Virginia is a non-judicial foreclosure state. Foreclosures routinely occur here as a trustee transaction and not normally in a lawsuit. Later firm correspondence instructed the borrower on how to obtain “withdrawal” or “dismissal” of the “action.” F&M would refer to these matters as the name of the bank “v.” the name of the borrower, the way lawyers style a lawsuit.
People tend to take a dispute more seriously once a case is active before the court. A legal action does not exist until a party files it in writing with the court’s clerk. Attorneys know that the threat or current existence of a lawsuit causes negative emotions on the part of the defendant, such as anger, fear, anxiety, avoidance or aggression. However, there is a difference between candidly informing an opposing party that suit will be filed if the dispute cannot be resolved and the facts alleged about Friedman & MacFadyen. The opinion discusses allegations that the law firm was in a client relationship where it would be rewarded for foreclosing quickly, and less rewarded for negotiating loan modifications. If the borrowers had known that there were no pending lawsuits, they may have handled their situations differently. In essence, the class action suit accused the foreclosure law firm of putting fictional accounts of lawsuits in foreclosure correspondence with the goal of obtaining favorable responses by borrowers in light of how the law firm was rewarded by its client.
Lawsuits have value for collecting on debts. They also cost money the parties filing them. Once the lawsuit is actually filed, the party and its attorneys have obligations to the court. A fictional lawsuit, on the other hand, does not require anything to be prepared, no court fees to be paid, scheduling conferences to attend or any other responsibilities. The plaintiffs’ suit included a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act claim for False Representation for what might be described as “shadow litigation” issues. In a January 16, 2015 blog post, I discussed the basics of FDCPA False Representation claims, where a debt collector uses a false, deceptive or misleading representation to collect consumer debt. In denying F&M’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the court observed that it would construe the foreclosure correspondence collectively to determine any tendency to mislead the borrowers.
If you have received any foreclosure-related correspondence that references a lawsuit that you cannot verify, contact a qualified attorney to discuss defense of your right to be communicated fairly with regarding your property rights.
February 20, 2015
At some point after the filing of a lawsuit in Virginia Circuit Court, initial disputes over the sufficiency of the complaint are resolved. The parties are now on notice of their opponents’ claims and defenses. The process of getting to this point was the focus of my previous blog post. Contrary to what one sees on T.V. or movies, parties do not immediately proceed to going to trial. Instead, lawyers and their clients begin to prepare for trial in a period called “discovery.” Discovery involves finding out more facts about the case. This post provides an overview of the basics of civil litigation discovery, with a focus on its purposes and tools in real estate cases. Why is there such a lengthy process for this? Consider three purposes of discovery:
- Hoarding. Preventing one side or another from “hoarding” documents and information about the case to the unfair detriment of others. For example, in a case between different homeowners’ association factions over control of the board of directors, whoever happens to have access to the minutes, resolutions, notices, amendments, etc., kept by the association must provide them to the other.
- Surprises. Lawyers, as a lot, are attracted to springing surprises on their opponents at trial. However, it may be contrary to the principles of justice for one side to hand the other a large stack of documents they have never seen before during the trial and expect the witness questioning to be meaningful. Discovery can mitigate unfair surprise.
- Effectiveness of Trial. The public places greater confidence in trial results that are based on documents and facts rather than the decisions made in the absence of existing evidence.
The methods of discovery are more formal than the fact gathering conducted outside of litigation. Informal investigation includes researching the documents and information within one’s control, talking to friendly witnesses, checking what is publicly available or that one’s bank can provide. Usually this doesn’t answer all questions. So what are the available forms of civil discovery? There are quite a few. The most useful in real estate and construction cases in Virginia circuit court are:
- Document Requests. The rules allow a party to request in writing an opponent’s documents. A party seeking production of documents must send a written request. The responding party then has 21 days in which to respond as to documents within their possession, custody or control. In large cases it usually takes significantly longer than 21 days to resolve a document request. Reviewing the relevant documents of one’s opponent is a central element of trial preparation. Contracts and other documents created before the dispute cannot, absent forgery, be changed to adapt to someone’s current story. When the judge or jury goes to make determinations of facts, the credibility of the parties and the key documents carry great weight. If a party fails to produce a document requested in discovery, they are not normally allowed to use it as an exhibit at trial. The documents of a third-party can be requested by serving them with a subpoena duces tecum.
- Interrogatories. Information sought may not necessarily be reflected in a document. In discovery, a party may submit written interrogatories to another party, seeking answers to specific questions. For example, a party may inquire into the factual support for their opponent’s claims or defenses. Parties usually ask for disclosure of all persons having knowledge about the facts of the case. Interrogatories are also a good tool for finding out about expert testimony that one’s opponent may present at trial. The answering party must respond within 21 days. The answers must be signed by a party under oath or affirmation.
- Requests for Admissions. Last August, I posted an article about the role of a party’s admissions in a federal trial in Maryland. In that case, a lawyer made an oral admission in a closing argument. His opponent did not make a motion to have the admission deemed binding before the jury went to deliberate. The jury made a decision contrary to the admission. The jury verdict ignoring the admission survived post-trial motions and appeal. Party admissions can be requested in discovery before they come out at trial. Parties are entitled to submit to the opponent formal, written requests for admission. The 21 day deadline applies here as well. Admitted responses are binding. These can be useful for resolving uncontested matters so that the trial can focus on what’s disputed.
- Depositions. How will a party or witness react to a line of questions at trial? Does a party or witness know something that can be useful to preparing one’s own case? In discovery, a party may take oral depositions of parties, experts or other witnesses. The deposition usually occurs at a law office. The parties, the lawyers and the witness meet in a conference room with a court reporter. The court reporter places the witness under oath, and then records all of the lawyers’ questions, objections and witness answers. Depositions of parties and experts are an important part of pretrial discovery in large cases.
- View of Real Estate. In many real estate or construction cases, the most significant piece of evidence is the building or land itself. If ordered, the jury travels to the property to view it as evidence. More commonly, the appearance of property is put into evidence by photographs or video. A party not in possession or control of the real estate is entitled to view it. This can be an effective way of expanding one’s knowledge about the case.
Not all of these tools will need to be employed in every case. In addition to these forms of discovery, there are common areas where parties dispute over whether the discovery has been properly sought or provided. These are usually the subject of objections and motions:
- Relevance. Discovery cannot be used to explore any and every topic. The requests must explore relevant, admissible evidence or information that is reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence. Although not unlimited, the scope of discovery is broad.
- Confidentiality. A party may have confidentiality concerns about turning over documents or information. These concerns can be addressed by a protective order regulating the use and disposition of confidential documents or other information.
- Privileges to Withhold. Frequently attorneys will interpose objections to discovery requests. One justification for withholding documents is the attorney-client privilege. Communications between an attorney and his client are not subject to discovery. Despite the apparent simplicity of this concept, disputes over assertion of the attorney-client privilege are a frequent source of discovery disputes. There are other privilege and objections that are applicable in certain situations.
- Spoliation. In the age of computers, e-mails, text messages, computer files and other electronic data are easily created and easily deleted. Once litigation is threatened or pending, parties and witnesses should take action to preserve evidence, including electronically stored information for potential use in the lawsuit.
- Motions to Compel. Lawyers must make reasonable efforts to resolve disputes over the legitimacy of objections, the sufficiency of responses and other discovery disputes without putting it before a judge. When disputes cannot be resolved, typically one party will bring a motion to compel discovery against the other.
- Sanctions. The failure to obey discovery orders can subject a party to a variety of sanctions, including awards of attorney’s fees, dismissal of claims or defenses, exclusion of witnesses and other punishments.
By better understanding the basics of civil litigation discovery, one can adopt strategies that make better use of time, energy and resources pre-trial. Implementing discovery strategies proper to the needs and circumstances of the case pave the way towards a favorable result.
February 12, 2015
Many people will never be party to a lawsuit that goes to trial. For those that do, the first time may be the only time. Being a party to a Virginia circuit court civil case requires significant time, focus and resources for what may be several months or longer. What should a party expect from the beginning of a Virginia circuit court case? Because of the commitment required, parties to a lawsuit should familiarize themselves with the basics. This article is the first installment in a series providing a basic overview of Virginia circuit court civil cases. While the circumstances and details of each case are unique, the rules of court provide a basic outline of what to expect.
Pre-Lawsuit Negotiations: Before a lawsuit is filed, the parties and their attorneys usually communicate in efforts to achieve desired results without the necessity of a lawsuit. They exchange emails, demand letters, settlement offers and other correspondence articulating their interests, position and requirements. Why engage in this process if there already are grounds for a lawsuit? In the facts of many cases, there is a reasonable likelihood that the case can be settled without the necessity of filing suit. Not every case that ought to settle in fact resolves without filing suit. However, once suit is filed, the parties will be required to conduct the case in addition to engaging in any desired settlement negotiations. Often it is worthwhile to first see if things can be negotiated.
Filing the Complaint: If settlement negotiations don’t work, a party’s first step towards obtaining a judgment may be to file a complaint at the circuit court clerk’s office. In real estate and construction cases, this is usually done at the courthouse for the city or county where the property is located. Most real estate or construction cases are brought in Circuit Court. However, if the amount in controversy is $25,000.00 or less, the case will probably be brought in General District Court. Alternatively, some cases are brought in federal court.
To begin the case properly, the plaintiff’s best interests are served by investigating and analyzing the case with the lawyer. The complaint should include the proper parties with their correct names. The claims (e.g., breach of contract, breach of warranty, fraud, etc.) should be carefully considered and supported by sufficient factual allegations. The remedies (e.g., money judgment, declaration of rights, etc.) requested to the Court should be clear and supported by the claims. The parties defending the lawsuit can be expected to attack the complaint in whatever way they can. Making the complaint as strong as reasonably possible positions the plaintiff to have a greater likelihood of obtaining a favorable result in court or settlement. The plaintiff normally bears the burden of proof for the claims in the complaint. Parties should avoid simply putting some allegations together that merely forces the other side to respond. Time and focus spent on the complaint may prevent more time unnecessarily being spent strengthening or disputing over a claim later.
Service of Process: A lawsuit cannot proceed unless the defendants are formally put on notice. Normally this consists of having a sheriff’s deputy or private process server going out to each defendant’s house to serve them. There are several alternatives to direct hand delivery of the complaint on the defendant that may apply. Usually it takes a few days for the court personnel to process the paperwork. If the lawyers for the parties are already introduced, often the attorney will provide the defendants with a courtesy copy of the complaint before it is served.
Defendant’s Initial Response: Once the defendant is served, he normally has 21 days in which to respond. Failure to respond in a timely manner or obtain an extension can result in that party falling into default. Falling into default can result in significant waiver of rights to defend the lawsuit and possible entry of default judgment. Usually, defendants respond initially to complaints by filing a “demurrer” or some other motion designed to have the lawsuit dismissed. In the Virginia circuit courts, defendants often make substantial efforts in these early demurrers and motions. Unlike some other states, the defendant’s ability to get a case dismissed on a later pre-trial motion is limited in Virginia state courts. Since the plaintiff bears the burden of proving the allegations and generally upholding the legitimacy of the lawsuit, there are many possible grounds for a defendant to seek dismissal. What is a demurrer? At this stage the defendant usually cannot successfully challenge the truth of the facts asserted in the complaint. Instead, the demurrers typically argue that, for whatever reason, the complaint is not legally sufficient and must be revised or abandoned. For example, a plaintiff may allege various forms of wrongdoing and damages suffered. However, if a claim fails to properly articulate a causal connection between the wrongful conduct and the damages suffered, the defendant will probably argue that it is not legally sufficient. The demurrer or motion to dismiss may require a court hearing where the attorneys will argue before a judge over the sufficiency of the lawsuit. The parties themselves are usually not required to attend these hearings but may do so if they wish.
Defendant’s Answer and Affirmative Defenses: At the end of this initial motions practice phase, the defendants are usually left with claims that have survived and must be responded to directly. This is done by filing an answer containing numbered paragraphs responding directly to those in the complaint as admitted, denied or whatever other response is appropriate. In the same document, the defendants will also identify their affirmative defenses. For example, the defendant may assert fraud, that the plaintiff waived her rights by taking too long to file suit, or other defenses. Some affirmative defenses must be put with the answer to avoid being waived.
Additional Claims: A defendant may have a claim against the plaintiff, another defendant or a third party that may be related to the facts of the case. This initial response phase is the normal time for such claims to be asserted. A counter-claim, cross-claim or claim against a third party is in many respects treated like a separate lawsuit that will go to trial with the initial lawsuit because of the common factual issues.
Scheduling Orders and Trial Dates: Around this time the court will set the trial date. A party should provide her attorney with dates to avoid (vacation, travel, etc.) for trial. Additionally the attorney and client will discuss whether a trial by or without a jury should be requested. When the attorneys set the case for trial, the court may enter a scheduling order setting certain deadlines for the progress of the case. Once the trial date is set, the attorneys, parties and witnesses should reserve the trial dates on their calendars.
There is a lot of activity that goes on in a Virginia circuit court case before the parties give their own personal testimony. In the next installment in this series, I will provide an overview for the discovery process, where each side requests testimony, property viewings, documents and information from their opponents and third parties. The facts and circumstances of each case are different and may require additional procedures or other variations from the outline provided above. If you have a real estate or construction claim against another party, discuss the matter with a qualified attorney to avoid unnecessary waiver of any rights. If you have been made a defendant to a lawsuit, consult with an attorney admitted to practice before the court where the suit is filed to avoid falling into default or other waiver of rights.
February 5, 2015
A property association’s board of directors has the controversial power to issue and enforce fines against its members for rule violations. When an owner receives a threatening notice from the association, it is not always clear what options are available other than to simply obey the demand. This blog post summarizes the process of association rule enforcement and homeowner rights to protect their interests.
When an investor creates a new condominium, townhouse or detached single family home development, he usually makes them subject to covenants to be enforced by an association. The investor files covenants in the county land records, placing all future purchasers on notice that owners of homes in the development are subject to the covenants, bylaws, rules and regulations of the association. Virginia courts interpret the legal relationship between the association and the owner like a contract. There is a hierarchy of authorities defining the respective rights of the associations and owners:
- State Law. An Association must follow the Condominium Act or the Property Owners Association Act. The covenants, rules and regulations may not contradict state law except where those statutes may allow variance from their provisions.
- Association Instruments Recorded in Land Records. This means declarations, covenants, bylaws, amendments, etc. These documents control the governance of the association and its powers to adopt rules and fine owners.
- Resolutions, Rules and Regulations. State law and the covenants and bylaws set out the association’s powers to adopt rules. The rules and regulations are subject to both state law and also the recorded covenants and bylaws. The power to adopt and enforce rules is held by the board of directors, who answer (at least on paper) to the owners in exercise of their own voting rights. Sometimes it can be difficult for an owner to determine which documents are formally adopted rules and which are “policy documents” published by some individual with the intent that the owners follow them but that don’t carry the authority of a formal rule. This is why the minutes and resolutions of the board are important.
The laws, land records and resolutions are all separate, sometimes contradictory documents that speak to an association’s board of director’s authority to fine owners. The board’s notices of an alleged rule violation can be confusing. When threatened with a fine, what strategies are effective for a homeowner to protect her rights? The facts and circumstances of each case are different, but three strategies may be applied in a variety of situations:
- Keep Property Records. A homeowner should maintain files (either in a paper filing system or on a computer) of documents from the purchase of the home and all association documents such as covenants, rules, regulations, resolutions or correspondence from the property manager or board members. In the event of a dispute, these files may be necessary to support the homeowner’s position. Also keep records of all estimates, contracts, purchase orders, invoices, payments for all repairs and maintenance to the property. In general, homeowners who keep good files tend to have fewer legal disputes and resolve them more easily and favorably than those who don’t.
- Build Rapport with Neighbors. Whenever possible, have as good relations with one’s neighbors as possible given the personalities involved. Amicable relationships create mutually beneficial alliances (This does not necessarily require being BFF’s). However, association representatives may try to convince a homeowner that they are letting their neighbors down by not obeying a violation notice. However, a friendly relationship with others subject to the same covenants and rules can serve as a reminder that one’s neighbors usually are not crazy about the rules enforcement either.
- Promptly and Politely Assert Rights. Upon receipt of a notice of rule violation, many homeowners are often tempted to ignore it. If it is not reasonable or easy to understand, is it really a threat? Unfortunately, notices are usually followed by a notice for a hearing where a fine may be determined. The owner is entitled to be present at this hearing and be represented by an attorney, if desired. After that, the association may attempt record a lien in land records, file a lawsuit at the courthouse, or both. A homeowner’s rights are easier to defend earlier in the process than after something adverse happens. board directors or property managers may tell an owner that they must comply with the notice of rule violation in order to “protect the property values” in the Association. However, home buyers rarely ever compare the rules and regulations with the appearances of the homes when they are conducting their home buying process. An association covenant that a home is encumbered with does not improve its value. In fact, it represents a future liability in the form of monthly assessments.
If you are a homeowner and you are unsure whether your association is properly conducting its rule enforcement proceeding against you, promptly contact a qualified attorney to protect your rights.