December 12, 2016
Construction defect warranty claims are a frequent source of conflict between contractors and new home buyers. Builders feel pressure to get the purchasers through closing so they can pay their employees, subcontractors and suppliers. For the past few years there has been a severe shortage of experienced tradespeople and supervisors. This makes the contractor’s quality control efforts more challenging. Inexperienced buyers can get frustrated with delays. They may wonder what would happen if they try to back out of the deal. When consumer complaints about construction defects are not resolved amicably, the parties often find themselves pursuing or defending lawsuits or arbitration proceedings.
New home buyers feel pressure from the contractor and the circumstances of their lives to go to closing. Later, they may discover decreased responsiveness to their customer service inquiries to the builder. What should parties do to prevent construction defect litigation from becoming necessary? How are these cases won and lost? I took up these issues in an October 14, 2015 blog post entitled, “Common Misconceptions about Home Builder Warranties” On November 21, 2016, the Circuit Court of Norfolk, Virginia decided a case that provides some valuable insights for contractors and purchasers.
In April, 2007, Benjamin Bessant and Dorothy Horne contracted with Dey Street Properties, LLC for the construction of a new home in Norfolk, Virginia. The buyers got the standard new home warranty pursuant to Va. Code § 55-70.1. Dey Street impliedly warranted that the home was constructed in a workmanlike manner and free from structural defects for one year from settlement or possession. The implied new home warranty includes a strict requirement that the buyer give the seller written notice of the alleged defects. This notice must be properly submitted to the seller within the one-year warranty period.
During construction of the home, Mr. Bessant purchased $650 in floor tile out of his own pocket and delivered it to the jobsite for an upgrade. Unfortunately, someone stole this tile while Dey Street maintained control over the premises. Because Dey Street failed to complete the project by the agreed upon delivery date, Bessant and Horne had to stay in a hotel for three weeks. On August 15, 2007, the purchasers moved in.
Shortly after move-in, the purchasers discovered several construction defects. Bessant mailed Keith Freeman (principal of Dey Street) a notice letter on September 5, 2007. Not getting much of a response, on December 20, 2007, the purchaser’s attorney sent another letter, this one addressed to “Freeman Homes, Inc.” Enclosed with the attorney letter was the purchaser’s September 5, 2007 letter with the list of defects. Dey Street proceeded to do some warranty repairs.
Note the confusion regarding who the purchasers were dealing with. In the facts of the case, the purchasers signed a contract with Dey Street. However, many contractors provide consumers with different pieces of correspondence that have different business names. Judge David Lannetti found that the buyers only had privity of contract with Dey Street Properties, LLC. However, because Mr. Freeman also sent correspondence to Bessant on Freeman Homes, Inc. letterhead, the court found that notices actually received by Mr. Freeman put the Dey Street company on actual notice of the warranty claim.
These parties were not able to amicably resolve these construction defect damages issues. Bessant and Horne sued Dey Street. This family experienced some struggles preparing for trial. The homeowners had certain damages excluded from the jury because they failed to submit a timely expert witness designation. Also, the owners failed to disclose the details of certain defects in response to the builder’s pretrial discovery requests.
Judge Lannetti’s opinion only talks about certain items at issue post-trial: $1,500 for flooring defects, $200 for subfloor repairs, $2,000 for the drainage and concrete problems on the porch and $200 for a porch column. The owners also wanted reimbursement for the stolen tile and the hotel stays. I suspect that there were additional defects claimed in the lawsuit but because pretrial disclosure deadlines weren’t met, the owners were prejudiced to assert them at trial. For purchasers, properly documenting the defects and the estimates to repair is not always easy. In most cases this requires finding another contractor to assess and estimate it.
After a two-day trial, the jury returned a verdict of $15,000.00 in favor of the owners. After the jury returned its verdict, the contractor moved to invalidate or set it aside the jury verdict. First, Dey Street argued that the owners waived their implied warranty claim because the first notice letter was never received and the second one was sent to Freeman Homes, Inc. and not Dey Street Properties, LLC. Virginia law requires the purchaser to send the written notice letter to the seller by hand delivery with retention of a receipt or by certified mail. The court found the certified letter to Freeman Homes, Inc. to be sufficient. The court observed that the owner of Dey Street used Freeman Homes, Inc.’s name and address in correspondence to the buyer. At trial Mr. Freeman admitted on the witness stand that he actually received the second notice letter and its enclosures. The owners are lucky that Mr. Freeman did not simply deny receiving anything. Because they have the burden of proof, the owners should take care to follow all formalities required in the contract or statute so that they don’t have to rely upon their opponent’s moment of candor in court.
Dey Street also argued that the evidence was insufficient to support a verdict of $15,000.00. Judge Lannetti found this argument more persuasive. Since the implied new home warranty statute doesn’t say anything about negligent security for the tile or consequential damages like hotel room bills, those items were thrown out. The court could not figure out how the jury could possibly have added the remaining evidence of defect damages could total $15,000.00. The judge recognized in his opinion that he was not permitted to substitute his own independent assessment of damages for the jury award, and could only look to what the maximum verdict that the evidence would support. Judge Lannetti reduced the $15,000 verdict and entered a judgment against Dey Street for $3,900. A tough result for owners when their jury was convinced that they were owed much more. If larger dollar amounts were at stake I would not be surprised if the owners petitioned to appeal the case.
Lessons from Bessant v. Dey Street include the following:
- Who Are the Parties? Purchasers should be clear about what party they are in contract with so that they can correspond with and sue the proper entity. Contractors must take care to ensure that everything is done in the name of the contractor identified in the written agreement to avoid personal liability.
- Formalities of Notice. When lots of money are at stake, parties shouldn’t rely upon their opponents to follow through on oral demands or representations. Notice requirements in statutes should be carefully followed. Assume that at trial the judge will expect proof of notice and one’s opponent will deny receipt of the written notice.
- Use Professionals. Engage with a construction litigator and independent expert witnesses early so that legal formalities can be observed and deadlines met to maximize results.
- Be Prepared to Deal with Delays & Headaches. Purchasing a home that hasn’t been built yet can be an exciting, and even cost-saving means of acquiring one’s dream home. It also carries with it significant risks of delays, defects and added expenses which may be difficult to get reimbursed for.
When legal disputes appear on the horizon, contractors and purchasers should seek the assistance of qualified counsel to preserve and protect their rights.
Bessant v. Dey Street Properties, LLC (Norfolk Cir. Ct. Nov. 21 2016)(link available to VLW subscribers only)
November 15, 2016
In this blog and in my law practice, I focus on practical solutions to clear & present legal dangers to property rights of owners of properties in HOAs, condominiums or cooperatives. Many raise questions about getting attorneys fees awards against HOAs. This is an interesting topic in community associations law, where the outcomes of many disputes have a direct or precedential impact on other owners in the community. In my last blog post, I discussed a couple of 1990’s Virginia court opinions where owners’ counsel used an old English common law doctrine to solve modern HOA litigation problems. The doctrine of “virtual representation” allows individual owners to bring to complaints of general concern without naming every owner in the community as a plaintiff or defendant. Where the actual, named parties to the lawsuit fairly represent the interests of other members who are too numerous to add to the court case, the judge can nonetheless render a decision that binds all impacted parties. For example, a “representative” owner may bring a court case challenging an election or the validity of board resolution and the final order binds all members impacted by the election or board action. The doctrine of “virtual representation” solves a couple obstacles to owners gaining effective access to the legal system.
Today’s post discusses the problem of “free-riders” who may reap a benefit from other owners virtually representing them and footing the bills. In litigation, HOA boards draw upon the benefit of insurance policies, loans or assessment income to finance their legal expenses. The board may protract the dispute in a desire for a precedential effect or to simply wear down the owner. There is a case presently before the Supreme Court of Virginia where an owner accuses her association of the latter. Martha Lambert had a claim for $500.00 for reimbursement for certain repairs she made herself that were the responsibility of Sea Oats Condominium Association, Inc. The board’s lawyers defended the claim with time consuming motions and discovery normally used in cases where the amount in controversy is much larger than $500.00. Ms. Lambert “won” in the Circuit Court of Virginia Beach on what the judge described as a “close call.” The judge told the owner’s lawyer he did a “magnificent job” and reasonably pursued the case. However, the court only awarded $375 in attorney’s fees out of the full $9,568.50 amount Ms. Lambert incurred in the case. The only reason Ms. Lambert didn’t get the full amount was because the trial judge wanted to make an attorney’s fees award smaller than the $500 principal judgment. The Supreme Court accepted the appeal to determine whether the statute allowing for “reasonable” attorney’s fees required the Circuit Court to reduce the award to an amount in a nexus to the principal judgment awarded. Lambert accuses Sea Oats of engaging in “stubborn & obstructionist tactics.” Kevin Martingayle, Counsel for Ms. Lambert describes the trial judge as punishing the homeowner for vindicating her rights and discouraging others from doing the same when necessary. At stake is whether one party can get away with not performing their covenanted obligations because a lawsuit would add insult to injury. Lawyers practicing in the community associations arena around the state will watch to see what the Supreme Court does with this case.
The outcome of Lambert vs. Sea Oats only appears to directly impact the association and Ms. Lambert. In other HOA lawsuits, the rights of other owners are directly impacted by the outcome. What if, hypothetically speaking, a condo association caused injury to an entire floor of condominium units. One owner decides to sue. A plaintiff may find herself shouldering the burdens of similarly situated owners (“free riders”) not joining the suit or otherwise helping to pay for the legal expenses incurred by the plaintiff. Under many HOA governing documents and state statutes, the prevailing party at trial is entitled to an award of reasonable attorney’s fees against their opponent. What about the portion of a prevailing owner’s legal expenses which is attributable to representing the interests of similarly situated fellow members who are not official parties to the lawsuit? Would this provide a separate basis for an award of attorney’s fees reflecting the realities of “virtual representation?”
Since the 19th century, Virginia’s common law tradition of judicial precedents protects representative plaintiffs from the burden of the “free rider” problem. In “virtual representation” cases, the prevailing party may recover in their attorney fee award for legal expenses incurred in achieving the common benefit:
It is a general practice to require, when one creditor, suing for himself and others, who may come in and contribute to the expenses of suit, institutes proceedings for their common benefit, that those who derive a benefit shall bear their proportion of the expense and not throw the whole burden on one. This is equitable and just. But it only applies to those creditors who derive a benefit from the services of counsel in a cause in which they are not specially represented by counsel. If a creditor has his own counsel in a cause, he cannot be required to contribute to the compensation of another. Stovall v. Hardy, 1 Va. Dec. 342 (1879), quoted in, DuPont v. Shackelford, 235 Va. 588 (1988).
Virginia courts apply this “common fund” doctrine in awarding attorney fee awards in creditor suits, securities lawsuits, civil rights cases, trust & estate litigation and other representative litigation. In 1999, the Circuit Court of Winchester applied it in the context of a dispute among members of a defunct nonstock corporation over the proceeds of liquidated assets. Most community associations in Virginia are incorporated under the Virginia Nonstock Corporation Act.
The Supreme Court of Virginia recognized that the common fund doctrine serves to eliminate “free rides” that would unfairly burden litigants in cases that directly impact a class of represented parties not retaining counsel in the lawsuit:
The essence of the common fund doctrine is that it would be unfair to permit one party to retain counsel, to file suit, to secure a benefit that all will share, yet to leave the full cost of the effort upon the one party who initiated the suit while others who will share the proceeds make no contribution. If others are to sit idly by and reap the benefits of one litigant’s labors, the idle parties should share in the cost of those labors. In short, the common fund doctrine is aimed at preventing “free rides.” See J. P. Dawson, Lawyers and Involuntary Clients: Attorneys’ Fees From Funds, 87 Harv. L. Rev. 1597, 1647 (1974), quoted in, DuPont v. Shackelford, 235 Va. 588 (1988).
The common fund doctrine extends beyond cases where there is an actual “fund” of money to included cases where there may be some sort of injunctive, declaratory or equitable remedy that does not have a specific dollar amount associated with it.
I am not aware of any published judicial opinions where a judge has considered the “common fund” doctrine in representative plaintiff litigation specifically involving HOAs or condominiums. However, the Property Owners Association Act and the Virginia Condominium Act provide for “prevailing party” attorney’s fees. Is there any reason why the common fund doctrine should not be applied to avoid free riding of representative plaintiff litigation against community associations? I see no obstacle to use of this doctrine for such in a proper case.
Update July 20, 2022:
I have a new 2022 blog post about Attorney fee awards in HOA and condominium law cases. “Awards of Attorney’s Fees in Community Association Litigation.” This blog post addresses the issue of attorneys fees in these cases more generally, with greater focus on the procedural aspects of such claims.
In 2017 I posted an article more particularly about the Lambert v. Sea Oats Condo. Ass’n, Inc. case, “Condo Owner Prevails on Her Request for Attorney’s Fees.”
Du Pont v. Shackelford, 235 Va. 588 (1988).
Turner v. Yeatras, 49 Va. Cir. 395 (Winchester 1999).
November 3, 2016
In many HOA disputes, only one (or a small handful of) owners desire to challenge board actions that negatively impact a larger class of owners in the community. If the court finds that the board action was invalid, then the court decision would materially impact everyone, not just the plaintiff owners and the HOA. Today’s post is about how plaintiffs lawsuits against HOAs potentially benefit other owners. Usually, a plaintiff must name everyone materially impacted by a potential outcome as parties to the lawsuit. Must a homeowner join all owners as plaintiffs or defendants in a lawsuit against a HOA seeking judicial review of a board decision? What flexibility does the law allow for one or more owners to bring a representative claim against the association to benefit themselves and other similarly situated owners? How should attorney fees be handled in cases with “free riders”? The answers to these questions show tools for owners to enjoy greater access to justice in community association disputes.
Mass claims by owners may be brought against community associations in several ways. A group of interested owners can split the cost for one law firm to sue on their behalf. Alternatively, owners may bring separate suits and have the claims consolidated in court. Filing a class action may be a feasible option in many states. Is there any other way that claims can be brought to benefit both the named plaintiffs and other similarly situated owners? Can this somehow make lawsuits against HOAs more affordable?
There are good examples of such representative actions in Virginia. Ellen & Stephen LeBlanc owned a house in Reston, a huge development in Fairfax County, Virginia. Reston is a locally prominent example of where the community association model largely replaces the town or city local government. Most Restonians live under a Master Association and a smaller HOA or condo association. Such owners must pay dues and follow the covenants for both the master and sub association.
The LeBlancs owned non-waterfront property near Reston’s Lake Thoreau. In 1994, the Master Association decided that henceforth, only waterfront owners would be permitted to moor their watercraft directly behind their properties. This would substantially inconvenience the LeBlancs’ boating activities. The LeBlancs’ lawyer Brian Hirsch filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Fairfax County challenging the validity of the master HOA’s decision on both constitutional and state law grounds. The association retained Stephen L. Altman to lead their legal defense.
Roger Novak, Judy Novak, Rex Brown and Dalia Brown all owned waterfront properties on this lake. These families did not want the LeBlancs or other non-waterfront Reston owners mooring their boats behind their houses. I can’t blame them for wanting a tranquil aquatic backyard all to themselves. The Novaks and Browns hired lawyer Raymond Diaz to bring a motion to intervene. The Browns and Novaks became parties to the suit. These intervenors asked the judge to force the LeBlancs to name all the owners in Reston as parties or dismiss the case for lack of necessary parties.
In general, a lawsuit must be dismissed if the plaintiffs fail to name all parties that are necessary for the case to be properly litigated. A suit on a contract or land record usually must include all parties named in the contract or instrument. The Novaks and Browns wanted to block people like the LeBlancs from enjoying mooring privileges on the lake. They wanted the LeBlancs to name all the parties subject to the covenants recorded in the registry of deeds for the Reston Association. If the LeBlancs had to litigate against the hundreds of owners, then the case could quickly become uneconomical, even if most were friendly. The Court denied the intervening parties’ motion, upholding an exception from well-established legal precedents in non-HOA Supreme Court of Virginia opinions:
Necessary parties include all persons, natural or artificial, however numerous, materially interested either legally or beneficially in the subject matter or event of the suit and who must be made parties to it and without whose presence in court no proper decree can be rendered in the cause. This rule is inflexible, yielding only when the allegations of the bill disclose a state of case so extraordinary and exceptional in character that it is practically impossible to make all parties in interest parties to the bill, and, further that others are made parties who have the same interest as have those not brought in and are equally certain to bring forward the entire merits of the controversy as would the absent persons.
The Circuit Court found this exception to apply:
In the case at bar, it is impracticable to join the estimated 400 to 500 homeowners surrounding Reston’s five lakes in this action. Likewise, the interests of these persons are the same as those of the parties to this action, and said parties are certain to bring forward all of the merits of the case as would the absent persons.
Hundreds of other owners are materially impacted by the case’s outcome. But this exception allows the case to proceed without adding them as necessary. Other individual owners are not barred from suing or become party to the LeBlancs’ case. The other owners weren’t necessary for the practical consideration of the sheer number of the affected class. The court found the LeBlancs sufficient to represent the case against the exclusive moorings rule, and the Novaks, Browns and the HOA competent to defend the board’s action favorable to the waterfront owners. The LeBlanc’s case was permitted to proceed without adding hundreds of affected owners. This “virtual representation” procedure is significant because the court’s ruling on the validity of the board’s resolution would affect all owners, not just the parties.
At trial, the Court upheld the Board’s decision to regulate boating activity on Lake Thoreau as a valid exercise of powers granted in the covenants. The LeBlanc’s case was dismissed. The Supreme Court of Virginia declined to reverse the decision. However, the principle that one or more owners can virtually represent the interests of a large class of homeowners in a contest over the validity of HOA rulemaking has not been overturned.
In 1996, the Circuit Court for the City of Alexandria applied the same principles in a homeowner challenge to a condominium election of directors. The Colecroft Station Condo Unit Owners Association Board asked the court to dismiss the judicial review of the election because not all owners were listed as plaintiffs. The judge rebuffed demands that all owners be added as parties, citing the same exception as used in LeBlancs’ case.
This exception that all materially affected parties need not be named as a plaintiff or defendant in the lawsuit is important to homeowners’ rights for several reasons. It gives an individual or small group of owners the ability to proceed with a lawsuit even when their neighbors might be friendly but uninterested in litigating. It gives owners another option when their rights are threatened and are not effectively redressed by board of directors’ elections or initiatives to amend the governing documents. Certain types of claims may be brought where class actions are not permitted or unfeasible. One brave owner could get a court to overturn an invalid board decision infringing upon the rights of many. This “virtual representation” doctrine advances the cause of homeowner access to justice in HOA and condo cases.
One challenge in these “virtual representation” cases is the notion of “free-riders.” The HOA’s attorney’s fees are paid for by the board’s accounts receivable: assessments, fees, loans and/or fines. Representative plaintiffs leading the challenge might find themselves “carrying water” for similarly situated owners who would stand to potentially benefit from the outcome of the case but aren’t paying lawyers. Is it fair for the challenging owners to pay for the legal work undertaken to achieve a benefit to both the plaintiff and the larger class? Are they entitled to an award of attorney’s fees reflecting the benefit conferred on behalf of other interested parties not named as plaintiffs? I will address this question in a future blog post focusing on the doctrine of “common fund” or “common benefit” in attorney fee awards and how this might apply in community association cases.
LeBlanc v. Reston Homeowners’ Ass’n, 38 Va. Cir. 83 (Fairfax Co. 1995)
October 25, 2016
There is a lot of litigation and arbitration in the construction contracting industry. Most of these cases are disputes over whether the contractor did the work and if so, whether it has been appropriately compensated under the terms of the agreement. Some construction disputes include allegations of deceptive practices. Virginia law approaches unprofessional practices in the construction contracting industry in two ways: First, construction contractors must obtain licenses to do business here. A builder is subject to professional sanction if the Board for Contractors finds that the conduct violated regulations. There is a fund managed by the board, from which unsatisfied claims may be paid if certain criteria are met. Second, owners, general contractors, subcontractors and other parties can bring lawsuits (or where agreed, arbitration claims). Can residential owners bring Virginia consumer protection claims against contractors? Parties unfamiliar with these rules often need help navigating the legal system to protect their rights.
VCPA & License Regulation:
In the 1970’s, the General Assembly adopted the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (“VCPA”). The main purpose of the VCPA is to make it easier for consumers (including homeowners) to bring legal claims against suppliers for deceptive practices. Before the VCPA, consumers had to prove fraud. Suing for fraud is attractive because a court may award attorney’s fees or punitive damages for fraud. However, fraud carries a higher standard of proof and many defenses that the consumer must overcome. In a proper case, the VCPA allows for tripled damages and attorney’s fees. The legislature has exempted certain types of real estate related business activity from the VCPA, including regulated lenders, many landlords and licensed real estate agents. What about contractors? Are contractors subject to professional regulation and exempt from the VCPA? Last month, the Circuit Court of Loudoun County considered this question in a lawsuit arising out of a residential custom contracting dispute.
Closing the Sales Process for the Custom Residential Construction Project:
On May 20, 2015, licensed contractor Interbuild, Inc. made a written agreement with Leslie & John Sayres for the construction of a large recreational facility on their property. The Sayres agreed to pay $399.624.00 for what would include a batting cage, swimming pool, exercise area and bathroom. According to the Sayres, they relied upon certain false representations by Interbuild in their decision to move forward with the contract. They allege that Interbuild told them the following:
- Interbuild had been established since 1981.
- The project did not require a building permit.
- The contractor already priced things out with subcontractors.
- Interbuild would supervise construction full-time.
- The project would be completed in 16 weeks.
- 4000 PSI concrete would be used.
- The building would be constructed upon an agreed upon area.
On October 20, 2016, attorney Chris Hill discusses this Sayres opinion in his Construction Law Musings blog. He observes that many of the alleged misrepresentations sound like things that would be specifications or terms of the contract. Hill raises concerns expressed by Interbuild’s lawyers that the Sayres complaint attempts to transform a breach of contract case into a fraud claim. I agree that this fraud in the inducement claim will be a challenge to pursue. However, I think that some of the fraud claims described in the Sayres counterclaim sound more like promissory fraud than anything else. Under Virginia law, promissory fraud occurs when one party makes a promise to the other that they have no intention of keeping, and the listener relies upon this empty promise to their detriment. In July, I blogged about this in the foreclosure context. If a false promise remains fraud even after reduced to a contract, then the Sayres fraud in the inducement claims make more sense.
Some of these alleged misrepresentations appear potentially more serious than others. While contract management experience is important, the Sayres contracted with Interbuild for a certain result. The experience was not an end unto itself. A missing permit could become a problem if the county later decided that the construction was not code-compliant and wanted substantial, costly corrections. The subcontractor pricing could become an issue if it could be proven that Interbuild was effectively unable to complete the job from the get-go. A contractor is required to provide adequate supervision regardless of what is represented. Rarely will you see a written agreement that absolves a contractor of this. In a proper case, courts will award damages for delay. However, the Sayres would have to prove that they relied upon the agreed delivery date. I suspect that this lawsuit is not about the Sayres inconvenience of continuing to exercise in a different place. The strength of the concrete raises serious structural questions, but would require proof by expert testimony. Building the project on the spot where the customer wants is indeed a fundamental issue. However, it might be shown that the location under the contract is unfeasible due to site conditions or that the difference is only slight. In general, the damages must flow from the misrepresentations. Courts are reticent to award a windfall to purchasers if the lies are of minimal consequence.
After paying most of the purchase price but before completion, the Sayres terminated the contract. Interbuild sued for work that was allegedly performed but not paid for. The Sayres filed counterclaims for fraud in the Inducement, VCPA and breach of contract.
Fraud in the Inducement:
Interbuild sought a court ruling on whether the Sayres could move forward with their fraud in the inducement and VCPA claims. The Contractor argued that the fraud claim should be thrown out. Interbuild maintained that the fraud claim was not proper because the customer only alleges that their expectations under the contract were disappointed. In its September 8, 2016 opinion letter, the Court dispensed with this argument, distinguishing between fraud inducing formation of the contract and fraud in the performance of the contract. The court found that the counterclaim clearly alleged that the misrepresentations were made to convince the Sayres to sign the contract. Because the alleged fraud occurred before the contract came into being, the claim is not alleging disappointed contractual expectations.
When legal disputes arise, owners and contractors frequently focus their attention on things that were most recently said or done. A contractor may be unhappy about an owner’s hands-on attitude about a project. Customers may take offense at the contractor’s customer service. However, the case might be about fraud in the inducement issues that come from the sales process. In the Sayres case, the judge allowed the fraud in the inducement claim to move forward.
Interbuild adopted a different approach in its attempt to get the Sayres’ VCPA claim dismissed. The contractor argued that since it is subject to regulation as a licensee of the state contracting board, it is exempt from the consumer protection statute. While the VCPA does not specifically name contractors as exempt, it does exclude “any aspect of a consumer transaction which aspect is authorized under laws or regulations of this commonwealth. Va. Code § 59.1-199. Contractors are subject to state regulation by Va. Code § 54.1-1000, et seq. In his opinion, Judge Douglas L. Fleming, Jr. followed judicial precedents distinguishing between consumer transactions that are specifically sanctioned by law vs. those that are merely regulated. The absence of a prohibition of a particular practice does not constitute authorization of that practice. Since the professional regulations do not specifically cover the particular types of business practices at issue, this statutory exemption does not protect the contractor from suit. The court found that the alleged misrepresentations are the kind of practices that are actionable under the VCPA. This is consistent with other rulings made by Virginia courts in cases between consumers and construction contractors.
The VCPA also provides that a consumer may sue a contractor for not having a license. Interbuild argued that because it had an active contracting license it was exempt from the VCPA. Since Interbuild is subject to license revocation for conduct that violates professional regulations, that should be the sole remedy under the state statutes. Judge Fleming rejected this argument, observing that the state’s licensure regulations do not, “inferentially cloak licensed contractors with VCPA immunity if they are shown to have committed deceptive practices.” In short, a professional license does not include with it a privilege to engage in fraudulent behavior.
News reports frequently raise public policy questions about professional regulation. Each year, more occupations become subject to licensure requirements. Usually this means that the leaders in that industry regulate its participants by means of a state board. Too often, self-regulating industries use these boards to protect prominent members against competition. Consumers look to the boards for relief from predatory practices, but are often frustrated by the results. Interbuild’s arguments seem to appeal to this notion that as a licensee, its customers should have to go through the board if they want a special remedy. Bear in mind that there is a public demand for housing prices to go down. Builders have a more organized lobby than consumers regarding professional regulation and limiting liability for extra damages in lawsuits. Given market demands, I wonder how close the General Assembly is to exempting contractors from the VCPA. The construction industry provides many jobs to Virginia. However, I think that the public’s interests would not be served if quality and service were sacrificed for job creation and affordability concerns. A defect-riddled house is the most unaffordable of investments to its owner and doesn’t help the “property values” of others.
All the September 8, 2016 opinion decided was that Interbuild’s counterclaims may move forward in litigation. Even under the lower standards and enhanced remedies of the VCPA, claims based on deception are difficult to prove and obtain an award of damages.
When disputes arise over custom construction contract projects, the parties cannot rely upon the board of contractors or the county’s permitting office to advocate or mediate for them. When payment issues, construction defects or other disputes arise, the services of an experienced construction litigator are necessary to protect one’s best interests.
For Further Reading:
October 13, 2016
The issue of restrictive covenants often comes up in news or social media stories where a HOA or condominium demands that an owner take down an addition, a shed, a statue or some other architectural feature on the grounds that it offends the rules. The board claims that the rule is found in (or derived from) a document recorded in the land records encumbering all of the properties in the community. The board’s assertion of the restriction may come as a surprise to the owner. In a recent blog post, Does an HOA Disclosure Packet Effectively Protect a Home Buyer?, I wrote about how the existing legal framework fails to adequately disclose to the purchaser what it means to live in a HOA. That post started some great conversations with attorneys, realtors and activists about how consumers could be better protected during the sale process. Today’s post focuses on what the legal requirements are for a contractual relationship to arise between the community association and a resale purchaser who did not sign off on the restrictive covenants originally.
Restrictive covenants that bind future owners are a legal device that predate HOAs and condominiums by hundreds of years. Community associations derive their power to collect $$$ from and enforce rules against their owners through restrictive covenants. However, many owners are not aware that enforcement of restrictive covenants are disfavored by Virginia courts on public policy grounds.
Restrictive covenants are contract terms which, if enforceable, follow the property or the person around even after the contract between the original parties is over. They aren’t limited to real estate. For example, a pest control company may ask an employee to sign an agreement not to compete against the employer even after leaving the company. Courts are skeptical of contracts that restrict the ability of a worker to make a living in the future. For public policy reasons, workers should be able to reasonably put their skills to use in the marketplace regardless of what a written agreement might say. The courts enforce only very narrowly tailored covenants-not-to-complete in the employment context. Judicial precedent and the uncertainties of litigation make many businesses reluctant to sue former employees now working as rivals.
Courts disfavor restrictive covenants on real estate for similar policy reasons. Covenants that bind future owners narrow the usefulness of the property. Labor and property should be freely marketable without short-sighted, unreasonable restrictions. Such a policy protects property values and market liquidity.
The Supreme Court of Virginia still shares this viewpoint. On February 12, 2016, the Court decided Tvardek v. Powhatan Village HOA. That case was about the validity of an amendment to the HOA declaration, including its restrictive covenants. In ruling in favor of the homeowners, the Court reaffirmed the strict construction of covenants that run with the land, even in contemporary HOAs. Justice D. Arthur Kelsey’s opinion explains:
“The common law of England was brought to Virginia by our ancestors” in large part “to settle the rights of property.” Briggs v. Commonwealth, 82 Va. 554, 557 (1886). At that time, English common law had developed a highly skeptical view of restrictions running with the land that limited the free use of property. “Historically, the strict-construction doctrine was part of the arsenal of restrictive doctrines courts developed to guard against the dangers imposed by servitudes.” Restatement (Third) of Property: Servitudes § 4.1 cmt. a (2000).
Virginia real estate law generally views restrictive covenants as a threat to liberty. University of Virginia law professor Raleigh Minor prophetically wrote in his 1908 treatise, “perpetual restrictions upon the use of land might be imposed at the caprice of individuals, and the land thus come to future generations hampered and trammeled.” If only Professor Minor could see how property rights have eroded in many communities today.
The viewpoint of many people in today’s real estate industry and local governments is the opposite of what courts have traditionally held. Buyers are told that covenants protect their investments from barbarian neighbors who might do something to make the surrounding properties look undesirable. But as Professor Minor pointed out 100 years ago, these rules give an opportunity for capricious enforcement. Is the message of our contemporary industry an insight misunderstood by previous generations, an appeal to the preferences of certain buyers who dislike non-HOA neighborhoods or merely a sales pitch?
English common law recognized very few restrictive covenants running with the land. Those receiving judicial approval appeared to be limited to easements appurtenant “created to protect the flow of air, light, and artificial streams of water.” United States v. Blackman, 270 Va. 68, 77, 613 S.E.2d 442, 446 (2005); see also Tardy v. Creasy, 81 Va. 553, 557 (1886). Over a century ago, we noted that “attempts have been made to establish other easements, which the [historic common] law does not recognize, and to annex them to land; but the law will not permit a land-owner to create easements of every novel character and attach them to the soil.” Tardy, 81 Va. at 557. Since then, in keeping with our common-law traditions, Virginia courts have consistently applied the principle of strict construction to restrictive covenants.
The court applied this principle in the Tvardek case where the association sought to enforce an amendment to the declaration against certain owners who didn’t vote for it. As the court reaffirmed in this 2016 decision, restrictive covenants are not always enforceable. The Tvardeks opposed being deprived of their right to rent out their property. The covenant has to fall within a recognized category. The principle of “strict construction” works against the restrictor and to the benefit and protection of the owner.
A restrictive covenant running with the land that is imposed on a landowner solely by virtue of an agreement entered into by other landowners who are outside the chain of privity would have been unheard of under English common law. See generally 7 William Holdsworth, A History of English Law 287 (1925) (“Whether or not the burden of other covenants would run with the land, and whether or not the assignee of the land could be sued by writ of covenant, seem to have been matters upon which there is little or no mediaeval authority.”). Privity has long been considered an essential feature of any enforceable restrictive covenant. Bally v. Wells (1769) 95 Eng. Rep. 913, 915; 3 Wils. 26, 29 (“There must always be a privity between the plaintiff and defendant to make the defendant liable to an action of covenant.”). Many of our cases have recognized this common law requirement. See, e.g., Beeren & Barry Invs., LLC v. AHC, Inc., 277 Va. 32, 37-38, 671 S.E.2d 147, 150 (2009); Waynesboro Village, L.L.C. v. BMC Props., 255 Va. 75, 81, 496 S.E.2d 64, 68 (1998); Sloan v. Johnson, 254 Va. 271, 276, 491 S.E.2d 725, 728 (1997). We thus approach the statutory issue in this case with this historic tradition as our jurisprudential guide.
Someone is “in privity” with another if they have legal standing to sue them because he (or his predecessor-in-interest) was party to the contract that creates the rights at issue. The court affirmed the common law privity requirement, rejecting any suggestion that it should be discarded as outdated. For this reason, the legal requirements that the association disclose certain documents and the seller honor a right of cancellation of the purchase contract have the effect of establishing privity between the HOA and the subsequent purchaser. Do these statutes fairly balance the respective rights of resale purchasers and community associations?
The Tvarkeks did not contest that they were not bound to the HOA covenants that existed when they bought their home. Instead, they sought to have an amendment to the covenants declared invalid because the statutory procedures were not properly followed. If you are curious about the technical reasons why the court found this particular amendment invalid, there are other bloggers, such as Jeremy Moss, following community associations law developments in Virginia have written about Tvardek from this angle. An HOA may have hundreds of members. The membership changes every year. Most owners have never personally made any transactions with the developer or the owners who voted to amend the declaration of covenants. How can privity exist if the declaration can be amended without a signature from every owner? That’s where the legislature comes into play:
The Virginia Property Owners’ Association Act, Code §§ 55-508 to 55-516.2, expanded the concept of privity considerably beyond common-law limits. In general terms, the Act permits the creation of a restrictive covenant running with the land and enforceable against subsequent owners of the parcels covered by the declaration, whether or not they consent, so long as the association follows the statutorily prescribed procedures governing the association’s declaration and amendments to it.
The enactment of the HOA statutes do not wipe out the rule of strict construction of covenants that run with the land. Instead, the General Assembly expands certain exceptions to the privity requirement for the enforceability of restrictive covenants. The basic rule of skepticism holds. The Property Owners Association Act must be understood within the context of the common law.
One might think that the modern age of statutes would have marginalized the role of English common law, but this is not so. “Abrogation of the common law requires that the General Assembly plainly manifest an intent to do so.” Linhart v. Lawson, 261 Va. 30, 35, 540 S.E.2d 875, 877 (2001). We do not casually presume this intent. “Statutes in derogation of the common law are to be strictly construed and not to be enlarged in their operation by construction beyond their express terms.” Giordano v. McBar Indus., 284 Va. 259, 267 n.8, 729 S.E.2d 130, 134 n.8 (2012) (citation omitted). A statute touching on matters of common law must “be read along with the provisions of the common law, and the latter will be read into the statute unless it clearly appears from express language or by necessary implication that the purpose of the statute was to change the common law.” Wicks v. City of Charlottesville, 215 Va. 274, 276, 208 S.E.2d 752, 755 (1974).
Case law is very important to make sense of any HOA. Otherwise the statutes just seem to be an enablement of legal powers for the boards that are not found in the governing documents.
The Virginia Property Owners’ Association Act authorizes the creation and enforcement of restrictive covenants against nonconsenting landowners in a manner unknown to the common law. The General Assembly, however, policed the imposition of these covenants with a host of strict procedural requirements — not the least of which is the plainly worded command that no recorded amendment shall be “effective” unless it is accompanied by a certification verifying that the requisite majority signed the amendment or a ratification of it. See Code § 55-515.1(F). In effect, the General Assembly created something entirely new to the law (the right to form private associations having power over land use) while adding precautions to honor the common law’s ancient antipathy toward restrictions on the free use of private property.
The POAA is not some sort of freeway that allows boards to completely bypass the old traffic lights of the common law. As attorney John F. Faber, Jr. observes in his July 2016 Hampton Roads Realtor magazine article about Tvardek, “‘close enough’ does not count when interpreting statutes that allow broad application of restrictive covenants prohibiting the free use by owners of their properties.” In Tvardek, the court articulates three important, related legal protections for owners:
- A restrictive covenant has to be expressly stated in a public land recording (or fairly implied by very narrow exceptions).
- Restrictive covenants must fall within narrow exceptions to the general rule prohibiting them in order to be enforceable.
- If the board relies upon the POAA to enforce the covenant but can’t show that it meets the strict requirements of the statute, it is out of luck.
Does this mean that an owner should disregard notices from the HOA or condo that there is a rules violation or monthly assessments due? Certainly not. Owners should presume that courts will enforce clear and validly adopted restrictive covenants. But what the board, property manager or other representatives of the association is tell the owner may not accurately reflect what the owner’s legal obligations actually are. The owner may not even have a complete set of the governing documents in her possession. In any dispute with an HOA or condominium, owners should see a qualified attorney to help them protect their rights.
For Further Reading:
September 14, 2016
There is an interesting September 14, 2016 article in the Washington Post by Ilyce Glink and Samuel Tamkin entitled, “Why you should look carefully at an HOA’s plans for that community before buying a home there.” The article responds to Virginia home buyers who have great questions that aren’t answered in an HOA disclosure packet. The purchasers know that the roads the HOA owns need major repairs. It is overall a great article. The HOA disclosure packet doesn’t say how this will be paid for. They are concerned that their dues might increase from $1,000 to $3,500. This is a make or break question. Virginia law entitles the buyer to disclosure of HOA governing documents, corporate records and financial reports before going to closing on purchase of property. These disclosures are supposed to educate buyers about their rights and responsibilities to the HOA for as long as they own the property. In reality, buyers have many things on their minds during this exciting and stressful time. Their busy lives are consumed with urgent matters. They attend the home inspection and negotiation of any repairs. They come up with the down payment and approval from their mortgage lender. An excited family member may be dismissive of any questions or red flags about the property. The purchase will require the buyers to move and have their lives disrupted. Many home buyers feel worn down by demands of the process. They want to avoid cancelling and starting all over. All the buyers know about the HOA may be from seeing neighboring houses, maybe some common areas like a pool or playground. What’s in the HOA disclosure packet or condominium resale certificate give the association great influence over the financial affairs and home life of the buyers. Virginia law requires that HOA disclosure packet to include the following statements and documents:
1. Name and registered agent of the association.
2. Approved expenditures that will require a special assessment.
3. Ordinary assessments or mandatory dues or charges.
4. Whether there are any other parties to which the lot owner may be liable for fees or charges.
5. Reserve study report or summary.
6. Current budget and financial balance sheet.
7. Any pending lawsuit or unpaid judgment that could have a material impact.
8. Insurance coverage provided and not provided by the association.
9. Whether any improvement to the property being sold is in violation of the governing documents.
10. Flag display restrictions.
11. Solar panel use restrictions.
1. Declaration & any amendments.
2. Articles of incorporation, bylaws & any amendments
3. Rules, regulations or architectural guidelines
4. Approved minutes of the board and owner meetings for previous six months
5. Notices of any pending architectural violations
6. Disclosure Packet Notice Form prepared by the Virginia Common Interest Community Board
7. Annual Report form filed with the state with officers and directors and other information
8. Federal Housing Administration lending approval statement
While many people aren’t familiar with these kinds of documents, they reflect the family’s future financial obligations to the HOA and restrictions on the use of the property. The 2008 subprime mortgage crisis was caused in part by mortgage lenders giving borrowers loan documents that they didn’t understand. The HOA covenants are also a source of confusion. Many buyers would never buy a home without using a home inspector, but they try to tackle the HOA disclosure packet themselves. Unfortunately, it is easier for an unaided consumer to eyeball things in the home that need repairs than make sense out of the HOA documents. The federal government requires mortgage lenders to provide borrowers with simplified statements of the loan terms to make them transparent. For HOAs, consumer protections are weaker. Virginia law gives the buyer only three days to cancel the purchase contract after receipt of the HOA disclosure packet. That might give a professional working in the real estate industry enough time to digest them. However, many ordinary consumers struggle to make this three-day review period a meaningful part of their decision-making. A buyer could negotiate with the seller for this three-day period to be lengthened in the language of the sales contract. Few ask for this because the disclosures in the sales contract do not suggest to the buyer that additional time might be necessary.
As more HOA horror stories appear in news articles and social media posts, consumers are more likely to read the HOA disclosure packet and ask questions like in today’s Washington Post article. Even if the buyer is familiar with community associations law, the governing documents may be vague, ambiguous or unclear about issues critical to the buyer’s use and enjoyment of the home. This is what the home buyers in the article discovered. Glink and Tamkin recommend that the buyers knock on the door of the HOA president and ask her point-blank about how the road repairs will be paid for. An officer who understands their leadership responsibilities well might provide a sufficient answer upon a direct request. However, in most situations this probably won’t achieve a satisfactory result. Educated officers and directors know that the HOA or condo board is only required to provide the information and documents referenced in the statutes. If the buyer is unsatisfied, they have to either exercise the contingency within the deadline or negotiate for an extension of the cancellation period and a follow-up request to the board. The HOA could employ dilatory tactics, inducing the buyer to inadvertently waive the right of cancellation while pursuing an answer to the question. The road expense issue is probably already a hot-button issue for this board with lots of HOA politics in play.
There is a disturbing issue about the facts described in this newspaper column that isn’t addressed by the article. The HOA is managed by its board and not by a property management company. The monthly dues for the property are $1,000. This means that the officers and directors are handling a huge budget themselves, making day-to-day property management decisions. Maybe the board consists of retired real estate professionals who do this as a hobby to benefit the community at no added benefit to themselves. Given the commitment required to manage such a large budget, this is probably not the case. This would be my number one question.
If the purchasers have questions about what the documents mean, they might ask their real estate agent. Realtors provide a lot of value to their clients because they negotiate sales transactions all the time. The agent may not be the best person to ask because she won’t receive a commission on the sale if the buyer gets cold feet and backs out. The disclosure packets contain legal documents that are designed to enforce restrictions in court should disputes arise. If an attorney or real estate agent might struggle to make sense out of the disclosure packet, a buyer who is not familiar with HOAs may only read a few pages before setting them aside and focusing their attention elsewhere. If consumers understood the HOA disclosure packet and made an intentional decision to go to closing or back out based on what they read, consumer trends and demands might force home builders to make HOAs more owner-friendly.
In theory, a buyer can retain independent attorneys and CPAs to review the HOA disclosure packet and answer questions. This would allow an educated decision whether to cancel within the short deadline. In reality, if the buyer doesn’t already have an attorney and/or CPA lined up at the beginning of the three-day period, it may already be too late. Let’s say the buyer spends a day trying to make sense of the HOA disclosure packet on his own. If the family cannot figure things out themselves, on the second day he might start calling around for an attorney. Unfortunately, almost all community association lawyers represent the associations themselves, big investors or developers. They do not normally represent homeowners. My firm is an exception – in my solo practice I never represent HOA boards. General practice attorneys often represent individual persons. However, to effectively advise the purchaser on short notice, the attorney must be familiar with the appellate court decisions concerning the HOA statutes and governing documents. Much of the law pertaining to community associations matters is found in court opinions, not just acts of the general assembly. Many general practice lawyers are very good but may not be familiar with these things. Assuming that the buyer does find an attorney who is a good fit, there still are time constraints. The buyer has to talk to the lawyer, hire him, and provide the documents. It may take the attorney more than an hour or two to review the documents to prepare to provide an overview and answer questions. All of this must be completed within 3 days (or whatever extended period agreed with the seller) so that the buyer can make a meaningful decision to exercise or waive the HOA contingency. Otherwise the buyer might lose their deposit and some other fees if they want to get out of the contract. The three-day period might work if the buyer hired the attorney beforehand. However, the terms and disclosures in the sales contract do not alert the buyer that such might be desired.
Don’t get me wrong. The HOA disclosure packet provides critical information and documents to consumers and does contain a right of cancellation. Doing away with it entirely would be a huge setback to property owners. Unfortunately, the deadlines and procedural features of the disclosure laws don’t do enough to protect consumers. My professional experience working with owners leads me to believe that many of them go to closing unaware of what they are getting into. This is not really their fault. Sometimes they don’t understand the extent of some restriction or obligation that the property is subject to. Also, owners have rights that they are often unaware of and could improve their situation if they knew about them.
One of the key statements in the packet is the Virginia Common Interest Community Board Disclosure Notice Form. This is a kind of “Miranda” warning to consumers about what it means to live in an HOA or condo. The current version is useful but could be improved. It doesn’t mention fines for rule violations. It states that the buyer is subject to all of the decisions of the Board. Yet an adverse decision of the board might be legally void or voidable if the owner acts promptly. The notice does not reference the statutes or common law principles that may dramatically affect the rights and obligations of owners. The packet notice does not point out to the buyer that they have a right to have their own attorney review the documents and answer their questions. If the buyer received a useful disclosure notice form at the time they signed the contract, then they might more carefully consider whether to hire an attorney, CPA or other professional to help them with the HOA disclosure packet. Also, if the statute allowed for a longer period of time for the contingency than three days, the buyer would not need to negotiate that in advance. These additional protections are necessary because the system that exists has a practical effect of limiting home buyers’ right to counsel.
Based on my own personal experiences with real estate, the stories I have read about other people’s experiences and homeowners I have spoken to, I believe that on a practical level, the HOA disclosure packet is an ineffective system of consumer protection. This is shown by the surprise that owners experience when they are victim of an abusive debt collection practice, an arbitrary architectural review decision or any other infringement of their property rights by an association. Fundamentally, the HOA disclosure packet procedure doesn’t work because consumers don’t understand how its contents help them find answers to any questions they might have.
What does a buyer need to know that isn’t found in the HOA disclosure packet? The courts are the branch of government that oversee HOA boards. The Supreme Court of Virginia has repeatedly held that the declaration is a written contract or agreement between the owners and the HOA. If you go to the Virginia Code looking for guidance on something not explained in the packet you might not find the answer there because of the nature of the legal system. The declaration, along with other real estate contracts are interpreted by court precedents for many issues. For example, if a party breaches a contract, they are entitled to remedies which might include money damages, attorney’s fees or an order for the other side to do something. An owner has an interest in knowing whether the declaration even makes the association qualify as an HOA. The system of remedies for breach of covenants is very important in the HOA context because that’s where the owner finds means of enforcing his rights. A wide variety of rules that pertain to HOAs are found in court opinions that aren’t neatly summarized in the disclosure packet or even in legislation.
Because the governing documents are written in legalese interpreted by court opinions and legislative enactments, the disclosure packet is not effective as a summary of the rights the HOA has over the property. The Washington Post column illustrates this. A buyer does not have the time to take a law class on community associations or enforcement of real estate covenants in the three days in which the disclosure laws give them to review it.
I hope that the General Assembly amends the statutes to provide stronger protections for buyers. If buyers knew what they were getting themselves into beforehand, they would be better educated to be owners or even board members. In the meantime, home buyers should prepare to retain advisors to help them understand the documents. If necessary, the buyer and seller can agree to expand the three-day waiting period. Ultimately, families must work with their own team to stick up for themselves and protect their rights. Owners owe it to themselves to adequately understand all of the rights and burdens that may come with the sacrifices made to purchase the property to begin with. Buyers should retain a qualified attorney to help them understand the documents before they even receive the HOA disclosure packet or condominium resale certificate.
For Further Reading:
Va. Code Section 55-509.5 (Contents of association disclosure packet; delivery of packet)
Va. Code Section 55-79.97 (Va. Condominium Act – Resale by Purchaser)
August 17, 2016
HOAs and Condominiums derive from the covenants and state statutes’ powerful tools to use against homeowners. However, if the association does not meet the legal definition of a HOA or condo, then it cannot use the statuary toolbox. Instead of issuing fines, it must file a lawsuit each time it wants to obtain a lien against an owner’s property. The Virginia Condominium Act and Property Owners Association Act contain many protections for owners. However, they also provide associations with powerful debt-collection tools if they fit within the statutory definition. If a court determines that an HOA is not legally valid, this is a big win for owners being bullied by the board. Every once in a while, owners will take a stand and challenge whether their “HOA” exists. Recently, George Evans, Karen Evans, Gilbert Kesser & Yvonne Kesser brought such a case against their “HOA” in Culpeper, Virginia. On July 13, 2016 they won an important motion, setting the stage for big changes in Seven Springs Farm Subdivision (SSF). I am originally from Culpeper County, but I have never been to Seven Springs. We lived in a quiet residential development of modest wooded lots a few blocks from a lake. No one ever complained that their quality of life or property values suffered for lack of an HOA. When I left to go to college in 1995, there were few HOAs. Since then, development transformed Culpeper County from a farming community into a suburb of Northern Virginia. HOAs played a key role in that transformation.
This case arose over a dispute about assessments for road improvements. The covenants required the HOA to take a member vote before apportioning an assessment against the unit owners. On March 29, 2014, the Board made a $12,000 “blanket” assessment against homeowners without taking their votes. When the Kessers and Evans refused to pay, the HOA placed liens against their properties. Many owners of HOA properties believe that their Boards have the power to “tax & spend” for the “general welfare” of the community and that there is little way to challenge this. However, the Seven Springs Farm HOA case shows that everything a Board does must be authorized according to proper interpretation of the governing documents.
My friend, Mark Sharp, brought a suit on behalf of the Evans & Kesser families. They sought a judgment declaring that SSF is not a HOA for purposes of the Virginia Property Owners Association Act (“POAA”). Usually, the developers’ lawyers who set up HOAs take care that the Association qualifies as an HOA under the POAA. However, just because it calls itself an HOA and acts as though it has those powers doesn’t mean that it is an HOA. In Virginia, the declaration of covenants must provide, among other things, that the Board has the power to make assessments and also an affirmative duty to maintain common areas. This makes sense, because a contract is only meaningful if obligations go both ways. Contracts that fail to exchange something by both sides are invalid because of lack of “consideration.” In the HOA context, fundamental unfairness would arise if the board had the power to assess and lien but no obligation to spend the money on the common areas. Without this mutuality of obligation, an association is not entitled to the toolbox of remedies provided in the POAA.
In the Seven Springs case, the declaration gave the “HOA” the power to assess. The board had the power to do common area maintenance but were not specifically obligated to perform it. Under Virginia law, “valid covenants restricting the free use of land, altogether widely used, are not favored and must be strictly construed.” Accordingly, “substantial doubt or ambiguity is to be resolved against the restrictions, and in favor of the free use of property.”
Culpeper Circuit Court Judge Susan Whitlock’s opinion applied this strict construction principle to the question of whether the association qualifies as an “HOA” under the Property Owners Association Act. Anything in a declaration of covenants can be strictly construed. HOA lawyers typically make the governing documents many pages long in order to avoid having a judge find any “substantial doubt or ambiguity.” Judge Whitlock observed that an HOA is subject to such a challenge even if there was an ongoing pattern of owners paying dues and the Board spending the money on the common areas.
When the owners brought this challenge, SSF filed a demurrer, asking the judge to dismiss the case for legal deficiencies and not allow it to proceed to trial. Judge Whitlock overruled this demurrer, finding that “The Defendant’s Declaration fails to expressly require SSF to maintain the common areas, and therefore the Defendant is not a “Property Owners’ Association” under the POAA. Merely stating that those fees shall be used for maintenance of Lots and upkeep of roads fails to bridge the gap of ambiguity to be considered an affirmative duty to maintain.”
While the board, its managers and lawyers may interpret ambiguous governing documents to empower them to do what they want, in the end it is the counts that oversee HOAs, which a judge may very well reject. Judge Whitlock permitted the owners challenge to the road improvement assessment to proceed in Court.
This Seven Springs Farm HOA reminds us of several things: First, an owner must understand what the governing documents mean under state law to know what their rights and responsibilities are. In a dispute, this will require attorney assistance. The president, manager or HOA lawyer approaches the issue from a different perspective and cannot be expected to disclose to the owner all of her rights. The governing documents may or may not be consistent with what someone might think to be a common-sense approach to solving a problem.
Second, the Supreme Court of Virginia views a HOA as a contractual relationship. Ambiguous or uncertain provisions of these “contracts” can be strictly construed in the owners’ favor. A Virginia HOA board is not a “mini-government” empowered to exercise general legal authority within the boundaries of the development.
Third, Judge Whitlock’s decision is a pleasant reminder that not only do HOAs sometimes lose in Court, sometimes they are found to be less than a card-carrying member of the HOA club. Owners considering litigating against their community association should take this opinion as a reminder that a good case is winnable.
Fourth, just because a judge rules that an association is not an HOA under Virginia law doesn’t mean that the declaration of covenants is completely invalid. Such a ruling just means that its board cannot benefit from all of the intensive lobbying that the industry has done to empower HOAs and condominiums. A non-HOA association may still be able to exercise dominion over common areas and take owners to court to resolve disputes.
Property owners considering court action involving their boards of directors should begin the process with careful consideration of the recorded governing documents with the assistance of a qualified attorney. In many cases, they have more rights than what others explained to them.
August 15, 2016
Americans continue to feel the effects of the recession that began in 2008. In April 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. home ownership rates dropped to 63.5%, near the 48 year low of 63.4% experienced in 2015. Meanwhile more families are renting homes. Washington, D.C.’s local economy is more resistant to recession because of the federal government. In past years, the rental real estate market in Northern Virginia exploded. Many workers with decent wages found themselves renting because of challenges in saving up for a security deposit. Many single family homes available for rent are owned by landlords who live out-of-town. Frequently, tenants find themselves committed to written lease contracts for properties that are practically uninhabitable. Sometimes this happens because the tenants signed leases after viewing photos on the internet without an in-person inspection. In other situations, the tenants discover serious problems with the condition of the property only after living there a while. Not all habitability problems are immediately apparent upon an in-person visual inspection. Such problems can include insect or rodent infestation, contaminated water, broken furnaces, asbestos exposure, serious water intrusion, toxic mold, lead exposure or any other condition that threatens the health or safety of any occupant. Escaping an unlivable rental property has its own challenges. Tenants find themselves financially responsible for use of property that is not habitable. Adding to this, tenants must make a new financial commitment to another property if they want to move. The current landlord keeps additional leverage by holding the security deposit.
Typically, the landlord, her agent or attorney prepare the residential lease agreement. By design, that lease seeks to manage the risks of a damaging or non-paying tenant. Landlords look at their ownership responsibilities in terms of mortgages, taxes, insurance, agent’s commissions, association dues, you name it. Leases have more provisions about the tenants’ obligations than those owed by the landlord. When dealing with unlivable conditions, a tenant must consider legal protections outside the four corners of the lease agreement.
In Virginia, the chief consumer protections for tenants are found in the Virginia Residential Landlord Tenant Act. This statute applies to many landlord-tenant relationships in the Commonwealth. Also, the Virginia General Assembly enshrines the landlord’s obligations in a statute entitled “Landlord to maintain dwelling unit,” Va. Code § 55-225.3(A) requires the landlord to:
- Comply with the requirements of applicable building and housing codes materially affecting health and safety;
- Make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition;
- Maintain in good and safe working order and condition all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, air-conditioning and other facilities and appliances, including elevators, supplied or required to be supplied by him;
- Supply running water and reasonable amounts of hot water at all times and reasonable air conditioning if provided and heat in season except where the dwelling unit is so constructed that heat, air conditioning or hot water is generated by an installation within the exclusive control of the tenant or supplied by a direct public utility connection; and
- Maintain the premises in such a condition as to prevent the accumulation of moisture and the growth of mold and to promptly respond to any notices as provided in subdivision A 8 of § 55-225.4.
Tenants intuitively know that they are entitled to these basic protections. How are they to get out of bad situations without bearing an unfair burden for problems which are someone else’s responsibility. Litigation should only be pursued if unavoidable. Many problems with the condition of property might require proof by testimony of an expert witness. The parties might have to wait several weeks for their first court date, and then weeks or months more for trial.
If a condition with the property is currently unbearable, the landlord can expect a prospective buyer or new tenant to have the same visceral reaction. If repairs or remediation are required, the landlord will have to pay for that while paying other obligations. The property could go for weeks or even months where the tenant rightfully doesn’t want to pay, but the landlord doesn’t want to release the tenants from their obligations. In a residential case, the parties should expect a judge to oppose giving damages for rents where the landlord could mitigate his damages by making the property livable and renting it out to a new tenant.
Under most lease agreements, timing issues are critical to tenants preserving their rights to get their deposits back. Landlords can try to enforce provisions requiring for advance notice harshly.
If the landlord refuses to let them go amicably, the tenants should prepare to go to Court if necessary to protect their rights. At the same time, where at all possible a reasonable settlement should be pursued. Depending upon how severe the problems are with the condition of the property and how the statutes and lease provisions speak to the problem, the tenants can usually negotiate an exit strategy that doesn’t require them to finance the landlord’s efforts to market or refurbish the premises. Landlords, their property managers, and attorneys will look to see if the tenants are serious in their desire to get out of an unacceptable situation while protecting their rights. Tenants have rights not to unfairly bear the financial and lifestyle burdens of landlords’ problems. Contract qualified legal counsel to protect your interests.
I would like to share an emailed comment on this article from Deborah Goonan, property rights blogger & activist:
It certainly seems to me that a tenant has more legal protection than an owner of a condo or HOA. There is no specific obligation for an Association to provide maintenance up to a habitable standard — at least not spelled out to the degree that landlord/tenant law spells out in Virginia law.
And at least the tenant can leave (theoretically — depends on the tenant’s financial situation and if there’s anywhere else for the tenant to go), and loses, at most, the security deposit.
A condo owner has a LOT more financial risk and cannot easily walk away from obligation to pay assessments and mortgage payment for a place that is not livable. (Such as Michelle Germano with the toxic drywall).
July 28, 2016
Americans are increasingly frustrated by federal, state, local and HOA officials making decisions in secret. On the floor of the nominating convention, supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders protested Hillary Clinton’s undisclosed collusion with the Democratic Party leadership during the presidential primary. On the Republican side, Donald Trump continues to refuse to disclose his tax returns. Democracy doesn’t work unless voters, boards and legislators can make informed decisions. Virginia already has “sunshine” laws on the books to safeguard “open government” on the state, local and HOA levels. These laws mandate freedom of information and often have a beneficially deterrent effect. As Katrina and the Waves sang in their 1980’s hit, “I’m walking on sunshine, and don’t it feel good!” Property owners feel good when they can observe, understand and react to decisions that affect them. Many decry the “partly cloudy” forecast for “open government.” Property owners often struggle to resolve impasses with HOAs, land use officials and construction contractors. In many cases owners can use “open government” laws as a tool to seek favorable outcomes. As an attorney, I seek documents and information from whatever sources are available to help clients. Owners “walking on sunshine” make better decisions.
Developments at a July 15, 2016 Loudoun County Board of Supervisors meeting illustrate how confusing and frustrating “open government” rules can be. Harris Teeter Properties, LLC obtained permission to open a grocery store in Aldie, Virginia. Harris Teeter wanted the Board of Supervisors to deny requests for three neighboring restaurants. This would allow them to plant their largest store in one of Loudoun County’s Transition Policy Areas. “Transition Policy Area” is a land use designation “incorporating an innovative blend of rural and suburban development features.” Under the Board’s official policy, Aldie is a border-town of sorts between Northern Virginia and rural areas. These competing retail proposals are for development along this fault-line. If a mega-grocery store comes to Aldie, shoppers will drive there from all over. Aldie folks were mostly fine with getting a regular Harris Teeter. They have to eat. The Board of Supervisor’s Transportation & Land Development Committee considered these controversies. Although he was not on this Committee, Republican Supervisor Tony Buffington took a keen interest because he represents the Aldie district. Many of his constituents fear that an expanded Harris Teeter proposal would create traffic congestion, destroying the hamlet’s rural identity. Some questioned the Board of Supervisor’s commitment to its overall plan for land development. The Loudoun Times quotes Gem Bingol of the Piedmont Environmental Council as saying, “The question I see facing you is, ‘Are you going to support your Transition Policy Area policies?’” Supervisor Buffington’s day job with the U.S. Capitol Police took him on the day of the committee meeting away to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. From the GOP convention, Buffington texted Supervisors at this committee meeting. He was “against everything they [Harris Teeter] are currently proposing.” He shared that the “residents are adamantly opposed to the proposals.” He and a group of other Supervisors carried on a lengthy discussion text message on what to do about the Harris Teeter proposals.
Randall Minchew, the lawyer for Harris Teeter, noticed that the Supervisors were all very active on their cell phones during the Committee hearing. Mr. Minchew asked if Buffington was texting them. The other Supervisors read their texts with Buffington into the official meeting record. Minchew accused the Supervisors of a “blatant” Virginia Freedom of Information Act violation. Mr. Minchew’s appeal to the open government laws at least gave him and the grocery an opportunity to respond to criticisms submitted off the record. However, VFOIA can’t really be used make the Board to give the grocery the decision they want.
Loudoun County Attorney Leo Rogers reviewed these text messages. Rogers, in consultation with the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, reached an opinion that the Buffington-instigated texts did not violate the FVOIA:
First, given that the text messages were exchanged between only two Board members, there was no participation in the meeting itself. A public meeting of the county’s elected body is defined under FOIA as a meeting of three or more Board members.
Second, in order to be an electronic communication under FOIA, there needs to be an audio or visual component, which the text messages did not include. In any event, in order for a FOIA violation to be actionable, it must be done “willfully and knowingly,” and there is no evidence that is the case.
Of course, Mr. Rogers only speaks in his role as an advocate and advisor for the County. Harris Teeter could try to bring a legal action in court to obtain a ruling. However, what Harris Teeter wants is to gain an edge on its competitors in the mega-grocery field. They are more interested in the ultimate decision that the Board will make than a mere FOIA issue. After the incident, Buffington publically expressed regret that his actions may have caused a perception of wrongdoing by the public.
County supervisors and other elected officials reading the opinions of the county attorney and FOIA council are probably breathing a sigh of relief. Undoubtedly, board members everywhere make all sorts of communications with one another that it would be unduly burdensome and unnecessary to put on the record. The Harris Teeter hearing illustrates why it pays to make inquiries to find out what off-the-record communications shape governmental decisions that affect how many people a grocery store will give jobs, serve goods or delay commutes. The same can be said for HOA and condominium board and committee deliberations.
The Transportation & Land Use Committee hearing was broadcasted. Mr. Buffington or any other interested party could stream it on their computer or mobile device. Lawyers represented the interests of Harris Teeter and Loudoun County. Local newspapers quickly covered the scoop for the interest of county voters. At stake is the identity of one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. In this instance, the recording and inquiries allowed the threats to transparency to be quickly addressed.
In many condominiums and homeowners’ associations, these safeguards do not practically exist. HOA board and committee meetings aren’t broadcast on television. Meetings are recorded in brief minutes, if at all. The news media are unlikely to commit personnel and resources to covering HOA controversies unless something juicy erupts. Owners rarely bring legal counsel to HOA hearings. Owners frequently complain that their Board’s ruling clique keeps them in the dark. The Virginia Property Owners Association Act and the Condominium Act contain statutory protections of the integrity of HOA meetings and owners’ rights to review records. Although most Associations would rather simply disclose the requested meeting records than defend an owner’s lawsuit, few owners take advantage of their rights. On a practical level, the association president, board majority, Association lawyer and property manager make many decisions without the “open government” sunshine that many owners want. HOAs present themselves to state and local policymakers as mini-governments that relieve county budgets from service obligations in entire communities. For many people, their neighborhood community is the least transparent “government” making decisions that affect their lives. It should be the other way around.
VFOIA is a useful tool for property owners in construction cases as well. Contractors must obtain county approvals and inspections throughout the construction process. The local government maintains records of all of these applications, permits, inspections, correspondence and other documents. Owners can use VFOIA requests to find useful information for construction disputes with the builder.
Property owners don’t have to be big grocery store chains to protect their rights and get their voices heard before their local elected government officials and HOAs. HOA and local government boards and committees have legal counsel and managers on their team. Owners need to have a “team,” which could consist of like-minded neighbors, sympathetic board members, attorneys, CPAs and others. With help, owners can understand the laws and governing documents. “Walking on sunshine” can help owners protect their rights and make smart decisions.
Selected Virginia Statutes:
July 15, 2016
A disgruntled contractor or supplier may attempt to collect a payment from owners by filing a Memorandum for Mechanics Lien against the real estate. Under Virginia law, claimants (contractors or material suppliers) can interfere with owners’ ability to sell or refinance property by filing a lien in land records without first filing a lawsuit and obtaining a judgment.
A March 2016 opinion by federal Judge Leonie Brinkema shows why purchasers at Virginia foreclosure sales must give care to mechanics liens. In April 2013 and October 2015 Jan-Michael Weinberg filed a Memorandum of Mechanics Lien against a Fairfax County property, then owned by Ann & James High. J.P. Morgan Chase Bank later foreclosed on the High property. In early 2016, Mr. Weinberg brought a lawsuit to enforce the mechanics lien against J.P. Morgan Chase and the property.
If a claimant pursues a Memorandum for Mechanics Lien correctly, the property may be sold to satisfy the secured debt. A Memorandum for Mechanics Lien is a two-page form that anyone can download online for general contractors or subcontractors. The filing fee is a few dollars. By contrast, removal of the lien may require significant time and attention by the owner. Overall, it is best for owners to work with their advisory team to avoid having contractors file mechanics liens in the first place. Sometimes, disputes cannot be easily avoided and owners must deal with recorded liens. A Memorandum for Mechanics Lien differs from a mortgage or a money judgment. Fortunately for the owner, Virginia courts apply strict requirements on contractors pursuing mechanic’s liens. Just because a contractor fills out all the blanks in the form that doesn’t meant it necessarily is valid. This blog post is a brief overview of key owner considerations. The Weinberg case provides a good example because the court found so many problems with that lien.
- Who? The land records system in Virginia index by party names. For this reason, the claimant must correctly list its own name and the name of the true owner of record. The owner’s team will need a title report and the construction contract. Whether the claimant is a general contractor, subcontractor or supplier will determine which form must be used. Mr. Weinberg’s Memorandum for Mechanics Lien claimed a lien of $195,000. Virginia law requires a contractor to have a “Class A” license for projects of $120,000 or more. Judge Brinkema found this Memorandum defective because Weinberg’s claim was not supported by a reference to a Class A license number. In some residential construction jobs, the Virginia Code requires appointment of a “Mechanic’s Lien Agent” to receive certain advance notices of performance of work from claimants that might later become the object of a mechanics lien. This creates an additional hurdle for the contractor, suppliers and subcontractors. In many construction projects, the builder works with the owner’s bank to obtain draws on construction loans. If mechanics lien disputes arise, owners can work with the bank to obtain documents.
- What? The Memorandum for Mechanics Lien must describe the dollar amount claimed and the type of materials or services furnished. The written agreement determines the scope of work, payment obligations and other terms. Generally speaking, only construction, removal, repair or improvement of a permanent structure will support a mechanics lien. Mr. Weinberg claimed that he conducted “grass, shrub, flower care,” “week killer,” “tree removal/cutting,” general property cleanup,” “infrastructure work,” “planting grass,” “site work,” “general household work” and “handy man jobs.” The Court found that this description of work was invalid. The work described was either landscaping or too vaguely connected to actual structures. Where the agreement was for work that could actually be the basis of a mechanics lien, the owner should consider how much of the work the contractor actually performed? Is the work free of defects? Does the Memorandum state the date the claim is due or the date from which interest is claimed?
- When? The contractor or supplier must meet strict timing deadlines for the mechanics lien. Generally speaking, the Memorandum for Mechanics Lien must be filed within 90 days from the last day of the month in which the claimant performed work. Judge Brinkema observed that Mr. Weinberg failed to indicate on the Memoranda the dates he allegedly performed the work. Also, no Memorandum may include sums for labor or materials furnished more than 150 days prior to the last day of work or delivery. Furthermore, the claimant must bring suit to enforce the lien no more than 6 months after recording the Memorandum or 60 days after the project was completed or otherwise terminated. Weinberg’s 2013 Memorandum was untimely because he did not sue to enforce it until 2016. Because Weinberg’s 2015 Memorandum was the same as the 2013 version, they both probably describe the same work on the property.
- Where? The Memorandum for Mechanics Lien must correctly describe the location of the real estate that it seeks to encumber. If it lists the wrong property, the lien may be invalid. Property description problems frequently arise in condominium construction cases because the same builder is doing work in the same building for multiple housing units. The Memorandum must be filed in the land records for the circuit court for the city or county in Virginia where the property is located.
- Why? There is usually a reason why a contractor decides to file a Memorandum for Mechanics Lien instead of pursuing some other means of payment collection. The Highs allegedly didn’t pay Weinberg for his landscaping and handyman services. The Highs’ weren’t able to pay their mortgage either. Weinberg filed for bankruptcy. In order to resolve a mechanics lien dispute with a contractor, an owner should consider how the dispute arose in the first place. Is someone acting out of desperation, confusion, or is the lien a predatory tactic? Could investigation need some other explanation?
- How? The owner must understand how the mechanics lien dispute with the contractor relates to the overall plan for the property. Mr. Weinberg tried to use mechanics liens to collect on debts. At the same time, he went through bankruptcy and the property went through foreclosure. Context cannot be ignored. Few owners can afford to remain completely passive in the face of a dispute with a contractor. The owner may have a construction loan or other debt financing to consider. An unfinished project is difficult to sell at a favorable price. Potential tenants won’t lease unfinished property.
On March 15, 2016, Judge Brinkema denied Mr. Weinberg’s motion to amend his lawsuit and dismissed the case. When a contractor or supplier files a Memorandum of Mechanics Lien against property, the owner must carefully consider whether to pay the contractor directly, deposit a bond into the court in order to release the lien and resolve the dispute with the contractor later, bring suit to invalidate the lien on legal grounds or simply wait 6 months to see if any suit is brought in a timely fashion to enforce the lien. Fortunately for owners, there are strict requirements on contractors for them to take advantage of mechanics lien procedures. A Virginia property owner should consult with qualified legal counsel immediately upon receipt of a Memorandum of Mechanics Lien to protect her legal rights.
Case Citation: Weinberg v. JP Morgan Chase & Co. (E.D. Va. Mar. 15, 2015)
July 7, 2016
This blog post discusses the role of the Summons for Unlawful Detainer in Virginia foreclosures. “Unlawful Detainer” is a legal term for the grounds for eviction from real estate. The foreclosure trustee and new buyer go to a real estate closing a few days after the foreclosure sale. Upon settlement, the title company records the Trustee’s Deed of Foreclosure in the local land records. In most land transfers, the giver and recipient of the ownership of the real estate participate voluntarily. In a foreclosure, the borrower may contest the validity of the foreclosure transaction and the Trustee’s Deed. The Trustee’s Deed is necessary to the new buyer to pursue eviction proceedings against the occupants of the property. The Trustee’s Deed is the buyer’s legal basis for filing the Summons for Unlawful Detainer form. A copy of what this form looks like is available on the website for the Virginia court system.
Post-foreclosure evictions are not the only reason anyone files a Summons for Unlawful Detainer. Unlawful Detainer suits get into court in different situations. The most common is where a tenant fails to pay rent or defaults on the lease. However, it can be used for a variety of situations where an occupant entered onto the property with lawful authorization (such as a deed or lease) but has continued to occupy the premises after his right to do so ended. Every landlord knows that each month that the tenant holds over without paying is rental income that will likely never be collected. The General Assembly enacted legislation to streamline property owner’s rights to evict tenants and other persons unlawfully detaining possession of the real estate. This prevents an unfair result that might occur if a tenant could use lengthy court proceedings to live in the premises rent free when he may not have money to pay a judgment at the end. The buyer of the foreclosure property has made a financial commitment to own the property. Foreclosure investors want to evict the borrower, make any necessary repairs as soon as possible so that the property can be rented out or re-sold. So the summons for unlawful detainer form is a powerful, attractive tool for the new buyer in a foreclosure.
The investor or their attorney typically files the Summons for Unlawful Detainer in the local Virginia General District Court (“GDC”) after receiving the Trustee’s Deed. The GDC is the local court in Virginia most people are familiar with. This is where Virginians go for traffic ticket cases and suits for money under $25,000.00. The GDC has a “Small Claims Division” where parties litigate without lawyers. The Sheriff’s Office serves the Summons for Unlawful Detainer on the borrower and any other occupants. Upon receipt of the Summons for Unlawful Detainer, the borrower faces a “fight or flight” decision. Experienced lenders, trustees and purchasers know that the Trustee’s Deed of Foreclosure can be used as a weapon to try to crush the borrower’s opposition to the foreclosure. The Bank, trustee, and new buyer are can pursue these legal matters without the threat of having being evicted out of their base of operations. The borrower would not be in a foreclosure matter if there wasn’t a difficulty making payments. Once the Deed is in land records and the Summons is filed with the GDC, the borrower also has to mount a legal defense to keep possession of the home. A borrower is well advised to seek qualified legal counsel in his jurisdiction to help deal with these matters.
The Summons for Unlawful Detainer Summons must contain the name, address and point of contact for the new owner seeking to evict him. This will tell the borrower whether the property is now owned by the bank that requested the foreclosure or an unrelated investor. The Summons sets out when and where the borrower or his attorney must appear to contest the eviction proceeding. Every form states, “If you fail to appear and a default judgment is entered against you, a writ of possession may be issued immediately for possession of the premises.” A writ of possession is a document signed by the judge that authorizes the Sheriff’s Office to go out to the house and remove the people and belongings found there and turn it over to the new buyer and their locksmith.
What can a borrower do who has been wrongfully foreclosed upon and received a Summons for Unlawful Detainer? The earlier the borrower engages with legal counsel, the more there is that the attorney can do to help. On June 16, 2016, the Supreme Court of Virginia initiated legal reforms which dramatically shift the balance of power in these post-foreclosure evictions. If properly defended, the borrower may have an opportunity to get the dispute over the validity of the foreclosure decided before ordering eviction. This is good news. Prior legal precedent required many borrowers to defend against a Summons for Unlawful Detainer at the same time he pursued his own wrongful foreclosure claims against the bank and trustee. I discussed this new case in greater detail in my blog post, “The Day the Universe Changed” and in a radio show interview available in the “On the Commons” podcast library. While borrowers will continue to receive these “Summons for Unlawful Detainer” forms, they now have better options.
Unless the borrower does not intend to contest the eviction and foreclosure, borrowers receiving a Summons for Unlawful Retainer from the buyer of the foreclosure property should immediately seek qualified legal counsel in order to explore available options. The Virginia General Assembly is anticipated to enact new legislation in its next session to clarify the jurisdiction of the GDC and the appropriate court procedures when a borrower contests the validity of a foreclosure related to the eviction proceeding. With assistance, borrowers may be able to take advantage of these legal reforms.