February 28, 2017
A lawsuit for damage to property must be timely filed to prevail in court. In Virginia, the statute of limitations for property damage is five years from accrual of the claim. When an owner suffers damage caused by a neighboring owner, when does this five year time-period start running towards its expiration date? Does the clock start ticking at the time the trespass or nuisance began or some other moment? On February 16, 2017, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued a new decision finding that when the effect of the offending structure is continuous, the claim accrues when damage began. The distinction between “temporary” and “continuous” is potentially confusing and the stakes are high in real property damage cases. Understanding how Virginia courts apply these rules is essential whenever owners and their attorneys discover what is happening.
Forest Lakes Community Ass’n v. United Land Corp. of America involved property that I have driven by numerous times. I grew up in Orange and Culpeper Counties in Virginia. My family would drive down Route 29 to shop or attend sporting events in Charlottesville. The Charlottesville area prides itself as the home of President Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia. Along Route 29 is Hollymead, an artificial lake built from a sediment basin. A sediment basin removes silt or other particles from muddied waterways. Two HOAs, Forest Lake Community Association, Inc. and Hollymead Citizens Association, Inc. jointly own Lake Hollymead.
The defendants included United Land Corp. and other owners and builders of the Hollymead Town Center (“HTC”) upstream from the Plaintiff HOAs’ lake. In 2003-2004, defendant developers constructed three new settlement basins along Powell Creek, the tributary to Lake Hollymead. Owners in the HOAs complained about excessive influx of sediment from the HTC construction into Lake Hollymead. If I bought a home with lake views, I wouldn’t like looking at muddied waters either. The HOAs complained that the defendants caused excessive sedimentation by improperly removing vegetation within the Powell Creek watershed.
If this was a serious problem, how did it get through the county’s permitting process? According to the case opinion, the development complied with state and local regulations regarding retainage of sediment within the three new basins. The county rejected suggestions from downstream owners that upgraded sediment filtration systems be required of HTC. The case doesn’t discuss whether the county’s standards did, or should set a benchmark for the reasonableness of the defendants’ control of sediment. Owners may have a right to sue even when the city or county refuses to intervene in a property damage dispute.
Discussions continued within these HOAs for years. In 2011 they finally filed suit, alleging nuisance and trespass. The HOAs asked for the court to award them money damages and an injunction requiring the defendants to stop the excessive drain of sediment. The HOAs enjoyed standing because they jointly owned Lake Hollymead as a common area. Incursion of sediment into Lake Hollymead began during HTC’s construction. The HOAs argued that intermittent storms caused subsequent separate and distinct sediment incursions, each triggering new causes of action that restarted the five year statute of limitation. This was contradicted by the HOAs’ expert who acknowledged that at least a little sediment incurred continuously. The HOAs also argued that the defendants’ sediment currently sits in Lake Hollymead and will continue to trespass until someone digs it out.
When a case comes to a lawyer for the first time, her initial assessment considers statutes of limitation. Legal claims have a corresponding statute of limitation setting a deadline by which the claim must be brought. Even if the claim is one day late it can be dismissed as time-barred. The HTC defendants sought to have the HOAs’ claims dismissed because they waited over five years after the sediment problem began in the 2003-2004 timeframe. After a day of testimony, Judge Paul M. Peatross found that the statute of limitations barred the claims because they accrued in 2003 and sediment incurred continuously thereafter.
The HOAs sought review by the Supreme Court of Virginia. Their appeal focused on Judge Peatross’ ruling that the claim was barred by the five-year statute of limitation because the continuous damage accrued at construction.
Justice D. Arthur Kelsey explained in the opinion that under Virginia law, a claim for an injury to property accrues when the first measurable damage occurs. Subsequent, compounding or aggravating damage attributable to the original problem does not restart a new limitations period. The court acknowledged that plaintiffs might need to seek a claim for an award for past, present and future damages. This accrual principle applies where the permanent structure causing the injury could be expected to continue indefinitely. I find this confusing, because drainage systems and sediment basins have lifespans. After a number of years, they fail or require repairs. Anything that comes into contact with water is under tremendous pressure. Perhaps what the court means is that the structure causing the injury is “permanent” if it would continue to cause the damage if maintained to continue to function as it did originally. This concept of “permanent structure” implies that its owner will maintain the nuisancing or trespassing feature as it presently exists.
Alternatively, in the facts of a case, a later cause of action might accrue that looks and acts like the earlier one but is a “stand alone” claim that starts a new five year limitations period. This can happen where the structure causes separate, temporary property damage. For example, some dams can be opened or closed. This exception can apply even when the physical structure causing the damage is a permanent fixture.
Justice Kelsey acknowledged the challenges applying these principles to particular cases:
Though easy to restate, these concepts defy any attempts at formulatic applications. Because the underlying issue – determining the boundaries of a cause of action – depends to heaving on the factual context of each case, our jurisprudence has tailored these principles to analogous fact patterns and rights of action.
To resolve these issues, the Supreme Court relied upon the factual finding of the Circuit Court that the three HTC sediment basins discharged into Lake Hollymead on a continuous basis and that the five year statute was not revived by a later, discrete discharge episode.
Ordinarily, on these motions to dismiss a lawsuit, the courts tend to give plaintiffs a benefit of the doubt. Often judges will look to see if the facts are contested so as to warrant a trial. Here, Judge Peatross took a day’s worth of testimony in a pretrial hearing. The HOAs may have appealed on the hope that the Circuit Court short-circuited the case too early and the Supreme Court would rule that they deserved another chance to have their case heard on its merits. This case may embolden more defendants to put on expert testimony in support of a plea of a statute of limitations in the hopes that their cases could be brought to a quick end.
The easiest way to avoid these kinds of statute of limitation problems is to file suit early enough so that either way the court looks at it, it would be deemed timely. Plaintiffs and their lawyers should file early to avoid the necessity of having to litigate such issues in day long evidentiary hearings and on appeal.
April 3, 2014
How much unpaid rent can a landlord of a commercial property collect against a tenant who has fallen into default? Arlington attorney John G. Kelly explored this issue in his blog post, Acceleration of Rents: Part 1, How to Ensure It’s Enforceable? Acceleration of Rents provisions typically give the landlord the right, after default by the tenant, to demand the entire balance of the unpaid rent under the lease paid in one lump sum. Without such a term, a Virginia landlord is only entitled to possession of the premises or to collect each rent payment as they become due. The landlord has no duty to mitigate his damages by re-letting the premises unless such is required by the terms of the lease. Kelly’s post shows that although this is a significant issue, there haven’t been many Virginia case opinions guiding landlords, tenants and their advisors. Kelly discusses a 1996 Virginia Circuit Court opinion that acceleration of rents provisions are enforceable unless they constitute a “penalty.” This reflects a concern that a landlord may be unjustly enriched if it receives accelerated rents under the defaulted lease and rents from a new tenant for the same premises. In the country there is an expression, “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.” As we will see, this principle may carry weight even when there is no affirmative duty to mitigate damages.
In September 2013, a new federal court opinion illustrated how acceleration of rents provisions may be enforced against tenants. A Federal Judge sitting in Lynchburg, Virginia awarded accelerated rents as damages arising from default of a lease of a nursing home property. Landlord Elderberry owned a 90-bed nursing facility in Weber City in Southwest Virginia. Elderberry rented it to ContiniumCare of Weber City, LLC to operate the nursing home. Continium continued to pay rent until March 2012. Three months later, the Virginia Department of Health & Human Services terminated the nursing home’s Medicaid Provider Agreement. Elderberry terminated the lease by letter in August 2012. Continium then vacated the premises. The property required substantial repairs and renovations for further use as a Medicaid facility. In January 2013, Elderberry re-let the premises to Nova, a new nursing home tenant.
The parties litigated this case heavily through extensive motions practice, discovery and a multi-day trial. Today’s blog post focuses on the Court’s interpretation of the acceleration clause provisions in the nursing home lease. The tenant asserted that the acceleration of rent provision was not enforceable because it constituted an impermissible “penalty” above and beyond fair compensation for actual damages.
Elderberry did not have a legal obligation to mitigate its damages. The landlord nonetheless gave the tenant credit for rents already collected from the new tenant and scheduled to be paid in the future for the term of the prior tenant’s lease. In addition to other damages, the Federal District Court awarded Elderberry $278,228.58 in unpaid rent up until the replacement tenant began paying rent and $125,857.04 in shortfall between the two leases. The court observed that the landlord’s efforts to invest its own funds into repairing and remodeling the premises mitigated tenants’ damages and returned it to functional use to Medicaid patients faster.
To secure a new lease, the landlord provided to the new tenant $588,708.60 in working capital above and beyond renovations and replacement furnishings invested in the premises by Elderberry. The defaulting tenants complained that Elderberry would receive a windfall if awarded both this working capital and the rent shortfalls. The Court observed that the landlord is entitled to rent increases under the new lease based on the amount of working capital provided. However, the shortfall is adjusted accordingly to prevent any windfall. The Court found the working capital to be a necessary incentive to a new tenant to take over the space and begin making rent payments mitigating the damages.
Retail leasing attorney Ira Meislik observes in his blog that the modern trend is for courts to interpret leases less like land conveyances and increasingly like commercial contracts. See his 2012 post, How Much Can a Landlord Collect from an Evicted Tenant? Elderberry illustrates how even in “land conveyance” states like Virginia, reasonable efforts to mitigate damages can facilitate the collection of the balance of accelerated rents. Avoiding unnecessary windfalls is a principle that underlies both mitigation of damages and the prohibition against penalty provisions in leases. In this case, the landlord re-let the premises before trial but after filing suit against the tenants. Like in many cases, the facts continued to develop after the lawsuit began. By adjusting their trial strategy to give a re-letting credit, Elderberry avoided asking for damages that tenants could easily argue were a windfall and hence a penalty. It is not clear whether Elderberry will actually collect all or even some of this judgment, but they did avoid getting “slaughtered” at trial.