July 5, 2017
Property owners are frustrated when their builder fails to properly complete the agreed upon work for the purchase price. Sometimes these difficulties are relatively minor. Perhaps only a timely warranty claim letter to the builder will get the problems fixed. Not all disputes can be resolved amicably. For relatively simple matters, the owner may be able to sue pro se in small claims court. Many construction disputes require greater commitment of time, know-how and resources to resolve. When the relationship between the contractor and the owner breaks down, it may not be clear to whom should owners turn with contractor complaints. This blog post highlights various options owners may have for obtaining assistance with builder problems.
The Contracting Company’s Leadership:
Owners should first seek to amicably resolve disputes over a contractor’s performance with the company’s representatives. If the concerns can be effectively communicated and negotiated, the owner may avoid having to go to court, arbitrator or governmental agency. Sending a certified letter to the contractor may be necessary under the provisions of a statutory or contractual warranty. Check out my previous post about “Construction Defect Warranty Claims.” Communication can be a useful means of obtaining information. The owner may need to contact the leadership if their inquiries to company employees are ignored.
City or County Government Officials:
In Virginia, the city or county has the legal mandate to enforce the statewide building codes. There are offices staffed with experienced officials who conduct inspections and reviews to determine whether the project meets the building codes. The primary purpose of building code enforcement is to protect public health and safety. The code enforcement process begins long before anyone brings a complaint before the local government. Many projects, especially major renovations and new home construction require drawings to be submitted and a permit granted before work may commence. When presented with a complaint, code enforcement will look at the work on the property and consult the approved drawings and the building codes.
While compliance with the building codes is important, it is not the end of the story. If the contractor only builds to the minimum standard required to pass county inspections, the owner may be disappointed. The concept of a “dream home” includes code compliance, but goes significantly beyond that. Owners have rights not simply to a product that passes code inspection but work that conforms to the contract, warranty and drawings. There are quality control issues that aren’t addressed in most contracts, drawings or building codes. Take caution regarding contractors who talk about “dream homes” before the contract is signed and then only in terms of “code compliance” after getting several payments.
It is important for owners to understand what code enforcement is not. While the officials promote a public function, they do not exist to provide pro bono expert services. They will not provide cost estimates to finish or repair the work. Their job is not to make sure that the owners get what they bargained for in the contract with the builder. In some situations, they may enforce the building code against the owner. If the project is shut down because of code enforcement action, this may cause delays and additional expenses to the owner.
In general, the code enforcement offices do a great job within their specific legal mandate of enforcing the building codes. However, owners must understand that the county or city does not have the broad powers of a court to provide remedies and protections.
If a contractor or owner does not agree with a decision made by code enforcement, there is an appeal process available. However, appeals are rare because of the expenses and delays.
State Board of Contractors:
Contractors must be licensed to engage in the construction services they deliver. The state board performs a useful function in the contracting field. Consumers and the public have good reason to expect the government to protect their health and safety. Also, contractors often take large amounts of money from owners who then expect them to perform on the work. Some people lose motivation once they get the money in their bank account. While we don’t usually categorize contractors as “fiduciaries,” in a sense they are such. The Virginia Board of Contractors deals with the application, issuance and suspension of contractors’ licenses. They also have regulations that can be the basis of a professional disciplinary proceeding if violated. The Contractor’s Recovery Fund provides a means for financial recovery for some consumers in egregious suits where the contractor lacks resources to satisfy a judgment. In a previous post I explored the question, “Should Homeowners Bring Complaints Against Contractors Before Courts or Regulators?” As discussed there in more detail, often there isn’t much benefit to owners to go to the state board until they exhaust remedies elsewhere. However, owners and their attorneys should know what the requirements are for recovery against the state fund so that they can meet those requirements in the lawsuit. The state board will look to the records of the proceedings of the lawsuit in the city or county courts in their investigation. Also, the failure to pay a court judgment is a violation of the licensure regulations. For many aggrieved owners, petitioning the state board only makes sense towards the end of the legal process.
In particularly egregious cases of fraud, embezzlement or other wrongful activities, the contractor may have criminal liability. In most cases, inquiring with law enforcement will not result in charges or restitution order. However, owners should not rule out going to law enforcement entirely. Some cases do rise above civil disputes.
As the years go by, more builders put arbitration clauses in their consumer contracts. In many cases, these arbitration clauses do not help owners. Often, they tend to limit or practically eliminate the consumer’s rights to legal remedies. It can be difficult for owners to navigate the arbitration process without legal counsel because of certain delaying tactics that often occur in arbitration. I recently wrote a blog post about a New Jersey case where a consumer overcame obstructionist use of arbitration provisions. Many property owners do not focus on these provisions when they review the contract during the sales process. When a legal dispute develops, the parties should check the dispute resolution provisions of the contract to see if they mandate arbitration, waive the right to a jury trial or limit the courts where claims may be brought.
Judges & Juries:
Last but not least, owners can bring their complaints against builders before state or federal courts. Under our legal system, the judiciary, i.e. judges, have the legal mandate to interpret contracts and statutes and provide remedies for any breach. In Virginia, if the claim is for $5,000.00 or less it may be brought in the Small Claims Division where the parties do not ordinarily have attorneys. However, any party may bring a case out of small claims by retaining an attorney and filing for removal. Claims for money for $25,000.00 or less (not including court costs, attorney’s fees or interest) may be brought in the General District Court for the city or county where the property is located. The General District Court has the advantage that proceedings there tend to be faster and cheaper for consumers. Claims over $25,000.00 may be brought in the Circuit Court where cases may take up to a year to be resolved. Litigation in the Circuit Court tends to have lots of motions, discovery and other pretrial activities. Some of my readers say that consumers and owners should not go to litigation because it can be expensive and uncertain. In my view, there are reforms that the general assembly or the judiciary could take to reduce the laboriousness of litigation. I do not believe that creating an alternative to the court system within government agencies procedures works for owners or consumers. I explored this in a previous post on this point. That makes it too easy for special interests to gain control over the process through lobbying.
The bank exercises a significant amount of control over the construction process. The builder typically looks to the bank for payment. The bank will send out its own private inspectors to look at the progress on the job site and report to the loan officer whether completion of a phase of construction warrants disbursement of a draw. The purpose of the bank inspector is to protect against fraud and to confirm that the payment would be adequately secured by the bank’s lien on the property. This inspector works for the bank and does not focus on whether the owner would ultimately be happy with the work that is being done. Owners should not impede the bank inspection process and take heed if the loan officer calls to their attention that the inspector raises any questions.
Mechanic’s Lien Agent:
In Virginia and some other states, the law requires that a Mechanic’s Lien Agent be appointed at the beginning of the project. The purpose of the MLA is to accept delivery of notices by subcontractors and material suppliers that they have not been paid so that such issues can be resolved without a mechanic’s lien being filed by anyone working or supplying to the jobsite. The MLA is not there to provide a dispute resolution service regarding any threatened lien but may be a source of information for owners seeking to confirm what is happening with their contractor and its subs.
To whom should owners turn with contractor complaints? That depends upon the facts of the case. One of the problems with all these separate venues, officials or information sources is that an owner might focus on one and miss a deadline to obtain the remedy they are entitled to from another. This consumer protection landscape is ripe for confusion by the people it is designed to protect. Ideally, the owner will not need to resort to any of these options and can negotiate a good deal and obtain a great result without having to bring grievances before an official, judge or arbitrator. Many owners experience this. However, owners are at a disadvantage. While they have the money that contractors want, they don’t have the technical or legal experience needed to get what they want out of the process. Contractors have experience preparing and negotiating written contracts and change orders. They know what to say to sell their services. They know the officials that work at the county inspection offices. They have their own lawyers. Consumers look to the builder for both the service itself and information about how to shop for the service. For most property owners, a custom home is the largest purchase they will ever make. Getting an attorney or other experienced person to review the contract before signing it can go a long way towards getting the bargain they seek. Owners should not rely upon their adversary to provide them with useful legal counsel. Seeking legal counsel may not require a commitment to a year of litigation. In fact, it may be the best means of avoiding that.
June 21, 2016
My parents are retired schoolteachers. Growing up, we watched our share of public television. I remember watching a British documentary by James Burke called, “The Day the Universe Changed.” This program focused on the history of science in western civilization. Scientific developments affect public perceptions of man’s place in the world. Each episode dramatically built up to a momentous change in scientific perception. For example, when scientists determined that the earth circles the sun (and not the opposite), it felt as though the “universe changed.” The title of the final episode was, “Worlds Without End: Changing Knowledge, Changing Reality.” Provocative stuff for 1985. I went on to study the history of science for four years in liberal arts college.
Property: Ownership & Possession:
In the law there is a difference between the reality of how people think and act in real life, on the one hand, and the reality of courthouse activities on the other. For example, people frequently lie when under the stress of questioning. Courts developed a comprehensive set of evidence rules to determine what documents and testimony are acceptable. The rules of evidence are not a formalization of the way people ordinarily evaluate truth-claims. As another example, outside of Court, non-lawyers understand the difference between the right of ownership and the right to possess or occupy any property. The right of ownership is superior to, and often includes the right to possess. These rights are distinct but unseverably connected. Attorneys and nonlawyers understand the difference between being an owner, a tenant, or an invited guest. By contrast, since before the Civil War, Courts in Virginia enforced the conceptual separation between the right to claim ownership and the right to evict an occupant and gain exclusive possession. The courts did this by not allowing an occupant to raise a competing claim of ownership as a defense in an eviction suit. In many cases, attorneys would have to “lawsplain” why a borrower could not effectively assert the invalidity of the foreclosure in the eviction case brought by the new buyer. Practically speaking, the borrower had to defend the eviction case while also filing another, separate lawsuit of her own to raise her claims to rightful title to protect her property rights. The rules required a financially struggling borrower to litigate overlapping issues in two separate cases at the same time against overlapping parties. If you are reading about this and think that it makes no sense, you are right, it doesn’t. But this was the way that the Virginia eviction world worked for a very long time.
Instant Legal Reform:
And then June 16, 2016 was the day the entrenched worldview of foreclosure contests and evictions in Virginia changed forever, or at least until the General Assembly holds its next session. The Supreme Court of Virginia published a new opinion overturning 150-200 years of precedent in this area. This opinion is important to anyone who lives or works in any real estate with a mortgage on it. Virginia appellate law blogger Steve Emmert observed that this decision represents a “nuclear explosion” and that “. . . dirt lawyers are going to erupt when they read . . .” This case is a game-changer that unsettles much of real estate litigation in Virginia.
My Professional Interest:
Since the foreclosure crisis exploded in 2008, I have litigated foreclosure cases in Virginia on behalf of borrowers, lenders and purchasers. Before June 16, 2016, few expected the rules of the road to change dramatically. The Supreme Court of Virginia has hundreds of years of precedent underlying the existing state of affairs. The banking industry maintains an effective lobbying presence with the General Assembly. Victims of foreclosure abuses play the game of survival; few become activists. Yet, common-sense would dictate that having two separate lawsuits (the eviction case and ownership dispute) proceeding through the court system at the same time wastes resources for everyone. This impacts borrowers the most because they are in the least favorable position to pursue multiple lawsuits at the same time.
Parrish Foreclosure Case:
Teresa and Brian Parrish took out a $206,100 deed of trust (mortgage) on a parcel of real estate in Hanover County, Virginia. This deed of trust’s provisions incorporated certain federal regulations into its terms. These regulations prohibited foreclosure if the borrower submitted a complete loss mitigation application (a.k.a., loan modification application packet) more than 37 days before the trustee’s sale. Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae”) had an interest in the home loan. The Parrishes timely submitted their application packet. Regardless, in May 2014, ALG Trustee, LLC sold the Parris property to Fannie Mae at the foreclosure sale. Fannie Mae then filed an unlawful detainer (eviction) lawsuit against the Parrishes in the General District Court (“GDC”). The GDC is the level of the court system that most Virginians are familiar with. People go to the GDC for traffic tickets, collection cases $25,000.00 or less, evictions and “small claims” cases. In the GDC, the Parrishes did not formally seek to invalidate the foreclosure sale. Instead, they argued that they were entitled to continue to possess the property because ALG conducted the foreclosure sale while the loan modification application was pending. The GDC judge took a look at the Trustee’s Deed that ALG made to Fannie Mae and ordered the sheriff to evict the Parrish family. The Parrishes appealed the case to the Circuit Court. The Circuit Court granted a motion affirming the lower decision in Fannie Mae’s favor. The Parrishes sought review of the case by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of Virginia’s June 16th opinion is a mini-treatise for the new landscape of foreclosure legal challenges.
Questions of Ownership and Occupancy Are Inextricably Intertwined:
The Justices directly addressed the question of the GDC’s jurisdiction. Unlike the Circuit Court, the GDC does not have the statutory legal authority to decide competing claims to title to real estate. That said, in each post-foreclosure unlawful detainer case the GDC must base its decision on whether the presentation of the Trustee’s Deed of Foreclosure is sufficient evidence of title to grant the eviction. Under longstanding legal precedent, the Parrishes’ contention about their loan modification application would not be heard in the unlawful detainer case because the borrowers can’t invalidate the foreclosure deed in the GDC. But on June 16, 2016 that all changed. The majority found that the validity of the foreclosure purchaser’s claimed right to possess the premises cannot be severed from the validity of that buyer’s claimed title because that title is the only thing from which any right to occupy flows. “The question of which of the two parties is entitled to possession is inextricably intertwined with the validity of the foreclosure purchaser’s title.”
From this insight, one must call to question the practical requirement for the borrower to bring his own separate lawsuit against the buyer, trustee and lender to reverse the foreclosure, confirm the right to possess and other relief. Why not have a procedure where all of the related claims can be combined?
What Are Lawyers to Do Now?
Okay, now the “universe has changed.” How do borrowers raise this issue in defense of post-foreclosure evictions? Is there anything that the foreclosure buyer can do about this? The Supreme Court recognizes many reasons why a borrower might have a legitimate claim that the foreclosure sale was legally defective, including but not limited to:
- Fraud (by the lender and/or foreclosure trustee)
- Collusion (between the trustee and the purchaser)
- Gross Inadequacy of Sale Price (so low as to shock the conscience of the judge)
- Breach of the Deed of Trust (for example the regulations about the loan modification application)
The Supreme Court’s new opinion states that the homeowner could allege facts to put the validity of the foreclosure deed in doubt. By the court’s new standard, if the borrower sufficiently alleged such a claim, the GDC becomes “divested” of jurisdiction. When the judge determines that he has no jurisdiction because there is a bona-fide title dispute, he must dismiss the entire case. From there, the new buyer would have to re-file the case in the Circuit Court where the parties would then litigate everything.
I expect that the General Assembly will enact new legislation in its next session that will clarify the jurisdiction of the GDC and the procedures for post-foreclosure unlawful detainers. At least until then, purchasers and lenders will not have the same ability to use the unlawful detainer suit as a weapon in their struggles with borrowers in foreclosure contests. Homeowners’ abilities to fight foreclosures will be streamlined. Justice McClanahan wrote a dissent where she explained the meaning of this in remarking that the majority of justices,
practically eliminated the availability of the summary [i.e. expedited] proceeding of unlawful detainer to purchasers of property at foreclosure sales. The majority’s new procedure for obtaining possession operates to deprive record owners of possession until disputes over “title” are adjudicated after the record owner has sought the “appropriate” remedy in circuit court.
The Supreme Court of Virginia reversed the decision of the Circuit Court and dismissed the unlawful detainer proceeding brought against the Parrishes.
I welcome the Court’s recognition that the rights of title and possession are “inextricably intertwined”. In post-foreclosure disputes between the borrower, purchaser, lender and trustee, bona fide ownership claims should certainly be decided in court before the sheriff kicks anyone out of their house. Eviction procedures should not be used as a weapon to railroad homeowners out of their houses. It makes no sense for there to be more than one legal case about the same thing. Hopefully the General Assembly will adopt new legislation accepting these revelatory developments while clarifying and streamlining court jurisdiction and procedures so that the parties need not litigate any more than is necessary to properly decide who has the right to own and possess the foreclosure property. The universe has changed, and we are closer to a future where the court procedures do not unfairly burden one side over the other and it is easier for each case to be decided on its merits and not who runs out of money first.
UPDATE: I was interviewed by Shu Bartholomew on her radio show/podcast, “On the Commons” about this Parrish v. Fannie Mae case. The podcast is now available.