September 8, 2014
The boundary between Maryland and Virginia has been the subject of legal disputes for hundreds of years. On August 29, 2014, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals added another chapter to this “meandering” tale. The Court issued an opinion in a dispute over rights to certain waterfront property near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. River Riders, Inc., is a fishing, tubing and rafting tour company doing business in the “Potomac Wayside” area (pictured) along the southern bank of the upper Potomac River. Potomac Shores, Inc. claims the Potomac Wayside tract through their Washington County, Maryland, deed describing the south side of the Potomac as a boundary line. Potomac Shores asserts the parcel is in Maryland, because that geographic area was in the Potomac River before gradual accretion of the shoreline. From Potomac Shores’s perspective, that accretion is their windfall, not River Rider’s. Potomac Shores brought their title lawsuit in Washington County, Maryland. River Riders moved to dismiss on the grounds that the Potomac Wayside land is located in Loudoun County, Virginia, not Maryland.
I became interested in Maryland history during my undergraduate years in Annapolis. In 1996, I had a summer internship with the National Park Service in Sharpsburg, a small town in Washington County, Maryland. Harper’s Ferry remains one of my favorite day excursions, a beautiful spot where the Shenandoah River flows into the Potomac. This is where Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia meet. Along the Maryland side, the C&O Canal towpath offers a flat, scenic hiking and biking trail. Certainly an attractive area for entrepreneurs to base a river tourism business.
The historic Maryland-Virginia border disputes cover a spectrum of issues. Before this latest Maryland lawsuit, most disputes focused on use of oyster beds in Bay tidal areas. The passion for shellfish amid confusingly defined property rights repeatedly escalated into violence between Maryland and Virginia watermen. In 1874, Maryland and Virginia agreed to submit the boundary dispute to arbitration to resolve the matter peacefully.
The Potomac River is part of Maryland and the state boundary runs along the low-water mark on the Virginia side. What happens when this line moves? The Maryland Court of Special Appeals articulated the legal question as follows: “Does the boundary between Maryland and Virginia shift as the south bank of the Potomac alters because of time and the forces of nature? Or is the boundary fixed and immutable?” Potomac Shores argues that the boundary was set in the past and the gradual process of accretion, erosion and relection resulted in “new” land formed on the south bank of the Potomac.
Note that it has long been settled that the Potomac River is freely navigable by the citizens of the states, and that the waterfront property owners have rights to build docks and wharfs out into the river, as permitted under land use restrictions.
The conclusion reached by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals runs contrary to our modern preference towards “precision.” The Court rejected the “fixed boundary” approach requested by Potomac Shores. The Court upheld the Circuit Court decision, finding that, for the non-tidal portion of the Potomac River, the boundary shifts as time and the forces of nature gradually re-shape the low water-mark of the river’s “southerly shore.” This implies that the border between Maryland and Virginia is changing, by acts of nature, not government. This also means that those private landowners along the Maryland-Virginia border also have potentially shifting boundaries. Virginia’s Potomac waterfront landowners above Washington, D.C., may loose or gain waterfront property as the currents withdraw, add or relocate the shoreline.
The court’s decision avoids the problem of defining the water line boundaries as those that existed at a certain point of time in the past, such as a land grant or other legally significant document.
The new court opinion observes that the result of the case may be different if the accretion of the Potomac Wayside property was man-made. The opinion does not discuss waterfront landowners planting vegetation, constructing sea walls and laying rip-rap to protect their properties from natural change.
The Court analogizes state boundary lines and individual property boundary lines, quoting Justice Kennedy’s dissent in an older Virginia v. Maryland boundary case: “No court acts differently in deciding on Boundary between states, than on lines between separate tracts of land.” For example, the arbitrators in 1874 observed that, “Virginia’s prescriptive use of the river’s south bank had changed the boundary to the south bank’s low-water mark for the course of the entire river.” What is prescriptive use of real estate? Professor Minor defined it in his 1908 treatise as, “based upon the presumption of a grant, arising after long-continued, adverse, uninterrupted, notorious, exclusive enjoyment of a right in the land of another, under a claim of title.” The presumption becomes conclusive after twenty years. Was the arbitrator’s reference to the doctrine of prescriptive easements appropriate? Or is it a red herring?
The border between Maryland and Virginia is changing – is your boundary meandering as well? If you are currently experiencing a dispute with one of your neighbors concerning a property boundary defined by a river, stream, lake or other waterway, consult with a qualified attorney in order to explore your options to protect your rights.
Treatise Citation: Raleigh C. Minor, The Law of Real Property, Sect. 108 (1908).
February 5, 2014
On January 3, 2014, the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau published a request for input from the public about the home mortgage closing process. 79 F.R. 386, Docket CFPB-2013-0036. The CRPB requested information about consumers’ “pain points” associated with the real estate settlement process and possible remedies. The agency asked about what aspects of closings are confusing or overwhelming and how the process could be improved.
The settlement statement is an explanatory document received by the parties at closing. The statement lists taxes along with other charges. The settlement agent sets aside funds for payment of both (a) the county or city’s property ownership taxes and (b) transfer taxes assessed at the land recording office. The property taxes are a part of a homeowner’s “carrying costs.” The recording taxes are part of the “transaction costs.” Typically, neither the buyer nor the seller qualify for a recording tax exemption.
The federal government advances policies designed to increase consumers’ access to affordable home loans. The Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae”) and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac”) provide a government-supported secondary market. They purchase some home mortgages from the lenders that originate them. The Federal Housing Finance Agency regulates these chartered corporations. In 2008, FHFA imposed a conservatorship over Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac.
In the years leading up to the crisis of 2008, Fannie and Freddie used their government sponsorship to purchase some of the higher-rated mortgage-backed securities. See Fannie, Freddie and the Financial Crisis: Phil Angelides, Bloomberg.com. As the secondary-market purchaser of these home loans, Fannie and Freddie have foreclosure rights against defaulting borrowers and distressed properties. These corporations participate in the home mortgage process from origination, through purchase post-closing, and, in many cases, subsequent foreclosure-related sales.
Congress exempts Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from state and local taxes, “except that any real property of [either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac] shall be subject to State, territorial, county, municipal, or local taxation to the same extent as other real property is taxed.” 12 U.S.C. sections 1723a(c)(2) & 1452(e). Which local real estate taxes does this exception apply to? The ownership tax, transfer tax, or both? The statute does not specifically distinguish between the two. Fannie and Freddie concede that they are not exempt from the tax on property. However, they decline to pay the transfer taxes assessed for recording deeds and mortgage instruments in land records. This is one advantage they have over non-subsidized mortgage investors. Local governmental entities and officials from all over the U.S. challenge Fannie & Freddie’s interpretation of the exemption statute since it represents a substantial loss of tax revenue. This blog post focuses on two recent opinions of appellate courts having jurisdiction over trial courts sitting within the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Jeffrey Small, Clerk of Fredericksburg Circuit Court, attempted to file a class action against Fannie & Freddie in federal court on behalf of all Virginia Clerks of Court. Small v. Federal Nat. Mortg. Ass’n, 286 Va. 119 (2013). Mr. Small challenged their failure to pay the real estate transfer taxes. The Defendants argued that the Clerk lacked standing to bring the suit for collection of the tax. A Virginia Clerk of Court’s authority is limited by the state constitution as defined by statute. In the ordinary course of recording land instruments, the Clerk’s office collects the transfer tax at the time the document is filed. One half of the transfer taxes go to the state, and the other half goes to the local government.
To resolve the issue, the Supreme Court of Virginia found that if the taxes are not collected at the time of recordation, then the state government has the authority to bring suit for its half, and the local government to pursue the other half. The Virginia clerks do not have the statutory authority to bring a collection suit for unpaid transfer tax liability. Because they lack standing, the court dismissed the clerk’s attempted class action against Fannie and Freddie for the transfer taxes.
Maryland & South Carolina:
Montgomery County, Maryland and Registers of Deeds in South Carolina brought similar federal lawsuits challenging Fannie and Freddie’s non-payment of recording taxes. See Montgomery Co., Md. v. Federal Nat. Mortg. Ass’n, Nos. 13-1691 & 13-1752 (4th Cir. Jan. 27, 2014). The Fourth Circuit also hears appeals from federal Courts in Virginia. This case proceeded further than Mr. Small’s. The Appeals Court found that:
- Property taxes levy against the real estate itself. Recording taxes are imposed on the sale activity. The federal statute allows states to tax Fannie and Freddie’s ownership of real property. The statute exempts Fannie and Freddie from the transfer taxes.
- Congress acted within its constitutional powers when it exempted Fannie and Freddie from the transfer taxes, because this may help these mortgage giants to stabilize the interstate secondary mortgage market.
- The exemption does not “commandeer” state officials to record deeds “free of charge,” because the states are free to abandon their title recording systems. By this analysis, the exemption is not a federal unfunded mandate on state governments because the decision to include a land recording system as a feature of property law is not federally mandated.
Some federal courts in other parts of the country have reached analogous conclusions. e.g., Dekalb Co., IL v. FHFA (7th Cir. Dec. 23, 2013)(Posner, J.). This legal battle wages on in the federal court system, but the results so far favor Fannie and Freddie.
Is abandoning the land recording system a realistic option? In Greece and other countries lacking an effective land recording system, property rights are uncertain and frequently brought before the courts for hearing. See Suzanne Daily, Who Owns This Land? In Greece, Who Knows?, New York Times. Like Fannie & Freddie, land recording systems advance the policy interests of stabilizing private home ownership.
Fannie and Freddie aren’t required to pay locally collected recording taxes. Their “share” of the overhead for maintaining the land recording system come from other sources. This includes the recording fees paid by ordinary parties in real estate closings across the country. Does this give the mortgage giants an unfair competitive advantage over other institutional investors in the re-sale of foreclosed homes?
Are these differing tax treatments properly considered in the CFPB’s discussion about the “pain points” in closings? Settlement statements provide clarity regarding the charges listed. The transfer and property taxes assessed in real estate closings are confusing and overwhelming, in part because they represent hidden costs. These hidden costs include the exemptions afforded Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The purpose of these institutions is to help mortgage consumers. Should the tax loophole should be closed or the hidden costs be disclosed to consumers? Perhaps one of these change would advance the CFPB’s “Know Before You Owe” initiative.
January 31, 2014
NBC News reported Wednesday that home insurance claims for damage resulting from frozen pipes are so high that insurers are hiring temporary adjusters to handle increased claims:
“We anticipate a large spike in frozen pipe claims,” said Peter Foley, the [American Insurance Association’s] vice president for claims. “In Washington, D.C., some of my colleagues have already had them in their own homes.”
What State Farm describes as a “catastrophe” comes while many families & communities struggle to make ends meet under the current economic conditions. These insurance claims can run as high as $15,000 in residential dwellings. A commercial property or multi-family housing can sustain even greater damages.
In many communities in Virginia, homes and commercial buildings remain vacant this winter because the local real estate market has not yet come back or the properties are only used seasonally. Frozen pipe damage is compounded in vacant buildings because:
- Few occupants take precautions to protect pipes from bursting before they move out of a building.
- Usually no one checks up on an unoccupied building when it is extremely cold. If there is a landlord, property manager, bank or other institutional investor, they aren’t likely to give a vacant building individual attention.
- No one is there to observe the damage as it develops, so greater drywall, carpet, mold, and other damage can occur.
These types of problems tend to result in litigation between the owners, banks, neighbors and insurance companies. This blog post explores three recent cases:
Hiring a Property Manager: Panda East Restaurant, Massachusetts
From 1987-2006, Issac Chow owned and operated the Panda East restaurant in Northampton, MA. Mr. Chow also purchased a house in Hadley, MA, for his employees to live in. While the restaurant was in business, Richard Lau managed both the restaurant and the house. When Panda East went out of business, all of its employees moved out of the house. Chow instructed Lau to keep the heat on in the Hadley house during the winter of 2006-07. Unfortunately, that winter the house suffered damage from burst frozen pipes. An inspector determined that the heat had been turned off. The flooding ruined carpets, furniture and drywall throughout the house.
Mr. Chow brought suit against Merrimack Mutual Fire Insurance Company in Massachusetts. On appeal, the Court could not determine what Chow did, if anything, to engage Lau as property manager for the house after the restaurant closed down. Since the employment relationship between Chow and Lau was unclear, the Court could not determine who was negligent. Chow v. Merrimack Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 83 Mass. App. Ct. 622 (2013). The Panda East case shows that:
- Cold winters are a time bomb to an unoccupied house (or other building) not winterized to prevent frozen pipes.
- Owners must consider retaining a manager or house-sitter for properties that “go dark.”
- Written property management agreements work better than verbal directions. A contract document can clearly define the scope of the manager’s responsibility.
Homeowner’s Negligence: Potomac, Maryland
In addition to suing the insurance company, some lawyers try to sue public utilities for damages arising from frozen pipes in an abandoned home. Izatullo Khosmukhamedov and Zoulfia Issaeva brought a lawsuit against Potomac Electric Power Co. (PEPCO) for leaving the electricity on in their unoccupied house, which later suffered damage from burst frozen pipes.
These Plaintiffs primarily lived in Moscow, Russia. This couple owned a second home in Potomac, Maryland. Apparently, they grew tired of paying the heating and electric bills. After a stay in October 2008, they sought to turn all of these services off. In the following winter, the pipes in the house froze, burst and caused extensive damage. They made no effort to winterize, heat the property, turn off the water main or drain the pipes. In their lawsuit, they argued that PEPCO failed to completely turn-off the electricity, thus allowing the well water pump to push water into the house, intensifying the damage.
The Federal judge in Maryland dismissed their claims on summary judgment before trial, observing that:
It is well-settled, both in Maryland and other jurisdictions, that a property owner can reasonably foresee the danger that water pipes may freeze in the winter and breaches the duty of ordinary care by failing to adequately heat and/or drain them.
Koshmukhamedov v. PEPCO, No. 8:11-cv-00449-AW (D. Md. Feb. 19, 2013)
Judge Williams dismissed Plaintiffs’ claim against PEPCO. This case illustrates skepticism shown to Plaintiffs in frozen pipe cases where they failed to take reasonable precautions.
Most residential property insurance policies specifically exclude coverage if the property goes unoccupied. In a related case, this couple also sued their property insurer, State Farm. The same judge decided that the home was “unoccupied” and thus excluded from coverage by the terms of the policy. Koshmukhamedov v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 946 F. Supp. 2d 443 (D. Md. May 28. 2013)
Insurance Claims in Foreclosure: Holiday Inn Express, Burnet, Texas
On our road trip, dear reader, we first warmed ourselves up with an a la carte dim sum brunch in Massachusetts. For lunch, we had a backfin crabcake in Maryland. The last stop on our trip takes us to a beef brisket dinner in central Texas. Our final case study shows how cashflow and property damage can compound problems for a business owner facing foreclosure. This double whammy presents special challenges to the bank and property insurer as well.
In late 2009, a Holiday Inn Express franchisee stopped making its mortgage payments to the bank that had lent the money for the purchase of the hotel building in Burnet, Texas. On January 9, 2010, the hotel suffered extensive damage from frozen pipes. On January 28, 2010, the bank sent the owner a foreclosure notice. A few days later, the property insurer sent the owner and bank a payment check. This was not cashed due to the disputes between the bank and owner. The owner and the insurance company could not agree on a proper estimate for the damage from the frozen pipes.
On March 2, 2010, the bank foreclosed on the property and purchased it at the sale. The hotelier then sued the bank, insurance company and the subsequent purchaser. The former owner sued the insurance company for not fully compensating for the damage he alleged to be $133,681.62. The Court of Appeals of Texas focused on relevant language in the insurance company’s contract with the owner and the Bank’s loan documents for the hotel. Lenders typically require borrowers to maintain adequate insurance on the property. That way, the loan is adequately secured in the event that damage and default occur around the same time. Usually, a lender’s rights to the security under the loan documents are limited to the principal, interest and other indebtedness owed. A claim for insurance proceeds comes into play to the extent the foreclosure sale price does not satisfy the sums of money owed to the bank.
In Virginia, the foreclosure trustee must file an accounting with the commissioner of accounts that reconciles the indebtedness, sale price and other credits and debits that the bank is entitled to under the loan documents and law. Each state has its own foreclosure procedures.
The Texas Court of Appeals explained that the Bank was only entitled to any portion of the insurance claim proceeds necessary to satisfy any deficiency after the foreclosure. It appears that the Court sought to avoid a windfall to any party seeking to muscle the proceeds during the chaotic foreclosure period. Peacock Hospitality, Inc. d/b/a Holiday Inn Express-Burnet, 419 S.W.3d 649 (Ct. App. Tex. Nov. 27, 2013)
Neither foreclosures nor frozen pipe damage occur in a vacuum. An exceptionally focused owner might take measures to prevent catastrophic damage to a distressed property in an attempt to fetch the highest possible foreclosure sale price. When a property is in financial distress, its owners and lenders must also attend to any signficant insurance claims that may become an element of the foreclosure accounting.
These three cases illustrate why, as attorney Jim Autry says, “An abandoned building is more of a liability than an asset.” Frozen pipes present a serious threat to the value and habitability of unoccupied homes and commercial buildings. Except for a few “hot” areas, much of Virginia (and the country at large) has a significant inventory of uninhabited homes and commercial properties. This winter’s cold spells present unique challenges to property managers, water utilities, banks, owners and insurance companies. When a family or business must negotiate with more than one of these parties to resolve legal issues surrounding a distressed property, an experienced attorney can provide critical counseling and representation.