September 2, 2014
On July 31, 2014, I posted about a recent Fairfax Circuit Court opinion concerning Earnest Money Deposits (“EMD’s”). The seller, Sagatov Builders, LLC, sued buyer Christian Hunt. Mr. Hunt had entered into a contract and later failed to make the EMD or complete closing. The Court refused to allow the seller to sue the buyer for the unpaid deposit amount, finding it to constitute an unenforceable penalty.
Recently, an anonymous visitor typed a question into the search feature of this blog, rephrased as follows: “If there is a pending dispute over an EMD, can the seller accept another contract on the same property?” In other words, what are the risks of having two unreleased contracts simultaneously on the same property? In the Sagatov case, the seller used a marked-up, outdated realtor association form as a template for a transaction conducted apparently without brokers. Since the buyer never made the EMD, that wasn’t a classic earnest money dispute. The visitor’s question intriguingly takes a step back and asks how the EMD dispute implicates fundamental contract issues.
Today’s post explores this visitor’s question. This reminds me of a personal experience I had over a year ago. My wife (then fiancée) and I were under contract to purchase a home in Fairfax County, Virginia. We made the EMD. Our home inspector discovered a below-grade crawl space suffering from significant water intrusion problems. Our agent provided our home inspection report to the seller along with a request for release of the EMD. We resolved the dispute by using the home inspection contingency to get out of the contract. We were able to get our EMD back without having to send lawyer letters or go to court. Once we decided to ask for the release, we didn’t care what the sellers did with the house once we moved on, so long as we weren’t involved. However, some buyers may attempt to tie up the disposition of the real estate in order to gain leverage in getting their EMD back. Buyers and sellers can disagree over whether a contingency is still available.
While the circumstances and wording of each contract dispute are different, this visitor’s question brings a few thoughts to mind:
- Conflict Avoidance. Sellers and their agents get their money by selling the house to a willing buyer, not by engaging in EMD disputes. If the buyer doesn’t want to go to closing, then there you are. Yes, the parties (and their agents) time is lost in a failed deal. There is a time value to money. However, usually it is in their best interests to undo the deal and move on. EMD disputes that can’t be amicably resolved end up in Court, possibly going to trial. Some cases continue for months or even years.
- Role of EMD. After the contract and deposit are made, any dispute between the buyer, seller and/or their agents implicates the EMD as a potential remedy for a default. The timing and circumstances of the underlying default are usually determinative.
- Materiality of Buyer’s Default. A seller cannot take a deposit, repudiate a signed contract on a flimsy pretense, pocket the EMD and then move on to the next potential purchaser.
- Available Remedies. The judge will seek to interpret facts of the case according to the terms of the contract. An example of the language of a contract that may be used in Virginia is available here. The Court can do one of any number of things, including (a) forcing an unwilling party to go forward with the sale, (b) undoing the deal and returning the parties to the original positions or (c) awarding money damages as compensation.
- Waiver Issues. Usually, buyers don’t back out unless they discover some defect or simply can’t close due to circumstances, such as not having the money. If the buyer demands a release of a contract and refuses to go to closing, it will be hard for them to expect the seller to keep the property off the market. Likewise, if a seller accepts a new contract, then the seller cannot reasonably expect the buyer to purchase the house.
- Mitigation of Loss. Under some circumstances, the seller may be under a duty to find a replacement buyer. For example, the seller may claim the deposit on the premise that changing market conditions will result in a lower subsequent sale. Or, the seller may claim damages on the theory that it will suffer losses related to having to keep the property on the market. It is unreasonable for a seller to incur avoidable losses and then seek compensation for them from the backing out buyer.
- Failure to Timely Close. If the parties are close to closing, the seller may consider waiting until the closing date passes. The buyer’s failure to prepare for and go to closing prejudices expectations on their part that the property be kept off the market.
- Professional Regulation. The Real Estate Board regulates the conduct of real estate licensees. Agents may have professional duties under their own agreements with the parties and the particular circumstances of the dispute.
In the event that parties to a real estate sales contract cannot amicably resolve disputes over the disposition of the property or the EMD, they are well advised to contact a qualified attorney for counsel and representation.
I took the featured photograph in Shenandoah County, Virginia. It is just for fun and does not depict any of the properties discussed on this blog.
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.