June 9, 2015
Can a Buyer Sue a Sellers Real Estate Agent?
This past month, I experienced wonderful changes in my life which drew me temporarily away from my passion for blogging about property rights. On May 1st, I started my own solo law practice, Cowherd PLC. The new law firm continues my professional focus on the types of legal matters discussed in “Words of Conveyance.” On May 27th, my lovely wife and I welcomed our beautiful newborn daughter into the world. I would like to thank my friends and family for their love and support, including those who follow this blog. As a parent, I want the best home environment for my child to grow up in. As a trial attorney, I want to advocate for rights that are precious to clients.
When smart prospective buyers search the market for a home, they need to investigate the property. Typically, buyers use home inspectors to help them. Unfortunately, some defects cannot be easily discovered during the home inspection. For example, a structural defect may be concealed by drywall or other obstructions. With other houses, flooding problems may only be apparent after heavy rains.
Often, buyers will ask the seller’s agent whether there is a history of flooding or other problems. Agents know that if potential buyers learn negative information about the property they may move on to another listing. After a buyer completes a sale, the property may turn out to have defects that were concealed or contrary to representations made in the sales process. Who is legally responsible in those situations? Can a buyer sue a sellers real estate agent? Virginia courts considering this question draw varying conclusions.
“Great Party Room:”
The Circuit Court of the City of Norfolk recently considered whether a buyer can sue a sellers real estate agent under the Virginia Real Estate Broker’s Act. Megan Winesett is an active duty servicemember who bought her first home in 2010. The property listing described the basement as a “great party room.” During the walk-through, Ms. Winesett asked her own agent about basement flooding. The buyer’s agent told her that the seller’s agent explained that flooding was not a problem. A few years later, Winesett renovated the property and discovered rotting and termite damage in vertical support beams in the basement under her kitchen. She also found cracks in her foundation.
Buyer’s Relationship with the Seller’s Agent:
Winesett sued the seller, seller’s agent, her own agent and the real estate brokerages for $75,000 for repairs plus $350,000 in punitive damages. She sued the seller for fraud and the realtors for violation of the Real Estate Broker’s Act (“REBA”). The seller’s agents sought to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the statute does not create a private cause of action against the agents. They argued that the REBA only allows for professional discipline by the Real Estate Board and not lawsuits by individuals. In a 1989 decision, Allen v. Lindstrom, the Supreme Court of Virginia observed that:
The [seller’s agents]’ primary and paramount duty, as broker and broker’s agent, was to the sellers, with whom they had an exclusive contract. While there may be some type of general duty to the public owed by every realtor, it is not the type of duty that converts into a liability against a seller’s agent for improper conduct to one in the adversary position of prospective purchaser, where there is no foreseeable reliance by the prospect on the agent’s actions.
In that case, the Court rejected the buyer’s attempt to sue the listing agent for violation of a duty arising out real estate agent regulations.
Ms. Winesett brought her case against the agents on the Virginia Real Estate Broker’s Act, which also governs the practices of real estate agents. That statute creates duties for agents (licensees) to their own clients and also the opposite parties in the transaction:
Licensees shall treat all prospective buyers honestly and shall not knowingly give them false information. A licensee engaged by a seller shall disclose to prospective buyers all material adverse facts pertaining to the physical condition of the property which are actually known by the licensee. Va. Code Sect. 54.1-2131(B).
The Act requires such disclosures to be in writing. The realtor doesn’t need to be an expert in every issue. An agent is entitled to pass on information provided by the seller, the government, or a licensed professional. However, the agent may not rely upon information provided by others if he has actual knowledge of falsity or act in reckless disregard for the truth. Va. Code Sect. 54.1-2142.1.
On May 21, 2015, Judge Mary Jane Hall denied the seller’s agent’s motion, finding that the REBA does create a private cause of action for buyers against seller’s agents for violations. Judge Hall focused her analysis on language in the statute providing that, “This includes any regulatory action brought under this chapter and any civil action filed.” This case is currently set for trial in August. While the Court allowed this claim to move forward, Ms. Winesett bears the burden of proving it at trial.
Judge Hall’s legal conclusion is not consistently reached by all courts in Virginia. Unlike other consumer protection statutes, the REBA does not contain specific provisions about how a civil action may be brought and what remedies are allowed.
In 2004, the Circuit Court of Loudoun County entertained the same issue and concluded that a buyer is not entitled to a private cause of action against a seller’s agent for violation of the REBA. In Monica v. Hottel, Judge Thomas Horne decided instead that a buyer may allege a negligence per se claim against the seller’s agent for violation of the duty of ordinary care set forth in REBA.
I have a few observations about what these recent decisions mean to current and prospective real estate owners in Virginia:
- Discipline vs. Liability: In these cases, the sellers argued that the General Assembly contemplated that the statute would only be enforced by professional discipline, not private lawsuits. To a professional, the prospect of having one’s license suspended or revoked is a different type of threat than a jury award of a large money judgment. To the buyer saddled with a house requiring more repairs than they can afford, money is much more of a consolation than the knowledge that an agent is no longer selling real estate.
- Virginia Consumer Protection Act: Unlike auto dealers, construction contractors and many other types of businesses, licensed real estate agents are excepted from liability under the Consumer Protection Act. To the extent seller’s agents have responsibilities to buyers, liability would have to arise out of some other legal theory, such as the REBA, negligence or fraud.
- Challenges and Advantages of Suing for Fraud: Trial attorneys know that it is much easier to prove negligence or breach of contract than claims based on misrepresentation. In fraud, the standard tends to be higher and there are many recognized defenses. For example, expressions of opinion may not normally serve as the basis for a fraud suit. It is unclear what the standard of proof is for a civil action under the REBA and whether the usual defenses permitted in fraud cases apply. Buyers aren’t normally privy to the private conversations of the seller and his agent. Proof of “actual knowledge” may be hard to come by in many cases. However, there are advantages for suing for fraud. The plaintiff may be entitled to attorney’s fees and punitive damages. Fraud is a flexible legal theory which may provide a remedy in situations that statutes don’t cover.
- REBA Standard for Agents: Normally, a buyer must follow the traditional principle of Caveat Emptor (“Buyer Beware”). The REBA imposes a higher standard of professionalism on seller’s agents by requiring them to affirmatively disclose material adverse facts under many situations. Broad legal enforcement of REBA may change the way that real estate is sold in Virginia.
Although they construe the REBA in different ways, these recent court decisions demonstrate a trend towards greater consumer protection against predatory conduct in the real estate industry. In my experience litigating cases under common law fraud, consumer protection statutes, breach of contract and warranty law, I have learned that there is usually a legal theory that provides a consumer with a remedy. However, claims have a defined time period in which they may be brought. If you fell victim to dishonest conduct in your real estate purchase, discovered that a defect was concealed during your property inspection or your requests for relief under a warranty are being stonewalled, contact a qualified real estate litigation attorney before the passage of time may prejudice your rights. As an owner, you make a tremendous commitment and personal sacrifice to acquire and keep real estate. You are entitled to the legal protections owed by others.
Virginia Real Estate Broker’s Act, Va. Code Sect. 54.1-2100, et seq.
P. Fletcher, “Homeowner Can Sue Agents Under Brokers’ Act,” Va. Lawyers Weekly, (Jun. 5, 2015)
Winesett v. Edwards-Soblotne, No. CL14-6964 (Norfolk Cir. Ct. May 21, 2015)(Hall, J.)
Monica v. Hottel, 64 Va. Cir. 439 (Loudoun Co. May 24, 2004)(Horne, J.)
Allen v. Lindstrom, 237 Va. 489 (Va. 1989)
Photo Credit: Fixer upper via photopin (license)(Used to illustrate themes of post. Does not depict any properties described herein. To my knowledge, this property does not suffer any defects)
March 4, 2015
Buying a Home Through Realtors Versus Foreclosure Sales
Recently a friend shared with me her interest in purchasing a home at a foreclosure auction. Many buyers look to foreclosures in the hope of finding a bargain. Foreclosure sales occur year-round. On the other hand, “conventional” sales through realtors follow a seasonal pattern. When the ice and snow melt and winter winds retreat northward, sellers start to put their homes on the market. In March, potential buyers call real estate agents and loan officers. The first crop of “For Sale” signs is a harbinger of spring. Experienced real estate professionals and investors know that finding the right foreclosure purchase is not as simple as reading an advertisement, showing up at the sale and making a bid. But is this option right at all for families seeking a place to live? Sometimes foreclosure investments do not work out well even for seasoned investors. Today’s blog post compares buying a home through realtors versus foreclosure sales in Virginia.
- Salespersons vs. Debt Collectors: Personal interaction defines shopping experiences. Real estate agents advertise the property through internet listings, brochures, signage and open houses. With the help of their own agent, potential buyers bid against each other. In a “conventional” property sale, the buyer’s interface is through these sales and marketing professionals. By contrast, debt collection attorneys lead foreclosures in Virginia. The lender retains the attorney to collect on the current owner’s home loan debt. Interested investors go to the front of the courthouse to bid on the property at the sale. In the sale, the debt collection attorney also acts as a trustee. In a previous blog post, wrote about a foreclosure trustee’s duty of impartiality. Buyers must consider the significant difference between doing business through salespersons vs. debt collectors.
- Motives of Current Owner: Real estate transfers through realtors are voluntary. Agents list properties because the sellers want them on the market. If a buyer thought that the seller might sue them after the closing, or refuse to move out, they would never make an offer in the first place. In foreclosure, the previous owners often refuse to leave willingly. The lender or buyer may need to evict them through court in order to get physical possession of the property. Frequently a borrower suffering a foreclosure files a lawsuit against the new owner, the bank or the foreclosure trustee to test the legal validity of the sale. Foreclosure sales have a substantially higher risk of litigation than “conventional” transactions through real estate agents. Investors can’t count on being handed the prior owner’s keys.
- The Condition of the Property: Real estate agents know that sales require exposing the property to the market through internet listings, disclosures, brochures, open houses, signs and home inspections. However, investigating the features and condition of a foreclosure property is a struggle. The trustee usually provides little more than the minimum amount of advertising and disclosures. There is not much of a budget for marketing. The foreclosure property likely needs repair. When homeowners struggle to pay their bills, they often stop making repairs before defaulting on mortgage payments. Most foreclosure properties require substantial renovation before they can be occupied again.
When people shop for a home to live in, usually they want a “turn-key” proposition. They don’t want to invest time and resources before moving in or renting it out. With so many challenges and uncertainties, who would seek to buy a home at a foreclosure sale in Virginia? Well, it’s all about one’s ability to manage risks. This is why often only the bank bids at the foreclosure sale. The only other bidders may be investors who specialize in distressed real estate. If you are one of these investors, or are interested in becoming one, add a qualified attorney to your “team” to assist with the real estate, litigation and construction aspects of managing these risks.
September 2, 2014
Accepting a New Contract During an Earnest Money Deposit Dispute
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 16, 2014
Unlicensed Real Estate Agent Costs Brokerage $6.6 Million Commission
What tasks can real estate brokerages assign to employees lacking a real estate license? What risks does a brokerage run from allowing unlicensed agents to manage relationships with clients and other parties to the transaction? On April 4, 2014, Judge Anthony Trenga decided that a prominent commercial broker forfeited a $6.6 million dollar commission because a leading member of its team lacked a Virginia salesperson’s license. This blog post discusses how the brokerage lost the commission on account of the unlicensed manager.
The Hoffman Town Center is a 56 acre mixed-use development in Alexandria, Virginia. (Yours truly lived in Alexandria for 9 years. AMC Hoffman was my local movie theater. I ran across the finish line in the George Washington’s Birthday 10K race at the Town Center.)
The Landlord, Hoffman Family, LLC, sought office tenants for the development. In August 2007, Hoffman retained Jones Lang LaSalle Americas, Inc. (“JLL”) as its leasing agent. JLL itself has a valid Virginia broker’s license.
In October 2007, Arthur M. Turowski retired from the U.S. General Services Administration. JLL hired him as a Senior Vice President and assigned him to manage the Hoffman account. Torowski saw an opportunity to lease the property to the National Science Foundation. He marketed the property to the GSA, who successfully bid on behalf of the NSF. Turowski negotiated with GSA and city officials. He signed documents on behalf of JLL. In May 2013, Turowski achieved a $330 million lease for his client from the federal government. The NSF will be an anchor tenant in the development. See Jonathan O’Connell, Wash. Post, Judge Rules for Developer in $6.6 million National Science Foundation Suit.
Mr. Turowski helped Hoffman outshine other suitors and land a sought-after tenant. Unfortunately JLL made one oversight: Turowski lacked a real estate agent’s license while performing the work. Hoffman discovered this fact while defending a lawsuit brought by JLL for payment of the $6.6 million dollar commission (JLL rejected Hoffman’s offer of $1 million).
In its ruling, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia discussed the broad scope of activities for which Virginia law requires a license:
1. Activities Requiring a Licence. The legal definition of “real estate salesperson” is “clearly intended to capture the realities and breadth of activities that make up the leasing process.” This strengthens the real estate sales profession by recognizing business realities and restricting the scope of activities unlicensed persons may engage in. Va. Code Sect. 54.1-2101 “Negotiation” is a broad professional activity not limited to agreeing to a property and a price and signing documents.
2. Activities Not Requiring a License. The Virginia Code provides for a narrow set of activities an employee of a broker may do without a license, such as (a) showing apartments if the employee also works on the premises (b) providing prospective tenants with information about properties, (c) accepting applications to lease and (d) accepting security deposits and rents. Va. Code Sect. 54.1-2103(C). These do not include relationship management and negotiation on behalf of a client. JLL’s lawyers argued that Turowski did not engage in activities requiring a license. If that was the case, what licensee-level work earned the commission? The opinion notes that GSA opted to deal with some matters with Hoffman directly because JLL represented other landlords competing for the NSF tenant.
Judge Trenga found that Virginia law required Turowski to hold a license to work under JLL’s agreement with the Hoffman Family. Since he did not, the Court denied JLL’s request for any portion of the commission. The Court observed that a realtor agreement between an unlicensed agent and a client is void. JLL did have a broker’s license and Hoffman’s contract was with JLL. However, Virginia law does not allow brokers to use unlicensed employees as sales persons. The Court decided that JLL’s use of Turowski voided its commission. Even if a listing agreement is valid at the time it was signed, if the brokerage performs under it through an unlicensed salesperson, that performance violates public policy and voids the commission.
The opinion does not discuss whether any other JLL personnel worked on the Hoffman account. I wonder whether JLL would have received a monetary award if licensed sales persons performed some of the work? Perhaps the outcome would have been less harsh if Turowski was not the leader?
Could a licensed real estate sales persons have achieved a greater result for Hoffman? The opinion does not discuss specific damages that arose out of JLL’s failure to use licensed sales persons in performance of the agreement. The underlying agreement was not per se void. In the end, Hoffman got a $330 million lease negotiated by an (unlicensed) agent with deep familiarity with the agency he negotiated with. Unless the verdict is disturbed on appeal, Hoffman does not have to pay anything except its attorney’s fees defending this suit.
Daniel Sernovitz of the Washington Business Journal observes that this litigation gave both the developer and the broker black eyes. Sernovitz points out that JLL’s lawsuit cast a cloud over the project. The possibility of reversal on appeal keeps a shadow of doubt on whether Hoffman will have an extra $6.6 million to help finance the next phase in the development. Lastly, the Hoffman-JLL relationship was mutually beneficial prior to this fee dispute. JLL’s relationships could procure additional tenants. Hoffman may have to rely upon other brokerages moving forward.
Do you think that use of an unlicensed real estate agent presents the same risk to residential brokers?
case cite: Jones Lang LaSalle Americas, Inc. v. Hoffman Family, LLC, No. 1:13-cv-01011-AJT, 2014 WestLaw 1365793 (E.D. Va. Apr. 4, 2014)(Trenga, J.).
January 13, 2014
Reel Property: Hitchcock’s Skin Game
A working-class family is wrongfully evicted from their rental homes and may lose their jobs. A neighboring landowner and his shrewd agent try to stop the sharp-dealing landlord from destroying property values with industrial air pollution. Can they successfully escalate conflict without unintended fallout?
This is the subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s early film, “The Skin Game” (1931). The Skin Game is based on a play by John Galsworthy, a British lawyer who found a second career as a writer. Mr. Hillcrist (C.V. France) is an old-money landowner at odds with Mr. Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn), a nouveau-riche industrialist. Hillcrist objects to Hornblower’s purchase of neighboring pristine countryside for the construction of new smoke-belching factories. The two battle over competing visions for the Deepwater community in a series of increasingly sharp business practices. The Hillcrests’ agent, Mr. Dawker (Edward Chapman) plays an easily overlooked role in this dark comedy.
Jocelyn Codner observes in her blog, The Hitchcock Haul, that The Skin Game speaks to contemporary controversies surrounding land use, fracking and class warfare. Contemporary audiences may identify with the film in additional ways. The Skin Game’s audience remembers the horrors of global war. Worldwide recession brought high unemployment. Fear and desperation hide in the film’s shadowy scenes. These emotions unfold in total war between the neighboring landowners with tragic, unintended consequences. Tenants’ and neighbors’ rights versus job creation.
The aggressive business practices in the movie are frequent, rash and ill-considered. I found myself counting all of the legal claims and defenses that could potentially be brought in Court (this post makes no effort to interpret the facts under 1931 British law). Spoilers follow, but they are 83 years in the making!
- Violation of Covenants. In order to build new factories, Mr. Hornblower violated a covenant he made to Hillcrist when he turned out long-standing residential tenants. In Virginia, that would likely unfold as a contested unlawful detainer (eviction) action. Since the parties did not end up in Court, I assume that the Hillcrists failed to make the covenant legally enforceable.
- Bid Rigging. A mutually coveted parcel of land goes to a public auction. Ominously, the auction house’s lawyer reads the conditions of sale so softly that only the front row can hear. The Hornblowers and Hillcrists bid in concert with their own secret bidding agents to confuse their opponent and hike the price. Hornblower wins. Hitchcock uses quick camera work and multiple angles to build suspense and simulate confusion.
- Fraud. Hornblower’s daughter-in-law Chloe (Phyllis Konstam) has a secret past that includes employment by men to help them secure divorces premised upon adultery. This doesn’t come up much in the era of non-fault divorce, but giving false testimony for hire is sanctionable.
- Conspiracy. The Hillcrists’ estate agent, Mr. Dawker discovers Chloe’s past from her former client. Mrs. Hillcrist and Mr. Dawker decide to use the secret to extort Mr. Hornblower into selling them the contested parcel at a loss. The parties anticipated that disclosure of the secret would destroy Chloe’s marriage with the young Hornblower. The consideration of a sale from Hornblower to Hillcrist consisted of both (a) a written contract for cash and (b) a secret unwritten agreement not to reveal Chloe’s past.
- Breach of Contract: Upon pressure by the young Hornblower, Mr. Dawker violates the secret unwritten non-disclosure agreement and likely his fiduciary duties to the Hillcrists.
- Professionalism. In contemporary transactions, one would expect Mr. Dawker to be a licensed real estate agent. His role in the bid rigging and the conspiracy would potentially expose him to disciplinary action by the Real Estate Board.
- Assault. In a fit of rage, Mr. Hornblower throws his hands on Mr. Hillcrist’s neck.
- Defense of Unclean Hands: Although the evicted tenants temporarily get their cottage back, this victory falls flat because of the greater tragedy which brings Mr. Hillcrist remorse. Unclean hands foul the initial nobility of their cause.
Was there a moment when a more trusted advisor, be it a realtor, attorney, or friend, could have helped Hillcrest settle the dispute? The loud passions of the warring families obscure Mr. Dawker’s fateful role as agent in the “Skin Game.” In the final scene, loggers chop down one of the Hillcrists’ oldest trees. What goes around, comes around.