June 9, 2015
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.
P. Fletcher, “Homeowner Can Sue Agents Under Brokers’ Act,” Va. Lawyers Weekly, (Jun. 5, 2015)
October 1, 2014
The classic image of a homeowners association is a neighborhood with stately homes or attractive townhouses. Owners occupy their own properties. Neighbors socialize with one another, perhaps around a park, golf course, tennis court or swimming pool. The common areas make the development an attractive place to live. Common values of commitment and neighborly respect inform stewardship of common areas and management of the association’s business. Desire to achieve this ideal motivates many land development and home buying decisions. According to Virginia Lawyers Weekly, there are 5,645 registered community associations in Virginia, and several thousand more unregistered ones. That’s a lot of roads and other common areas that are neither individually owned nor maintained by local governments. If someone recklessly drives their car on those association-owned roads, who has the authority to pull them over?
On August 13, 2014, Mark R. Herring, Attorney General of Virginia released an official advisory opinion addressing the question of homeowner associations and traffic stops. State Senator Bryce Reeves asked Mr. Herring whether a HOA may enforce violations of state or local traffic laws on its private streets and whether and how a HOA may adopt and enforce its own rules regulating traffic (Sen. Reeves’ district includes Fredericksburg, Orange County, and some surrounding areas). The Attorney General’s opinion is about the intersection between HOA law and traffic law. Mr. Herring outlines two options for associations: (1) ask the city or county in which their community is located to police the streets, or (2) they may use private security qualified as Special Conservators of the Peace.
Why is this issue coming up in 2014? The economic collapse beginning in 2008 affected homeowners associations in several ways:
- Many homeowners stopped paying their association dues along with their mortgage. This hit HOA’s in the wallet.
- Foreclosures negatively affected the property values, slowing down sales of neighboring properties.
- Renting became a way of life for many people struggling to save for 20% on a down payment for a home. For Associations, this means that many residents are tenants, who take a different perspective from owner-occupants regarding common areas and their neighbors.
What better words to describe such a dystopia than lyrics from one of the worst pop songs of the 1980’s:
Say you don’t know me or recognize my face
Say you don’t care who goes to that kind of place
Knee deep in the hoopla, sinking in your fight
Too many runaways eating up the night.
– Starship, “We Built this City” (1985)
Developers sought to create oases where children could safely play and parents could develop long relationships with neighbors. Now in some HOA’s, security patrols are chasing residents, tenants and guests for traffic violations.
The Attorney General Opinion describes an unnamed association (within Sen. Reeves’ district) that directed its safety patrol to stop moving vehicles and issue citations for traffic infractions such as speeding, reckless driving and failure to obey highway signs. The safety patrol even uses vehicles with flashing lights to pull over drivers over. Through the safety patrol, the association holds property owners responsible for their infractions and those of their guests. This association has its own “court” in the form of a Violations Review Panel where homeowners may appear to contest citations.
Do associations have the authority to enforce traffic rules in this way? How much do HOA’s resemble local governments? In commenting on this opinion, community associations lawyer Lucia Anna “Pia” Trigiani of Alexandria told Virginia Lawyers Weekly that, “community associations exist in some respects to relieve demands for local government services such as traffic enforcement and road maintenance.” No doubt these developments ease cities and counties burdens to provide key infrastructure in many residential neighborhoods. Attorney General Herring’s opinion appears to disagree with Ms. Trigiani in a critical aspect. He observes that the Virginia Property Owners Association Act does not grant associations the authority to enforce violations of state or local traffic laws that occur on community property. Private persons may only enforce traffic laws if they have been appointed as a Special Conservator of the Peace (“SCOP”). To qualify as an SCOP, one must undergo substantial training. Otherwise, attempts to pull over or stop drivers could be deemed an “unlawful detention” by misrepresentation of authority to conduct police-like activities. Associations may ask the city or county in which their community is located to police the streets, or they may use private security qualified as SCOP’s. Virginia Lawyers Weekly‘s Peter Veith notes that extensive use of SCOPs may produce its own controversies, since the extent of an SCOP’s authority may be misunderstood by the security guard or the drivers on association roads. If someone produces a SCOP credential, what does that mean to an individual driver?
Attorney General Herring makes an important point about the statutory authority of HOA’s to enforce their rules and regulations over their common areas. “Rules and regulations may be enforced by any method normally available to the owner of private property in Virginia.” Real estate legal remedies are not tailored to enforcing traffic laws. Private property owners do not have the authority to conduct arrests or stops of vehicles for violation of traffic rules. That authority is reserved to law enforcement and SCOP’s. This limitation may also apply to other quasi-governmental activities undertaken by HOA’s.
In the Lake of the Woods Association in Orange County, the reaction to this Attorney General Opinion was swift. The Free Lance-Star reports that this large community went to the County Board of Supervisors which adopted an ordinance designating the LOWA roads as highways for law enforcement purposes. This will allow LOWA SCOPs to issue traffic citations and broaden the authority of local law enforcement in the community. I expect that similar decisions will be made in HOA’s around the state that have extensive systems of community roads.
If you or your Association seek to navigate safely through the regulatory landscape now coming into focus regarding the enforcement of traffic laws in community associations, contact qualified attorneys having experience in both real estate and traffic law matters to review your association’s legal instruments. Communities with extensive networks of roads should take precautions to get ahead of avoidable situations where HOA roads become hazardous or private security unlawfully detains drivers.