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 In the Sagatov case, the seller used a marked-up, outdated realtor association form as a template for a transaction conducted apparently without brokers.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.
July 2, 2014
In lawsuits over real estate, attorney’s fees awards are a frequent topic of conversation. In Virginia, unless there is a statute or contract to the contrary, a court may not award attorney’s fees to the prevailing party. This general rule provides an incentive to the public to make reasonable efforts to conduct their own affairs to avoid unnecessary legal disputes. An exception to the general rule provides a judge with the discretion to award attorney’s fees in favor of a victim of fraud who prevails in court. Effective July 1, 2014, a new act of the General Assembly allows courts greater discretion to award attorneys fees for rescission of contracts obtained by fraud and undue influence. The text reads as follows:
In any civil action to rescind a deed, contract, or other instrument, the court may award to the plaintiff reasonable attorney fees and costs associated with bringing such action where the court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that the deed, contract, or other instrument was obtained by fraud or undue influence on the part of the defendant.
This new statute narrowly applies to fraud in the inducement and undue influence claims requesting as a remedy rescission of a written instrument. I expect this new attorney’s fees statute to become a powerful tool in litigation over many real estate matters.
- Obtaining Approval of Written Instruments by Misconduct. This new statute does not focus on the manner or sufficiency of how obligations under a contract or deed are performed. Instead, it concerns remedies where one party obtains the other’s consent on a written instrument by material, knowing misrepresentations made to induce the party to sign (fraud) or abusive behavior serving to overpower the will of a mentally impaired person (undue influence). Fraud and undue influence are usually hard to prove. There are strong presumptions that individuals are (a) in possession of their faculties, (b) are reasonably circumspect about the deals and transfers they make and (c) read documents before signing them. This new statute does not allow for fees absent clear & convincing proof of the underlying wrong. Tough row to hoe.
- Undoing Deals Predicated on Fraud or Undue Influence: This new statute doesn’t help plaintiffs who only want damages or some other relief. The lawsuit must be to rescind the deed or contract that was procured by the fraud or undue influence. Rescission is a traditional remedy for fraud and undue influence, and it seeks to “undo the deal” and put the parties back in the positions they were in prior to the consummation of the transaction. This statute should give defendants added incentive to settle disputes by rescission where a fraud in the inducement or undue influence case is likely to prevail.
- Reasonableness of the Attorney’s Fees Award: When these circumstances are met, the Court has discretion to award reasonable attorney’s fees. Note that the statute does not require that fees be awarded in every rescission case. Under these provisions, on appeal the judge’s attorney’s fees award or lack thereof will be reviewed according to the Virginia legal standard for reasonableness of attorney’s fees.
Prior to enactment of Va Code Sect. 8.01-221.2, defrauded parties had to meet a heightened standard in order to get attorney’s fees. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Virginia held in the Bershader case that even if there is no statute or contract provision, a judge may award attorney’s fees to the victim of fraud. However, in Bershader the Court found that the defendants engaged in “callous, deliberate, deceitful acts . . . described as a pattern of misconduct. . .” The Court also found that the award was justified because otherwise the victims’ victory would have been “hollow” because of the great expense of taking the case through trial. The circumstances cited by the Court in justifying the attorney’s fees award in Bershader show that the remedy was closer to a form of litigation sanction than a mere award of fees. Bershader addressed an extraordinary set of circumstances. Trial courts have been reluctant to award attorney’s fees under Berschader because it did not define a clear standard.
The new statutory enactment removes the added burden to the plaintiff of showing extraordinary contentiousness and callousness or other circumstances appropriate on a litigation sanctions motion. It is hard enough to prove fraud or undue influence by clear and convincing evidence, and then show reasonableness of attorney’s fees. Why should the plaintiff be forced to prove callousness and a threat of a “hollow victory” if fraud has already been proven and the court is bound by a reasonableness standard in awarding fees? The old rule placed a standard for awarding attorney’s fees in fraud cases to a heightened standard comparable to the one available for imposition of litigation sanctions. Va. Code 8.01-221.2 permits attorney’s fees in a rescission case without transforming every dispute in which deception is alleged into a sanctions case.
May 16, 2014
If a bank makes a technical error in the foreclosure process, what difference does it make? This blog post explores new legal developments regarding the materiality of breaches of mortgage documents. Residential foreclosure is a dramatic remedy. A lender extended a large sum of credit. Borrowers stretch themselves to make a down payment, monthly payments, repairs, association dues, taxes, etc. If financial hardships present obstacles to borrowers making payments, usually they will do what they can to keep their home.
In order to foreclose, lenders must navigate a complex web of provisions in the loan documents and relevant law. Note holders frequently commit errors in processing a payment default through a foreclosure sale. Sometimes these breaches are flagrant, such as foreclosing on a property to which that lender does not hold a lien. Usually they are less significant in the prejudice to the borrower’s rights. For example, written notices may not follow contract provisions or regulations verbatim, or a notice went out a day late or by regular mail instead of certified mail. Regardless of their significance, these rules were either willingly adopted by the parties or represent public policies reduced to law.
When homeowners challenge foreclosures in Court, lenders frequently argue in defense that the errors committed by the bank in the foreclosure process are not material. One could express this argument in another way by quoting the title lyric to British band The Smiths’ 1984 song, “What difference does it make?” The lenders typically highlight that the borrowers fell behind on their payments, did not come current, and do not have a present ability to come current on their loans. Borrowers face an uphill battle convincing judges to set aside or block foreclosure trustee sales or award money damages for non-material breaches. However, last month, two new court opinions illustrate a trend towards allowing remedies to homeowners for technical breaches. A relatively small award of money damages may not give homeowners their house back, but it may provide some consolation to the borrower and provide an incentive to mortgage investors, servicers and foreclosure trustees to strengthen their compliance programs.
Content of Written Notices Required by Mortgage Documents:
On June 13, 2010, Wells Fargo Bank sent Bonnie Mayo a letter telling her he was in default on her mortgage on her Williamsburg residence. The letter indicated that if she failed to cure within 30 days, Wells Fargo would proceed with foreclosure. The letter informed her that, “[i]f foreclosure is initiated, you have the right to argue that you did keep your promises and agreements under the Mortgage Note and Mortgage, and to present any other defenses you may have.” However, the Mortgage required the lender to state in the written notice the borrower’s “right to reinstate after acceleration and right to bring a court action to assert the non-existence of a default or any other defense of Borrower to acceleration and sale.” Ms. Mayo’s notice did not include this language. She did not bring a lawsuit until after the date of the foreclosure sale.
In her post-foreclosure lawsuit, Mayo alleged (among other claims) that this breach entitled her to rescind the foreclosure and receive money damages. Wells Fargo moved to dismiss this claim on the grounds that the difference between the contractually required language and the actual letter was immaterial. In an April 11, 2014 opinion, Judge Raymond Jackson observed that just because a breach is non-material does not mean it is not a breach at all. He reached a conclusion contrary to a relatively recent opinion of another judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Virginia courts recognize claims to set aside foreclosure sales for “weighty” reasons but not “mere technical” grounds. Judge Jackson suggested that the bar may be higher for a homeowner to set aside a foreclosure sale after it occurs than to block it from happening in the first place. The Court declined to dismiss this claim on the sufficiency of the notices. Judge Jackson found that the materiality of this breach was a factual dispute requiring additional facts and argument to resolve.
A foreclosure is less susceptible to legally challenge after a subsequent purchaser goes to closing. Thus, the bank’s omission of language informing the borrower of her right to sue prior to the foreclosure carried a heightened potential for prejudice. Whether Ms. Mayo had a likelihood of prevailing in an earlier-filed lawsuit is a different story.
Failure to Conduct a Face-to-Face Meeting Prior to Foreclosure:
In 2002, Kim Squire King financed the purchase of a home in Norfolk, Virginia, with a Virginia Housing Development Authority mortgage. Her loan documents incorporated U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development regulations requiring a lender to make reasonable efforts to arrange a face-to-face interview with the borrower between default and foreclosure. Loss of employment caused King to go into default on her VHDA loan in March 2010. VHDA never offered King a face-to-face meeting. VHDA instituted foreclosure wherein the trustee sold King’s property to a third-party.
King filed a lawsuit seeking money damages and an order rescinding the foreclosure sale. The judge in Norfolk agreed with defense arguments that the error was not grounds to set aside the completed foreclosure or award compensatory damages. The court dismissed the lawsuit. Squire appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The Justices upheld the dismissal of her request to set aside the completed foreclosure sale. The lawsuit failed to allege facts sufficient to show that the sale was fraudulent or grossly inadequate.The Supreme Court distinguished King’s situation from legal precedents where the borrower filed suit prior to the foreclosure. Surprisingly, the Court found that the trial judge erred in dismissing King’s claim for money damages arising out of the failure to arrange the face to face meeting. The Justices remanded the case to proceed on the damages issue.
When mortgage servicers and foreclosure trustees commit technical errors, what difference does it make? These new legal decisions show increasingly nuanced analysis of these particular issues. The materiality of the lender’s breach depends on a number of factors, including:
- The borrower’s apparent ability to reinstate the loan. If it is unlikely that the homeowner will get back on track, denying the bank foreclosure makes less sense.
- Did the borrower file suit before or after the foreclosure sale? A lawsuit can delay a foreclosure until the borrowers enforce their rights under the loan documents and incorporated regulations. However, unless the borrowers have a strategy to work-out the distressed loan or otherwise favorably dispose of the property, a pre-foreclosure lawsuit may only delay.
- The relationship between the technical error and the relief requested by the borrower. For example, if the loan documents require a notice to go out by certified mail and it only goes out by first class mail, but the borrower received it anyway, then there isn’t any prejudice.
- Money damages suffered by the borrower that arose out of the technical breach. Borrowers seek to keep their homes and to pay according to their abilities. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and the Supreme Court of Virginia show an increasing willingness to hold lenders monetarily responsible for prejudicial lender breaches in the foreclosure process. A legal claim that partially offsets the lender’s judgment for the balance of the loan post-foreclosure may provide some consolation but may not avoid bankruptcy.
Discussed Case Opinions: