July 20, 2017
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently wrote in an opinion that, “Property rights are necessary to preserve freedom, for property ownership empowers persons to shape and to plan their own destiny in a world where governments are always eager to do so for them.” Murr v. Wisconsin, 198 L.Ed.2d 497, 509 (U.S. Jun. 23, 2017). This principle goes beyond the eminent domain issues in Murr v. Wisconsin. Many HOAs and condominiums boards or property managers are eager to make decisions for (or ignore their duties to) owners. In the old days, legal enforcement of restrictive covenants was troublesome and uncertain. In recent decades, state legislatures made new rules favoring restrictive covenants. Sometimes owners seek to do something with their property that violates an unambiguous, recorded covenant. I don’t see that scenario as the main problem. What I dislike more is community associations breaching their specific obligations to owners, as enshrined in governing documents or state law. Is the ability to enforce the covenants or law mutual? Are legal remedies of owners and HOAs equitable?
Why HOAs Wanted the Power to Fine:
Take an example. Imagine a property owner decides that it would be easier to simply dump their garbage in the backyard next to a HOA common area than take it to the landfill. Let’s assume that does not violate a local ordinance. Or substitute any other example where a property owner damages the property rights of others and the problem cannot be solved by a single award of damages. Before legislatures adopted certain statutes, the association would have to bring a lawsuit against the owner, asking the court to grant an injunction against the improper garbage dumping. This requires a demand letter and a lawsuit asking for the injunction. The association would have to serve the owner with the lawsuit. The owner would have an opportunity to respond to the lawsuit and the motion for the injunction. An injunction is a special court remedy that requires special circumstances not available in many cases. The party seeking it must show that they cannot be made whole only by an award of damages. The plaintiff must show that the injunction is necessary and would be effective to solve the problem. The legal standard for an injunction is higher than that for money damages, but it is not unachievably high. Courts grant injunctions all the time. However, the injunction requires the suit to be filed and responded to and the motion must be set for a hearing. Sometimes judges require the plaintiff to file a bond. Injunction cases are quite fact specific. The party filing the lawsuit must decide whether to wait for trial to ask for the injunction (which could be up to one year later) or to seek a “preliminary” or “temporary” injunction immediately. If the judge grants the injunction against the “private landfill,” the defendant may try to appeal to the state supreme court during these pretrial proceedings. These procedures exist because property right protections run both ways. Those seeking to enjoin the improper dumping have a right, if not a duty, to promote health and sanitation. Conversely, the owner would have a due process right to avoid having judges decide where she puts her trash on her own property. If the court grants the injunction, the judge does not personally supervise the cleanup of the dumping himself. If an order is disobeyed, the prevailing party may ask for per diem monetary sanctions pending compliance. That money judgment can attach as a lien or be used for garnishments. These common law rules have the effect of deterring the wrongful behavior. This also deters such lawsuits or motions absent exigent circumstances. Owners best interests are served by both neighbors properly maintaining their own property and not sweating the small stuff.
Giving Due Process of Court Proceedings vs. Sitting as both Prosecutor and Judge:
If association boards had to seek injunctions every time they thought an owner violated a community rule, then the HOAs would be much less likely to enforce the rules. The ease and certainty of enforcement greatly defines the value of the right. Boards and committees do not have the inherent right to sit as judges in their own cases and award themselves money if they determine that an owner violated something. That is a “judicial” power. Some interested people lobbied state capitals for HOAs to have power to issue fines for the violation of their own rules. To really give this some teeth, they also got state legislatures to give them the power to record liens and even foreclose on properties to enforce these fines.
Statutory Freeways Bypass the Country Roads of the Common Law:
Let’s pause for a second and pay attention to what these fine, lien & foreclosure statutes accomplish. The board can skip over this process of litigating up to a year or more over the alleged breach of the covenants or rules. Instead, the board can hold its own hearings and skip ahead to assessing per diem charges for the improper garbage dumping or whatever other alleged infraction. Instead of bearing the burden to plead, prove and persevere, they can fast track to the equivalent of the sanctions portion of an injunction case. Instead of enjoying her common law judicial protections, the owner must plead, file and prove her own lawsuit challenging the board’s use of these statutory remedies. Do you see how this shifts the burden? Of course, the HOA’s rule must meet the criteria of being valid and enforceable. In Virginia, the right to fine must be in the covenants. The statute must be strictly complied with. But the burden falls on the owner to show that the fast track has not been complied with.
Statehouse lobbying and clever legal writing of new covenants has helped the boards and their retinue. Let’s take a moment to see what remedies the owner has. Imagine reversed roles. The board decided that they could save a lot of money if they dumped garbage from the pool house onto the common area next to an owner’s property. The board ignores the owners’ request to clean and maintain that part of the common area. Let’s assume that the governing documents require the board to maintain the common area and do not indemnify them against this kind of wrongful action. The owner can sue for money damages. If the case allows, the owner may pursue an injunction against the board to clean up the land and stop dumping trash. The owner must follow the detail-oriented procedures for seeking an injunction. The owner does not have a fast-track remedy to obtain a lien against any property or bank accounts held by the board.
Fine Statutes Should be Legislatively Repealed:
In my opinion, community association boards and owners should both be subject to the same requirements to enforce restrictive covenants. If state legislatures repealed their fine and foreclosure statutes, the boards would not be left without a remedy. They would not go bankrupt. Chaos would not emerge. They would simply have to get in line at the courthouse and play by the same rules as other property owners seeking to protect their rights under the covenants or common law.
“But Community Association Lawsuits are a Disaster:”
Many of my readers are skeptical of leaving the protection of property rights to the courts. They don’t like people who sue or get sued. They argue that whether you are defending or suing, the process is laborious and expensive. The outcome is not certain. I don’t agree that property owners should surrender their rights to associations or industry-influenced state officials. What if there was a controversy-deciding branch of government that the constitution separates from special-interest influence and the political winds of change? Wouldn’t that be worth supporting? I know that there are legal procedures that drive up the time and expense of the process without adding significant due process value. That does not mean that the courts should be divested of the power to conduct independent review and award remedies not available anywhere else.
Judicial Remedies Are Better Options Than Many Owners Think:
Fortunately, owners have many rights that their boards and managers are not informing them about. Many common law protections have not been overruled. In Virginia, restrictive covenants are disfavored. Any enforcement must have a firm footing in the governing documents, statutes and case law. The statutes adopted by the legislature limiting the common law protections are strictly (narrowly) interpreted by the courts. It is not necessary, and may be counterproductive to run to some elected or appointed bureaucratic official. Under our constitutional structure, the courts have the power to enforce property rights. Many owners cannot wait for the possibility that a future legislative session might repeal the fine statutes. If they are experiencing immediate problems (like improper dumping of garbage or whatever) they need help now. In rare cases law enforcement may be able to help. In most cases working with a qualified attorney to petition the local court for relief is the answer.
December 1, 2015
Experienced trial lawyers know that judges disfavor parties using litigation as a means of inflicting extra punishment on their opponent beyond the outcome of the case. Lawyers and their clients are supposed to use claims, defenses, motions and other procedures for their intended purposes of working justice. Real estate and construction litigation is an emotional process. In real estate and construction cases, the property at issue represents the owner’s home, business or retirement. In the courthouse, there is a fine line between seeking justice or revenge. In a November 12, 2015 opinion, the Supreme Court of Virginia found that a real estate investor crossed the line into impermissible vindictiveness. The plaintiff sanctioned for intimidating lawsuit. The Supreme Court upheld an award of sanctions rendered by the Circuit Court of Albemarle County in the investor’s dispute with his ex-girlfriend. When a party is trying everything they can to resolve a dispute quickly and decisively, knowing where one might find the boundary into sanctionable territory is crucial. Even savvy people can find themselves in intractable litigation. This case opinion contains valuable insights for self-protection.
Mitchell Kambis was a real estate broker, home designer and developer who passed away at the age of 71 in October 2015. According to an informative article by Peter Veith in Virginia Lawyer’s Weekly, Kambis restored the historic Empire Theater in Richmond. His obituary states that he attended law school but does not indicate whether he graduated. Kambis was in a romantic relationship with April Considine for over 11 years. Kambis and Considine formed Villa Deste, LLC for developing 130 acres in Albemarle County. To finance the investment, the couple borrowed over $2 million from Considine’s mother. At some point, Kambis transferred all of his ownership interests in Villa Deste to Considine, making her the sole owner. After the couple broke up, Kambis brought a 19 claim Complaint against Considine and her mother over the real estate.
The parties engaged in substantial motions practice over whether the lawsuit brought by Kambis alleged facts sufficient to support the multitude of requests for damages and other remedies. Considine filed a motion for litigation sanctions arguing that the suit was not warranted by existing law and was simply to harass. The Albemarle County Circuit Court threw out some but not all of the claims in Kambis’ lawsuit. Kambis and his attorney overcame the initial obstacles and got their case scheduled for trial.
As frequently happens in intractable cases, the parties filed a multitude of pretrial motions. Brevity prohibits me from describing them all and how the Court ruled at each stage. The court opinion described a pattern whereby Kambis brought claims or motions, would drop them, and later bring them up again. 12 days before trial, Kambis’ lawyer succeeded in getting the court to allow him to withdraw from the case. A few days later, the now lawyer-less Kambis voluntarily dropped claims for battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Court refused to allow Kambis to voluntarily dismiss his claim for fraud because of Considine’s counterclaim. At some point, Kambis asked for the trial to be postponed because his case was too complicated for him to handle without a lawyer.
Eventually, the Court awarded Considine sanctions in the amount of $64,319.38 against Kambis’s original lawyer. The Court also awarded $84,541.61 against Kambis personally, finding, “a certain level of intent to intimidate Ms. Considine in this particular case.” Kambis ran up the costs of the litigation, including attorney’s fees. The Court further held Kambis responsible for the “costs of the trial and going forward.”
The difference between litigation sanctions from an ordinary award of attorney’s fees is a frequent source of confusion. Generally speaking, parties are responsible for bearing their own costs of litigation, including attorney’s fees. The most common exception is where a contract between the parties provides for an award of attorney’s fees to a prevailing party. There are other exceptions that may arise out of statutes such as the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.
Virginia law distinguishes an award of attorney’s fees as a litigation sanction under Va. Code § 8.01-271.1 from prevailing party awards. This statute can provide for attorney’s fees regardless of the type of claim or defense brought and what the parties may have agreed to in writing. Courts in Virginia have strictly construed this statute, only applying it in extraordinary circumstances where its key provisions are met:
The signature of an attorney or party constitutes a certificate by him that (i) he has read the pleading, motion, or other paper, (ii) to the best of his knowledge, information and belief, formed after reasonable inquiry, it is well grounded in fact and is warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law, and (iii) it is not interposed for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation.
In expensive, unsettled disputes eventually one party has their legal arguments and factual presentation rejected. The question may arise whether their pursuit or defense of the case was sanctionable. Usually, no. Just because a party completely prevails over their adversary on a motion or at trial does not necessarily mean that there is grounds for sanctions. This exception does not swallow whole the general rule that parties bear their own costs in litigation.
Mitchell Kambis appealed the judge’s award of sanctions. He argued that his fraud claim was well-grounded in law and fact because it survived extensive pretrial motions. The Supreme Court of Virginia found that the trial court did not need to find Kambis’ claims legally inviable to conclude that they were for an “improper purpose.” This conceptual separation between the viability of claims or defenses and the propriety of a litigant’s purposes in bringing them is what may raise the blood pressure of many trial lawyers trying to walk the line between zealous advocacy and impermissible vindictiveness. Just because a party wins a motion on the sufficiency of a pleading doesn’t mean that claim is “immune” from a sanctions motion later on.
Kambis also argued on appeal that while his court action was intimidating, it was not for an improper purpose that would support an award of sanctions. The court observed that Kambis’ conduct, “demonstrated he was less interested in vindicating his legal rights and more interested in intimidating and injuring Considine.” Kambis forced Considine to expend a significant amount of time and money in motions practice and in trial preparation before Kambis dropped many of them right before trial.
The court’s award of sanctions was supported by emails and oral courtroom admissions that the lawsuit was designed to intimidate and that if the suit failed, the motion for sanctions had a reasonable likelihood of being granted.
Confusingly, an award of sanctions is not warranted just because a party finds the litigation process intimidating. To start, the act of filing of public documents alleging wrongdoing is intimidating. What’s more, at the center of any trial, the credibility of a party’s testimony is tested by right of cross-examination. Cross-examination is so intimidating that a law of evidence developed to protect the integrity of this process. Justice Cleo Powell recognized this issue in the Kambis case:
We recognize that almost any legal action is, in some way, intimidating. Such intimidation is inherent in our adversarial legal system and is generally not sanctionable, so long as the intimidation is a collateral effect of a party’s legitimate attempt to vindicate a legal right. The spectre of sanctions arises when intimidation is no longer a collateral effect. Thus, where a party brings an action or makes a filing primarily to intimidate the opposing party, such an action or filing is improper and runs afoul of Code § 8.01-271.1.
Kambis v. Considine clarifies that just because a lawsuit survives initial attempts to dislodge it on motions, it may not necessarily later survive a motions for sanctions. A casual reading of the Kambis opinion might lead some trial lawyers to argue that where a vindictive or intimidating motive can be ascribed to an opponent’s actions, then an award of attorney’s fees are proper. If this was a correct interpretation of this opinion and the statute, then it would increase unnecessary litigation rather than cut it out. Parties’ decisions to bring or defend legal proceedings never occur in a vacuum. Parties and their lawyers would seek sanctions every time their opponent filed anything because an ulterior motive could be intimated from the context of the case. Such an argument would ignore the extraordinary facts in the Kambis case, together with the admissions made regarding Kambis and his lawyer in email and in open court.
It is difficult to end cases like Kambis v. Considine before trial because the credibility of witnesses in a fraud case is not proper for determination on a motion for summary judgment in the Virginia court system. The Supreme Court seems to be saying that while a litigant may have a right to prove their version of the facts at trial, the sanctions statute prohibits them from abusing their right to a trial.
Resentment can fool otherwise sensible people into thinking that they are seeking justice when really they want payback. This is why it is important for a party to retain a lawyer who will exercise independent professional judgment. This protects both the lawyer and the client from making shortsighted litigation decisions that are antithetical to their long term best interests. This is especially important in real estate and construction cases where so much is at stake.
February 20, 2015
At some point after the filing of a lawsuit in Virginia Circuit Court, initial disputes over the sufficiency of the complaint are resolved. The parties are now on notice of their opponents’ claims and defenses. The process of getting to this point was the focus of my previous blog post. Contrary to what one sees on T.V. or movies, parties do not immediately proceed to going to trial. Instead, lawyers and their clients begin to prepare for trial in a period called “discovery.” Discovery involves finding out more facts about the case. This post provides an overview of the basics of civil litigation discovery, with a focus on its purposes and tools in real estate cases. Why is there such a lengthy process for this? Consider three purposes of discovery:
- Hoarding. Preventing one side or another from “hoarding” documents and information about the case to the unfair detriment of others. For example, in a case between different homeowners’ association factions over control of the board of directors, whoever happens to have access to the minutes, resolutions, notices, amendments, etc., kept by the association must provide them to the other.
- Surprises. Lawyers, as a lot, are attracted to springing surprises on their opponents at trial. However, it may be contrary to the principles of justice for one side to hand the other a large stack of documents they have never seen before during the trial and expect the witness questioning to be meaningful. Discovery can mitigate unfair surprise.
- Effectiveness of Trial. The public places greater confidence in trial results that are based on documents and facts rather than the decisions made in the absence of existing evidence.
The methods of discovery are more formal than the fact gathering conducted outside of litigation. Informal investigation includes researching the documents and information within one’s control, talking to friendly witnesses, checking what is publicly available or that one’s bank can provide. Usually this doesn’t answer all questions. So what are the available forms of civil discovery? There are quite a few. The most useful in real estate and construction cases in Virginia circuit court are:
- Document Requests. The rules allow a party to request in writing an opponent’s documents. A party seeking production of documents must send a written request. The responding party then has 21 days in which to respond as to documents within their possession, custody or control. In large cases it usually takes significantly longer than 21 days to resolve a document request. Reviewing the relevant documents of one’s opponent is a central element of trial preparation. Contracts and other documents created before the dispute cannot, absent forgery, be changed to adapt to someone’s current story. When the judge or jury goes to make determinations of facts, the credibility of the parties and the key documents carry great weight. If a party fails to produce a document requested in discovery, they are not normally allowed to use it as an exhibit at trial. The documents of a third-party can be requested by serving them with a subpoena duces tecum.
- Interrogatories. Information sought may not necessarily be reflected in a document. In discovery, a party may submit written interrogatories to another party, seeking answers to specific questions. For example, a party may inquire into the factual support for their opponent’s claims or defenses. Parties usually ask for disclosure of all persons having knowledge about the facts of the case. Interrogatories are also a good tool for finding out about expert testimony that one’s opponent may present at trial. The answering party must respond within 21 days. The answers must be signed by a party under oath or affirmation.
- Requests for Admissions. Last August, I posted an article about the role of a party’s admissions in a federal trial in Maryland. In that case, a lawyer made an oral admission in a closing argument. His opponent did not make a motion to have the admission deemed binding before the jury went to deliberate. The jury made a decision contrary to the admission. The jury verdict ignoring the admission survived post-trial motions and appeal. Party admissions can be requested in discovery before they come out at trial. Parties are entitled to submit to the opponent formal, written requests for admission. The 21 day deadline applies here as well. Admitted responses are binding. These can be useful for resolving uncontested matters so that the trial can focus on what’s disputed.
- Depositions. How will a party or witness react to a line of questions at trial? Does a party or witness know something that can be useful to preparing one’s own case? In discovery, a party may take oral depositions of parties, experts or other witnesses. The deposition usually occurs at a law office. The parties, the lawyers and the witness meet in a conference room with a court reporter. The court reporter places the witness under oath, and then records all of the lawyers’ questions, objections and witness answers. Depositions of parties and experts are an important part of pretrial discovery in large cases.
- View of Real Estate. In many real estate or construction cases, the most significant piece of evidence is the building or land itself. If ordered, the jury travels to the property to view it as evidence. More commonly, the appearance of property is put into evidence by photographs or video. A party not in possession or control of the real estate is entitled to view it. This can be an effective way of expanding one’s knowledge about the case.
Not all of these tools will need to be employed in every case. In addition to these forms of discovery, there are common areas where parties dispute over whether the discovery has been properly sought or provided. These are usually the subject of objections and motions:
- Relevance. Discovery cannot be used to explore any and every topic. The requests must explore relevant, admissible evidence or information that is reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence. Although not unlimited, the scope of discovery is broad.
- Confidentiality. A party may have confidentiality concerns about turning over documents or information. These concerns can be addressed by a protective order regulating the use and disposition of confidential documents or other information.
- Privileges to Withhold. Frequently attorneys will interpose objections to discovery requests. One justification for withholding documents is the attorney-client privilege. Communications between an attorney and his client are not subject to discovery. Despite the apparent simplicity of this concept, disputes over assertion of the attorney-client privilege are a frequent source of discovery disputes. There are other privilege and objections that are applicable in certain situations.
- Spoliation. In the age of computers, e-mails, text messages, computer files and other electronic data are easily created and easily deleted. Once litigation is threatened or pending, parties and witnesses should take action to preserve evidence, including electronically stored information for potential use in the lawsuit.
- Motions to Compel. Lawyers must make reasonable efforts to resolve disputes over the legitimacy of objections, the sufficiency of responses and other discovery disputes without putting it before a judge. When disputes cannot be resolved, typically one party will bring a motion to compel discovery against the other.
- Sanctions. The failure to obey discovery orders can subject a party to a variety of sanctions, including awards of attorney’s fees, dismissal of claims or defenses, exclusion of witnesses and other punishments.
By better understanding the basics of civil litigation discovery, one can adopt strategies that make better use of time, energy and resources pre-trial. Implementing discovery strategies proper to the needs and circumstances of the case pave the way towards a favorable result.
January 8, 2015
In Virginia, borrowers have several options of where to bring a legal challenge to a foreclosure trustee’s sale. The shortest commute is usually the Virginia circuit court for the city or county where the property is located. Alternatively, the facts may allow suit to be brought in a federal district courthouses. Another common venue is federal bankruptcy court.
On June 18, 2014, I posted an article about a borrower, Rachel Ulrey, who managed to keep her foreclosed real estate because the lender, SunTrust Bank, failed to object to the plan in time. Ulrey’s case is a cautionary tale to lenders. Other cases show why borrowers cannot rely on lender inattention as a legal strategy. On November 12, 2014, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Huennenkens issued an opinion illustrating why parties and their attorneys may not bring the same claim in bankruptcy court after they fail to achieve their desired result in a Virginia state court. The borrower and his attorney found their attempt to relitigate foreclosure in bankruptcy sanctioned by the judge.
Michael Pintz owned property in Sussex County, Virginia, in the name of Michael’s Enterprises of Virginia, Inc. In June 2008, he took out a $200,000 mortgage from Branch Banking & Trust. After he defaulted on payment, BB&T obtained a money judgment in Hanover Circuit Court. When BB&T sent Michael’s Enterprises a Notice of Foreclosure, he filed a request in Sussex Circuit Court to block the threatened sale. That court denied the motion. BB&T later purchased the property at a November 2013 Trustee’s Sale. In February 2014, Michael’s Enterprises filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The petition claimed the Sussex property as an asset of the corporation.
You may be wondering whether bankruptcy petitions can be used this way. When a court finds that someone filed something for an improper purpose, it may award litigation sanctions. State and federal courts in Virginia have similar rules prohibiting parties and their attorneys from advancing legal claims and defenses for improper purposes and not to vindicate the rights described in the court filing. Improper purposes include but are not limited to harassment, unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation.
BB&T brought a Motion for Sanctions for Violation of Bankruptcy Rule 9011. The Bankruptcy Court initially deferred BB&T’s request for sanctions. Judge Huennenkens gave Michael’s Enterprises an opportunity to submit a proper bankruptcy reorganization plan before ruling on the sanctions request. The conditions imposed were not met. In October 2014, the bankruptcy court dismissed Michael’s Enterprises’ petition.
The court granted the lender’s renewed motion for sanctions. Judge Huennenkens observed that Michael’s Enterprises had had an opportunity in Virginia state court to litigate the same objectives sought in the bankruptcy petition. The court saw the new lawsuit as an attempt to attack the Virginia court’s decision and the nonjudicial foreclosure. The bankruptcy opinion doesn’t mention this, but if a party believes that a trial court made an erroneous decision, their recourse is to file a motion to reconsider and/or appeal it to the Supreme Court of Virginia. A bankruptcy court may be able to discharge or reorganize debts reduced to court judgments. However, they usually do not allow parties a do-over of unfavorable results of a state court case. Michael’s failure to present a proper reorganization plan in the face of a sanctions request made a poor impression. Judge Huennenkens found the case to be for an improper purpose and awarded BB&T $10,000 in sanctions against Michael’s Enterprises, Michael Pintz, individually, and his attorney. As of the date of this blog post, this result is currently on appeal before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
A common mistaken belief about litigation sanctions is that they are proper whenever a party or attorney loses in court. However, it is common for borrowers in foreclosure contest lawsuits have their cases dismissed on the merits or procedural grounds. Usually, the cases are brought as good faith attempts to obtain relief on the facts and circumstances of the foreclosure proceedings. In Michael’s Enterprises, however, the record of the state court actions together with the absence of a reorganization plan added up to an award of attorney’s fees, not only against the property owner but also its sole shareholder and the attorney. The facts of each case are different and require investigation and research before employing a legal strategy.
Case Citation: Branch Banking & Trust Co. v. Michael’s Enterprises of Virginia, Inc., et al, No. 14-30611-KRH (Bankr. E.D. Va. Nov. 12, 2014).
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.
January 28, 2014
On my Friday morning commute, I heard a guest on the radio show, Elliot in the Morning talking about his parents’ divorce, marriages and the legal fate of a family home. I rarely partake of EITM, but this time I stopped to listen (relevant portions of recording between minute marks 8:20-16:30 on YouTube).
Tommy Johnagin on Elliot in the Morning: Comedian Tommy Johnagin explained that when he was seven, his mother divorced his previous stepfather and married Johnagin’s current stepfather (none of this takes place in Virginia). The families lived in a small town. The current stepfather previously built a home with his own hands for himself and his ex-wife. When the current stepfather and his ex-wife divorced, the ex-wife got the house. Johnagin’s mother’s previous husband then married her current husband’s ex-wife (confused yet?). So Johnagin’s previous stepfather is now living in the home built with the sweat of the current stepfather’s brow. Johnagin commented to Elliot Segal: “I don’t even understand how this works.” In this portion of the interview, I was impressed with how Johnagin weaved some earthy insights into family life with funny personal narrative, such a recent chance encounter with the previous stepfather in the checkout line at the local Wal-mart.
What are the ways a family home can possibly reach this kind of outcome in divorce? Although the facts are different, the Supreme Court of Virginia published a January 10, 2014 opinion, Shebelskie vs. Brown, that discusses a possible route.
Betty & Larry Brown in the Virginia Court System: Betty and Larry Brown completed a divorce in Florida. One of their homes was Windemere, a landmark Tudor mansion in Richmond. (V.L.W. subscribers see July 22, 2013, “A Partition Suit Blows Up,” Virginia Lawyers Weekly) Sometimes, when an out-of-state divorce requires divvying up Virginia property, the parties will file an Equitable Distribution action in Virginia and the house matter will be referred to a court-appointed Commissioner. For reasons not discussed in the court opinion, this phase of the Brown divorce did not proceed this way. Instead, Larry filed a partition suit in Richmond, seeking an order that Windemere be sold.
In Virginia, when co-owners of real estate cannot agree on what to do with real estate, one party may file with the court a request for Partition and a Judicial Sale. See, Va. Code section 8.01-81, et sec. Partition traditionally involves dividing the parcel equitably into smaller parcels. When the land cannot conveniently be divided into smaller chunks because that would destroy the value of any improvements, the Court will usually grant a sale of the entire property. The monetary proceeds of the sale are then divided. Lawyers try to use partition suits as a last resort because they are a very expensive way to sell a house and more likely to lead to further title litigation. The deputy clerk called the Browns’ names week after week on the Richmond Circuit Court motions’ docket. The Court ordered a Judicial Sale. Finally, Betty obtained confirmation from the Court that she could go to closing on the house to buy-out Larry. The facts suggest that spousal support owed by Larry would end up helping to pay for the buy-out.
In the trial court, the parties litigated over attorneys’ fees and awards of sanctions issued by the judge against some of the attorneys. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia reversed the sanctions award. (I invite my trial lawyer readers to take a look at the Court’s interpretation of the term, “motion” in the sanctions statute)
The Stepfather’s House, Revisited: How does the house that one man built for himself and his family end up in the possession of his ex-wife and his current wife’s ex-husband? Most likely, the home was part of the marital estate in the divorce and went to the ex-wife either in a settlement or by court order.
In a way, Tommy Johnagin’s current stepfather should be flattered that both his ex-wife and her subsequent husband desired the house he built. As a builder, he can construct another one.
In the interview, Johnagin commented that he felt content with the stepfather he got in the step-parent “lottery.” In the end, a good stepfather makes a bigger difference in someone’s life than title to a mansion or an appellate court victory.