Real Estate Litigation

I was honored to talk about boundary line disputes on this week’s Real Estate Radio Boston broadcast on WBZ 1030, hosted by Rick Scherer and Ali Alavi, Esq. The broadcast is below. Just click the Play button to listen! Or click on this link:  Real Estate Radio Boston | Richard Vetstein.

Tune into the broadcast every Saturday night from 8pm-9pm on WBZ 1030 AM. It’s a fantastic show!

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eviction-notBill Would Curb Tenant Abuses of Eviction Process | State House Hearing Set For Feb. 25

For the last decade, Massachusetts landlords have been lobbying for a tenant rent escrow bill which would prevent tenants from using the infamous “free rent trick” in evictions. This may finally be the year that the Legislature passes this much needed reform to curb tenant abuses of the eviction process. Two bills, H.B. 1131 and H.B. 1110, have made their way to public hearing at the State House for a February 25th hearing before the Joint Committee on Housing. Landlords are urged to come and testify before the committee and otherwise support the bill by contacting their local representatives and senators.

The bills are designed to reform tenant abuses of the rent withholding law, including the infamous “free rent trick.” The free rent trick works like this:  Tenant stops paying rent for various reasons, such as economic hardship or by design. After receiving a 14 day notice to quit for non-payment of rent, the tenant will immediately call the board of health to get the owner cited for minor or cosmetic code violations such as a hole in a window screen. Under current Massachusetts law, any code violation cited, however minor, allows the tenant to withhold rent until the eviction case is resolved. What usually happens is that the tenant skips out of town or agrees to a move out but never pays the months of accrued unpaid rent, leaving the landlord stuck with thousands of lost income to pay their mortgage and expenses.

Unlike most other states, there is no requirement in Massachusetts that the tenant post the withheld rent into some form of escrow account. There have been many instances where tenants have intentionally inflicted property damage to claim code violations or just made them up altogether.

A mandatory rent escrow law would require any tenant who exercises their right of rent withholding to pay the withheld rent into an escrow account until the unsafe conditions or code violations are repaired. After repairs are done, either the landlord and tenant agree on how the escrowed rent should be divided, or a judge orders a fair settlement. In most cases, the owner will get back most of the withheld escrowed rent. But the most important impact of a mandatory rent escrow law is that those nonpaying tenants who do not escrow can be promptly evicted for nonpayment of rent. Although nonpayment evictions will still take on average three months to resolve, much-longer-delayed evictions and the free rent trick will be stopped.

The bills will most benefit small landlords and owners-occupants of multi-family residences who rent out apartments. These property owners are typically on strict budgets, and any lost rent and attorneys’  fees will prevent them from paying their mortgages, real estate taxes and property expenses, potentially leading to default and foreclosure.

For more information on how you can support these bills, please contact the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association and the Massachusetts Small Property Owner’s Association.

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a vocal advocate for Massachusetts landlord rights and can be reached at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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nail in the coffinWhy A Massachusetts Real Estate Nominee Trust Is Worthless and Useless

Since the concept of currency and debt was created, debtors have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with creditors in order to avoid satisfaction of their debts. A ruling last week by the Massachusetts Appeals Court in Citizens Bank v. Coleman (May 15, 2013) is notable because it put the kibosh on a formerly popular estate planning practice in Massachusetts where a husband conveys property into a real estate nominee trust held by his wife. The problem, of course, was that the husband was being chased by a creditor holding a $600,000+ judgment, so any action he took with his assets would ultimately come under the judicial microscope. And that’s exactly what happened in this case, as the Court unwound the transfer and ruled in the bank’s favor.

Old Debts Come Back to Haunt Developer

In the 1980′s, Martin Coleman, a real estate developer, purchased two multifamily rental properties in Waltham. Coleman furnished all the cash to acquire these properties. In 1986, Coleman married his wife, Pamela, who began managing the properties. She dealt with all issues relating to the tenants (including rent collection and filling vacancies) and superintended the maintenance, repairs, and payment of bills. In 1988, Coleman defaulted on a $6.2 million construction loan, which he had personally guaranteed.

In 1989, Coleman transferred, for $1.00, title to both rental properties into two real estate nominee trusts, with Pamela named as the sole beneficiary of each trust. Pamela continued to assist with the management of the properties, but Martin paid for all the property expenses.

In 1994, Federal Savings Bank obtained a $600,000 plus judgment against Mr. Coleman which was subsequently acquired by Citizens Bank. Citizens sued the Colemans, attempting to “reach and apply” Pamela’s interest in the two Waltham properties to satisfy the large judgment.

Interfamily Conveyance = Resulting Trust = Creditor Wins


The Appeals Court ultimately ruled that Mr. Coleman’s conveyance into the nominee trusts was a “resulting trust” — essentially a fraudulent transfer to avoid satisfaction of the large judgment. With respect to transfers between husband and wife, the law presumes they are not designed to avoid creditors. This presumption, however, can be overcome through evidence that the conveyance did not result in any change in behavior or financial responsibilities between husband and wife, as compared to before the transfer. In this case, the evidence showed that Mr. Coleman still held himself out as the owner of the rental properties, nothing changed as to the wife’s property management duties, and the conveyance was not truly part of a legitimate estate plan, as the Colemans contended. The Court ruled that Citizens Bank will be able to sell the two Waltham properties at auction to satisfy the judgment which is likely now seven figures.

Moral Of The Story: Trash the Nominee Trust

Real estate nominee trusts were all the rage in the 1980′s and into the 1990′s. A series of court rulings, however, exposed serious flaws with the asset protection security these trusts were supposed to provide. They are now out of favor, yet, they are still being used. Perhaps this case will put the proverbial nail in the nominee trust coffin. Memo to estate planners: They don’t work, so stop using them. Go with a limited liability company instead.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who is frequently consulted by property owners looking to shelter their assets. Please contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

 

 

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Massachusetts real estate closing attorneyExpands Realtors’ Disclosure Liability and Invalidates Exculpatory Clause In Standard Form Purchase and Sale Agreement

It’s been a very tough week for Boston, to say the least. (Please consider donating to the One Boston Fund over here —>).

Unfortunately I have some more bad news for Massachusetts real estate agents, as the Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled against a Realtor for failing to properly verify a representation made on MLS concerning a listing’s zoning classification. The closely watched case is DeWolfe v. Hingham Centre Ltd. (SJC-11168) (embedded below).

Zoned For Business or Residential?

The lawsuit was brought by a buyer of a hair salon business who relied upon what turned out to be erroneous information supplied by the listing agent (through information provided by the seller). The broker represented on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) and newspaper advertising that the property was zoning “Business B,” which allowed a hair salon. Further, the broker placed at the property copies of pages from the town’s zoning by-law that listed hair salons as “Permitted Business Uses” in the Business B District. The property was not, in fact, zoned for business use; it was zoned residential, thereby prohibiting the hair salon the buyer wanted to open at the property. The buyer sued for misrepresentation and violations of the Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A.

Ruling: Realtors Have Duty to Exercise “Reasonable Care” In Making Zoning Representations

In an unanimous opinion by Justice Barbara Lenk, the SJC stated that while a real estate broker may ordinarily rely upon information provided by his client, where such reliance is unreasonable in the circumstances, an agent has a duty to independently investigate the information before conveying it to a prospective buyer.

The court ultimately held that all Massachusetts real estate agents have a duty to exercise reasonable care in making representations as to a property’s zoning designation.

Here, the owner testified that he told the real estate broker that the property was zoned “Residential Business B.”  The experienced broker apparently knew that there was no such zoning district in Norwell, and instead advertised the property as zoned “Business B.”  In addition, the broker was aware of no prior business use of the property, and had observed houses – not businesses – adjoining the property on either side.  Based on these facts, the SJC concluded that a jury could find that the broker was on notice that the information provided by the owner was unreliable, and acted unreasonably in representing the property as zoned “Business B” without conducting any further investigation.

Exculpatory Clause in Standard Form P&S Not Applicable

The SJC also rejected the broker’s argument that the exculpatory clause in the standard form purchase and sale agreement barred the buyer’s claims. The familiar contract language provides:

The BUYER acknowledges that the BUYER has not been influenced to enter into this transaction nor has he relied upon any warranties or representations not set forth or incorporated in this agreement or previously made in writing, except for the following additional warranties and representations, if any, made by either the SELLER or the Broker(s): NONE.

The justices held that, under the confusing, double-negative language quoted above, a buyer can rely on prior written representations that are not set forth or incorporated in the agreement. Therefore, the agreement did not protect the broker from liability arising from the written misrepresentations in the newspaper ad, the MLS listing, and the inapplicable zoning by-law placed at the property.

The SJC has sent the case back to the trial court for a possible jury trial or, most likely, towards settlement. And hopefully the Greater Boston Real Estate Board is re-drafting its poorly worded exculpatory clause.

Advice For Realtors Going Forward

  • Do NOT say or write anything on MLS or anywhere else concerning a property’s zoning status. Make the buyer conduct his/her own independent research.
  • If your MLS requires input of zoning status, put the zoning with the following disclaimer:  *subject to buyer verification
  • Never trust your client when it comes to information concerning the property. I hate to say this, but when it comes to disclosures, it’s true.
  • Always independently verify information about the property from available public sources. Here, the agent could have simply gone down to the town planning office to verify whether the property was zoned commercial or residential.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts attorney with substantial experience in real estate disclosure litigation brought by buyers against Realtors. Please contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

 

Dewolfe v. Hingham Center

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email-1-354x385

A Simple Email Disclaimer Cannot Hurt & Can Only Help

Boilerplate email disclaimers at the bottom of messages are so ubiquitous that most of us hardly notice them anymore. They certainly take up a lot of text space and can be annoying to some, but are they legally effective or just plain toothless?

In the real estate context, where Realtors and attorneys write in the language of contract everyday, I believe that a short and simple email disclaimer may help, and certainly cannot hurt, the sender (aside from annoying a snarky recipient or two). In this post, I will discuss a few common real estate situations where an email disclaimer could come into play, then give you the disclaimer that I use in my emails. Now I have my own disclaimer here: A court will determine each case individually, and there is no guarantee that any particular disclaimer will be effective in any given case.

Contract Negotiations

The most common situation where an email disclaimer could come into play is during real estate contract negotiations. For many agents and attorneys, e-mail has become the default mode of communication, replacing the telephone and the outdated fax. E-mail, however, can provide the “smoking gun” in litigation because it’s nearly impossible to delete permanently, and people tend to be more casual and less introspective before hitting “send.” And don’t get me started with texting, which is even worse.

Realtors must remember that under Massachusetts agency law they are agents with actual or apparent legal authority to bind their clients to the statements they make in emails and other forms of communication. Like the Miranda warnings given by the police, a real estate agents’ statements “can and will be used against them in a court of law.” The same is true for attorneys.

A case in point: In the recent well-publicized case of Feldberg v. Coxall, a Massachusetts judge ruled that a series of e-mail exchanges between the buyer and seller’s attorney, the last one attaching a revised, but unsigned, offer to purchase, could create a binding contract even though no formal written agreement was ever signed. This is also one of the first cases applying the new Massachusetts E-Sign law to preliminary negotiations in real estate deals. There have been cases in other jurisdictions holding that e-mails can result in a binding contract even though the parties may have assumed otherwise.

Practice Pointer:

“Emails sent or received shall neither constitute acceptance of conducting transactions via electronic means nor shall create a binding contract in the absence of a fully signed written agreement.”

This is the new email disclaimer that I’ve formulated after the Feldberg ruling. It does two things. First, it provides that only a fully signed contract can bind the parties. Second, it attempts to counter the presumption in the E-sign Act of conducting the transaction electronically via email. It has not been tested in court yet, but again, aside from taking up some pixel space, it can’t hurt. Now remember, this type of disclaimer would favor a selling/listing agent, but not necessarily a buyer’s agent, because the buyer’s agent would typically want to enforce preliminary negotiations. So, caveat emptor (buyer beware).

Practice Pointer: “Subject to final client review/approval”

Another best practice that Realtors and attorneys should get in the habit of doing is to write “subject to final client review and approval” or words to that effect in the midst of email contract negotiations and draft agreements being circulated. This could sway a court from determining that a binding deal was formed, and plus, it gives you an “out” in case a client has last minute changes.

Confidential Communications

Attorneys love to use long confidentiality disclaimers in their email. Do they work? Occasionally. Do they matter in real estate? I still think so.

First, the concept of legal confidentiality is limited to those situations governed by legal privilege. There is an attorney-client privilege between lawyers and their clients, obviously. While there is no legal privilege between a Realtor and his/her client as for communications solely between the agent and the client, the attorney client privilege will likely attach to emails and communications between and among the real estate agent, the attorney, and the client provided that legal advice is being given. But a particular email does not automatically get confidentiality protection simply because the attorney is copied on it. Some courts have pointed to email disclaimers as a factor in upholding the confidentiality. But there have been many court rulings where judges have discarded the disclaimers.

While attorneys should absolutely have a confidentiality email disclaimer, do Realtors need one? I say yes, because sometimes emails between attorney and client wind up in Realtors’ inboxes and sometimes they get forwarded on purpose or by mistake when they shouldn’t, and that could waive any privilege which is attached and become the “smoking gun.”

Practice Pointer:

I use this simple email disclaimer:

CONFIDENTIALITY: This e-mail message and any attachments are confidential and may be privileged.

The best practice, of course, is to cleanse and delete portions of any email with attorney-client or confidential information before forwarding. And of course, THINK BEFORE YOU HIT SEND!

**Thank you to Cambridge MA Realtor Charles Cherney for suggesting this topic!

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a nationally recognized real estate attorney who writes frequently about legal issues facing the real estate industry. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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stop20foreclosure1Court Uses Novel Equitable Assignment of Mortgage Theory 

In what could be the first test case of a new theory to clear up defective foreclosure titles — and much welcome news for property owners stuck with toxic titles — Massachusetts Land Court Judge Gordon Piper has ruled that the theory of equitable assignment of an improperly foreclosed mortgage can be used to clear title of an improperly foreclosed property.

The case is Cavanaugh v. GMAC Mortgage LLC, et al., 11 MISC 447901 (embedded below) and was recently appealed by noted foreclosure attorney, Glenn Russell, Esq., who represented the prevailing homeowners in the landmark U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case. The case will now go up to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, or, given its importance, perhaps taken up by the Supreme Judicial Court on direct appellate review.

In this case, GMAC Mortgage foreclosed a mortgage given by Maureen Cavanaugh of Fairhaven, then granted a foreclosure deed to Fannie Mae. The foreclosure, however, was defective because notice of the foreclosure sale was not published in the local newspaper as required by Massachusetts foreclosure law. Fannie Mae later sold the property to Timothy Lowney.

Ms. Cavanaugh sued the lenders and Mr. Lowney in a Land Court “quiet title” action to re-claim her property back. This is essentially the same situation as presented in the Bevilacqua vs. Rodriguez case where a property owner was stuck with a defective foreclosure title. The Court in Bevilacqua suggested an alternative theory to solve the defective title by using the conveyance of the foreclosure deed as an equitable assignment of the original mortgage, so the new property owner could foreclose and obtain clear title in the process.

Judge Piper used this equitable assignment theory in the Cavanaugh case, ruling that Lowney, the new buyer, holds the GMAC Mortgage through equitable assignment, and may now foreclose upon Ms. Cavanaugh, thereby clearing the way to get clean title. Equally important, Judge Piper ordered GMAC and Fannie Mae to assign the underlying promissory note from Ms. Cavanaugh to Lowney so that he holds both the note and the mortgage as required by after the important Eaton v. Fannie Mae case several months ago.

This is an important and much-needed judicial development for assisting homeowners who have been unable to refinance or sell their properties due to “Ibanez” and other foreclosure related title defects. This case also illustrates the importance of obtaining an owner’s policy of title insurance which appears to have provided coverage to Mr. Lowney in this matter.

Cavanaugh v. GMAC Mortgage — Massachusetts Land Court by

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recy3Triple Damage Penalty for Willful Cutting Of Neighbor’s Trees 

We may be in the middle of winter here in Massachusetts, but homeowners and utility companies are still out there chopping down trees. I always advise property owners who intend to cut trees near boundary lines to consult a survey or plot plan to ensure that the trees are not on their neighbor’s land. The reason is that, in Massachusetts, the penalties for the “willful” cutting of another’s trees can be severe.

First enacted in 1698, the Massachusetts illegal tree cutting law (General Laws chapter 242, section 7) provides for up to triple damages for the malicious cutting, trimming, or destroying of another’s trees:

A person who without license willfully cuts down, carries away, girdles or otherwise destroys trees, timber, wood or underwood on the land of another shall be liable to the owner in tort for three times the amount of the damages assessed therefor; but if it is found that the defendant had good reason to believe that the land on which the trespass was committed was his own or that he was otherwise lawfully authorized to do the acts complained of, he shall be liable for single damages only.

Measure of Damages: Restoration Cost Value

The measure of damages for those harmed by the willful cutting of trees varies from case to case. The most common measure of damages is either the value of the timber cut, restoration cost, or the resulting diminution in value of the property. A claimant is entitled to assert a claim for either value, whichever is highest.

Where the trees cut are tall, hard to replace or have a particular function like screening, or all the above, it is wise to engage a certified arborist to perform a comprehensive restoration cost analysis. The restoration cost analysis takes into account the aesthetics, functionality, age, height, girth, and species of the trees, and formulates a restoration value for the replacement of the removed trees. The method, known as cost-of-cure, involves determining the cost of planting trees and the estimated time for the replacement trees to grow to the size of the destroyed trees (years to parity).

In recent cases, Land Court judges have awarded $30,000 (tripled) for the cutting of 10 mature oak trees and nearly $45,000 (tripled) for the clearing of an 800 square foot woodland area which provided privacy screening. In both of these cases, expert arborist testimony was offered on the restoration cost of the cut trees. And who can forget the case where a Somerset family recovered a $150,000 wrongful death settlement after a women dropped dead after her neighbor wrongfully cut down a swath of sentimental trees.

Branches Over The Property Line

Under Massachusetts common law, you may remove branches of a neighbor’s tree extending over your property line as long as you don’t kill or damage the tree. Also, the neighbor has no liability for roots growing into your yard and causing damage. Massachusetts law does not allow a person to cross or enter a neighbor’s property for these purposes without the neighbor’s consent, nor to remove any branches or other vegetation within the confines of the neighbor’s property. This is the “Massachusetts Rule.”

Utility Tree Cutting

I’ve been reading about many recent disputes between property owners and utility companies (Wayland v. NStar) over tree cutting within utility easements. The law provides a public utility the right to remove or trim your tree if it interferes with the necessary and reasonable operation of the utility. Furthermore, the utility is required to perform tree trimming as part of its program to maintain reliable service for its customers. The National Electric Safety Code requires utilities to trim or remove trees growing near power lines that threaten to disrupt service. Proper and regular tree trimming helps prevent the danger and inconvenience of outages.

Lastly, landscapers and tree cutting companies should get a signed directive from the homeowners and an indemnification prior to cutting trees, as my fellow real estate attorney Chris McHallam points out.

If your trees have been wrongfully removed by a neighbor or if you have mistakenly removed trees, you should consult an experienced Massachusetts property law attorney. Valuation of trees is a science, rather complicated, and best left to the professionals.

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Richard D. VetsteinRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who has handled numerous illegal tree cutting and boundary line disputes. Please contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508.620.5352.

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Case Law Report:  Wyman v. Ayer Properties, LLC (Massachusetts Appeals Court, December 12, 2012).

ma-lowell-hamiltoncanal

Condo Construction Defect Claims Now Easier To Bring

In an important opinion which will make it easier for condominium associations to seek redress for faulty or defective construction, the Appeals Court has entered a $300,000 plus judgment against a Lowell based real estate developer. A link to the opinion can be found here.

Ayer Properties rehabilitated a vacant mill building on Market Street in Lowell, converting it into condominiums in the mid 2000’s. After the units were sold out, the new board of trustees discovered several aspects of faulty construction, including defective windows, deteriorating exterior brick masonry façade, and a leaky roof.  At the end of an 11-day jury-waived trial, a Superior Court trial judge awarded compensatory damages of $140,000, but eliminated well over $100,000 of the association’s claimed damages based on a legal defense called the economic loss doctrine.

The economic loss doctrine provides that a claimant must suffer some sort of property damage or personal injury in a negligent construction claim before being able to recover compensatory damages. The strict application of the economic loss doctrine in condominium construction defects can be quite harsh, often eviscerating thousands of dollars in damages simply because of the peculiarity of condominium ownership – the legal division and separation between common element property and individual unit owner property.

Justice Mitchell Sikora of the Appeals Court used some much-needed common sense and dispensed with the economic loss doctrine in the condominium construction defect setting:

We therefore hold that a condominium unit owners’ association may recover damages in tort from a responsible builder-vendor for negligent design or construction of common area property in circumstances in which damages are reasonably determinable, in which the association would otherwise lack a remedy, and in which the association acts within the time allowed by the applicable statute of limitations or statute of repose.

The impact of this decision will make it less difficult for condominium associations and trustees to sue and recover all damages against developers for construction defects. We could also see an increase in construction defect claims over faulty construction in the future.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq.Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced condominium and construction litigation attorney. Please contact him at 508-620-5352 or rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Worcester Diocese Allegedly Pulled Out of Deal Over Possibility Of Gay Marriages at Mansion

James Fairbanks and Alain Beret, married business partners from Sutton, had been searching for the perfect property for nearly two years when they discovered Oakhurst, an aging mansion on 26 beautiful acres in Northbridge. The former retreat center, which was affiliated with the Diocese of Worcester and had been on the market for some time, would be the ideal spot for their next venture: an inn that would host weddings and other big events, as reported by the Boston Globe. When the Diocese of Worcester unexpectedly dropped out of negotiations with them in June, Fairbanks and Beret were shocked — and flummoxed. Then, they say, a church attorney inadvertently forwarded their broker an e-mail from Monsignor Thomas Sullivan, chancellor of the diocese, advising a church broker that he was no longer interested in selling to Fairbanks and Beret “because of a potentiality of gay marriages” there.

Sullivan wrote: “I just went down the hall and discussed it with the bishop.  Because of the potentiality of gay marriages there, something you shared with us yesterday, we are not interested in going forward with these buyers. I think they’re shaky anyway. So, just tell them that we will not accept their revised plan and the diocese is making new plans for the property. You find the language.”

Today, the gay couple filed what could be a landmark lawsuit in Worcester Superior Court against Sullivan, the bishop, the church’s real estate agent, and the nonprofit retreat center, the House of Affirmation, alleging they discriminated against Beret and Fairbanks on the basis of sexual orientation in the course of a real estate negotiation, violating state law. A copy of the Complaint in Fairbanks, et al. v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Worcester, et al. is embedded below.

A spokesperson for the church told the Globe that the church, as a matter of policy, will not sell properties where Masses have been celebrated to people who plan to host same-sex weddings. The church will not sell to developers who plan to transform them into abortion clinics either, he said — or to bars, lounges, or other kinds of uses that church officials deem inappropriate. “We wouldn’t sell our churches and our properties to any of a number of things that would reflect badly on the church,” he said. “These buildings are sacred to the memory of Catholics.”

In an even more ironic twist, the Diocese previously used the mansion for a retreat center for pedophile priests, according to Banker & Tradesman.

Watching this case play out will certainly be very interesting both from a legal and political perspective. Massachusetts — the birthplace of gay marriage — is one of the few states in the country which outlaws housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. One of the questions will be whether the Church is covered under the anti-discrimination law given their historical stance against homosexuals and gay marriage.

Also, as I pointed out to a reporter covering this story, the church could have negotiated a restriction on the future use of the property, which is common for sales involving open space, recreational use and such. It appears that the church did not do this, but instead came up with a pre-textual reason after the fact to support their decision not to proceed with the sale due to the gay marriage issue. We will be monitoring this interesting case!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney with offices in Framingham and Needham, Mass. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

Complaint | Fairbanks v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Worcester, Mass.

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Two Year Effort To Overhaul Foreclosure Practices

On August 3, 2012, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed into law what’s been called the new Foreclosure Prevention Law. The text of the law can be found at House Bill No. 4323. The new law makes significant changes to existing foreclosure practices, and also attempts to clean up the recent turmoil surrounding defective foreclosure titles after the U.S. Bank v. Ibanez and Eaton v. FNMA rulings, an issue for which I’ve been advocating for years. It goes into effect on Nov. 1, 2012. A quick summary is as follows with details below:

  • New requirement that mortgage assignments be recorded
  • New mandatory requirement to offer loan modifications and mediation to qualified borrowers
  • New Eaton foreclosure affidavit confirming ownership of note/mortgage loan
  • Protection for third party buyers of foreclosed properties

Mortgage Assignments Must be Recorded

Going forward, a foreclosure may not proceed unless the entire chain of mortgage assignments from the original mortgagee to the foreclosing entity is recorded. This is a statutory codification of the recommendation of the SJC in U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case, and should provide some well-needed clarity for titles. Under the new law, no foreclosure notice will be valid unless “(i) at the time such notice is mailed, an assignment, or chain of assignments, evidencing the assignment of the mortgage to the foreclosing mortgagee has been duly recorded in the registry of deeds . . . and (ii) the recording information for all recorded assignments is referenced in the notice of sale required in this section.”

Unfortunately, the new law does not address defective foreclosure titles created before the Ibanez decision, as we were hoping. Accordingly, folks who are still waiting for legislative help to cure their defective foreclosure titles may be left without a remedy.

Mandatory Loan Modification Efforts

In a provision pushed hard by housing advocates, the new law will require mortgage lenders to attempt to offer loan modifications instead of foreclosing. The qualification standards are rather complex and beyond the scope of this post. In sum, if the net present value of a modified mortgage exceeds the anticipated net recovery at foreclosure, the lender has to offer the borrower a modification.

Importantly, the new law provides immunity in favor of bona fide purchasers of foreclosed properties from claims by disgruntled borrowers that the lenders did not follow the loan modification rules.

New Eaton Affidavit

The new law also incorporates the SJC’s recent holding in Eaton v. Fannie Mae, where the SJC held that a foreclosing lender must be both the assignee of the mortgage and be either note holder or acting on behalf of the note holder. New Section 35C prohibits a creditor from publishing a foreclosure notice if the creditor “knows or should know that the mortgagee is neither the holder of the mortgage note nor the authorized agent of the note holder.” It also requires the creditor to record an affidavit swearing to its compliance with the new section. The affidavit will shield third-party buyers from title claims, but will not shield creditors from potential liability to the borrowers. Eaton suggested the use of affidavits, but now the statute requires it. Creditors cannot pass the cost of any corrective documentation upon borrowers or third parties.

Impact?

As with any major reform legislation, there will be a learning curve for foreclosing lenders and foreclosure attorneys to get documentation and systems in place to comply with the new requirements. We could potentially see additional litigation coming out of this new law brought by borrowers who feel they were not given a “fair shake” at a loan modification. From a real estate title perspective, the new law is a step in the right direction, but I was very disappointed that nothing was done to help folks who are still saddled with Ibanez title defects. This was the perfect opportunity to address that issue, and I’m afraid it won’t come up again.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney with an expertise in foreclosure related issues. You can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Update: My Clients Prevail (Click Here for Judge’s Ruling)

Effective Preparation and Historical Timeline Key To Trial

I just completed a four day jury waived trial in an adverse possession case in Superior Court. I wanted to share some of my experience as a Massachusetts adverse possession attorney, and what I learned during this case. (For confidentiality reasons, I will not disclose the name of the case or the county in which it was brought). We are waiting for a decision from the judge, which will take several months.

Side Property Line Dispute

The case was a fight over land between two homes in a suburban town.  The dispute arose after my client, “Ms. Jones,” surveyed her property in anticipation of doing an addition project. The survey unfortunately revealed that a portion of the driveway and nearby retaining wall owned by her next door neighbor, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” encroached the side lot line. Efforts to resolve the encroachment dispute were unsuccessful, and the Smiths ultimately filed the adverse possession lawsuit, claiming that they had used not only the small encroached area, but a much larger 2,200 square foot area of Ms. Jones’ side yard, for more than 40 years.

Tracking Down Old Owners

Since the Smiths were claiming adverse possession going back to the 1960’s, the first and most important thing we had to do was to track down all the old owners of my client’s property and put together an accurate historical timeline of the property.  Including my client, there were seven owners of the property! This was the only way my client could mount a defense against the Smith’s claim, since the Smiths owned their property all that time. One of the old owners lived in Florida, and he came up to testify about having pig roasts near the disputed area, among other stories. Other former owners testified and a few were not exactly thrilled to be dragged into court. That’s the nature of the beast.

Proving The Timeline

Next, we had to demonstrate the historical use of the disputed area over four decades. These are very factually intensive cases. The key to every adverse possession case is what and how the parties actually used the disputed area. The parties’ knowledge or lack thereof of the true boundary line is really not the important issue. Generally, the more intense the use and the more the claimant takes action to exclude the other party from using the disputed land, the better the claim for adverse possession. Conversely, the less intense the use, the less successful the claim. Still, adverse possession is a very difficult claim to win as the law does not favor taking someone’s land.

Some important questions in any Massachusetts adverse possession case are:  Did the plaintiff mow the lawn? Did they maintain any landscaping? Did they install a fence or other barrier? Did they demarcate where they used the land? Did they make any permanent improvements to the disputed area? Did they plant anything or install a garden? Did they clear brush? Did they cut down trees or plant new trees? Did the defendant grant permission to use the disputed area. (Permissive use destroys an adverse possession case).

Preparation Is Key

Compared to my opposing counsel, I had a lot more work on my side with triple the number of testifying witnesses and cross examination of the claimants. I prepared for a solid two weeks before this trial, and by the trial, I knew every blade of grass and rock on the disputed area.  I also had deposition testimony of the claimants which I used to impeach them when they inevitably changed their stories or failed to remember key details. I also had blowups of aerial photos of the property from Bing Maps which were very helpful. Lastly, I convinced the trial judge to take a “view” of the property, and he did visit the property with counsel the day after the trial was over.

We are filing post-trial briefs at the end of August, and then the judge will make a decision. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts adverse possession and boundary line dispute attorney who has tried numerous adverse possession cases in Land Court and Superior Court. Please contact me if you are dealing with a Massachusetts adverse possession dispute.

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69 Year Old Woman Found Dead After Neighbor’s Handyman Cuts 30-foot Arborvitaes; Estate Recovers $150,000 Wrongful Death Settlement

In a tragic case out of Somerset, Massachusetts reported by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, a woman’s estate has recovered a $150,000 wrongful death settlement after she dropped dead when her neighbor cut down a row of trees which she and her husband planted 40 years ago.

According to Taunton lawyer Claudine A. Cloutier, who represented the woman’s estate, the neighbor hired a worker to remove some of the trees. When the woman discovered they had been cut down, she apparently became emotionally distraught. Her son found her dead in a chair the next day. There were no signs of trauma. Her estate brought negligence and tort claims against the neighbor, alleging wrongful death partially caused by stress arising from the destruction of the plants. The case went to mediation, and was settled before trial for $150,000.

Massachusetts Illegal Tree Cutting Law

Disputes over tree pruning and cutting are very common in Massachusetts. Indeed, Massachusetts has one of the oldest tree cutting and trimming laws on the books which provides for triple damages for any illegal cutting:

A person who without license willfully cuts down, carries away, girdles or otherwise destroys trees, timber, wood or underwood on the land of another shall be liable to the owner in tort for three times the amount of the damages assessed therefor; but if it is found that the defendant had good reason to believe that the land on which the trespass was committed was his own or that he was otherwise lawfully authorized to do the acts complained of, he shall be liable for single damages only.

Nevertheless, at common law, a neighbor may remove branches extending over a shared property line onto his or her own property. Also, the neighbor has no liability for roots growing into your yard and causing damage. Massachusetts law does not allow a person to cross or enter a neighbor’s property for these purposes without the neighbor’s consent, nor to remove any branches or other vegetation within the confines of the neighbor’s property. You can trim the branches and roots back, but you cannot kill the tree. This is the “Massachusetts Rule.”

Damages are assessed that either the market value of the timber or the replacement cost of the trees. Replacement cost typically requires the assistance of an expert arborist or landscaper. In a case out of Martha’s Vineyard, the appeals court upheld a $30,000 award for the replacement cost of 10 mature oak trees. Upon a finding of maliciousness under the tree cutting law, those damages were tripled.

Before cutting, trimming or pruning trees on or near your property line, it’s always a good idea to consult your plot plan or survey and speak to your neighbor before taking out the chain saws.

Utility Tree Cutting

I’ve been reading about many recent disputes between property owners and utility companies (Wayland v. NStar) over tree cutting within utility easements. The law provides a public utility the right to remove or trim your tree if it interferes with the necessary and reasonable operation of the utility. Furthermore, the utility is required to perform tree trimming as part of its program to maintain reliable service for its customers. The National Electric Safety Code requires utilities to trim or remove trees growing near power lines that threaten to disrupt service. Proper and regular tree trimming helps prevent the danger and inconvenience of outages.

More ResourcesMassachusetts Law Library

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experience real estate attorney who has litigated numerous illegal tree cutting cases. If you are dealing with a Massachusetts unlawful tree cutting or trimming situation, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or via email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Feldberg v. Coxall: First Case To Apply New UETA (Uniform Electronic Transactions Act) To Real Estate Transactions

“This case involves the intersection between the seventeenth century Statute of Frauds and twenty-first century electronic mail.” –Justice Douglas Wilkins

Massachusetts courts have been grappling with the question of “when is a deal a deal” for a long time. With the vast majority of communication in real estate now done via email and other electronic means, it was just a matter of time before a court was faced with the question of whether and to what extent e-mails can constitute a binding and enforceable agreement to purchase and sell real estate. The real estate community has been waiting a few years for a case like this to come down, and now it’s here.

In Feldberg v. Coxall (May 22, 2012), Superior Court Justice Douglas Wilkins ruled that a series of e-mail exchanges between the buyer’s and seller’s attorney, the last one attaching a revised, but unsigned, offer to purchase, arguably created a binding agreement entitling the buyer to a lis pendens (notice of claim). This is also one of the first cases applying the new Massachusetts E-Sign law to preliminary negotiations in real estate deals.

This is a very interesting and important decision for anyone dealing in residential real estate in Massachusetts. The immediate take-away is that now anything sent in an e-mail can potentially create a binding deal, even if no offer or purchase and sale agreement is ultimately signed.

Vacant Lots In Sudbury

Feldberg, the buyer, was interested in purchasing 2 undeveloped lots in Sudbury owned by Coxall, the seller. The parties’ attorneys, via email, began negotiating the terms of the deal. (Apparently, brokers were not involved in the offer stage).

The buyer’s attorney e-mailed the seller’s attorney and attached a “revised offer with changes to reflect the conversations we have had today.” The revised offer appeared to be comprehensive inasmuch as it contained an agreed upon purchase price of $475,000 and a firm closing date. The email ended with the suggestion that both attorneys work “to have the final offer form finalized in time for my client [the buyer] to sign it and get deposits checks to you before the end of the day tomorrow.”

The seller’s attorney emailed back the next day, stating that “we must have a written approval letter from the bank today by 5pm and I think we are ready to go (I assume they will provide a closing date with the approval).  We are almost there.” That same afternoon, the buyer’s attorney provided a commitment letter from Village Bank with standard conditions.

Apparently, before the seller signed the offer, he backed off and refused to proceed with the transaction. The buyer sued, and sought a lis pendens, which is a notice of claim filed with the registry of deeds. In most cases, a lis pendens will prevent a seller from conveying litigated property to another buyer.

Statute Of Frauds Intersects With E-Mail

As Judge Wilkins eloquently noted, this case involves the “intersection between the seventeenth century Statute of Frauds and twenty-first century electronic mail.” The Statute of Frauds is the genesis of the saying “always get it in writing.” The ancient law, originating in England, provides that all real estate contracts must be in writing signed by the party (or agent) to be charged. In the “old” days, application of the Statute was quite simple. If there wasn’t a written agreement signed in wet, ink signatures, there was no binding deal. Now with e-mail it’s much more complicated.

As the judge noted, this is uncharted territory for the courts as there has been a dearth of precedent on point. The Massachusetts Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) provides that parties to a real estate transaction may consent to conduct the transaction electronically via email or electronic signature technology if they use such technology in their dealings (which everybody does these days). They even may even switch to a traditional hard copy agreement at the end of negotiations like Feldberg and Coxall did here. The UETA requires some form of “electronic signature.” The judge ruled that an email signature block or even the “from” portion of the email may constitute a valid electronic signature. Accordingly, the judge found that the buyer had made a sufficient case that a binding deal had been reached, despite the seller refusing to sign the hard copy offer. (Update: the case was settled out of court by the parties).

Take-Away: Emails May Come Back To Bite You

I think that some Realtors and even some attorneys have assumed that negotiations by email leading up to an offer are preliminary and not binding until the offer is actually signed by both parties. This ruling throws that conventional wisdom out the window.

What can you do to prevent your emails from creating binding obligations? Well, apart from not using email in the first place, one thing you can do right now is to insert a disclaimer in your email signature. Here’s one that I just came up with:

Emails sent or received shall neither constitute acceptance of conducting transactions via electronic means nor shall create a binding contract in the absence of a fully signed written contract.

Feel free to use it. Other than that, you need to watch what you say in your emails, especially when you represent a seller who is considering multiple offers. Make it clear and in writing from the outset that there is no deal until an offer is signed by both buyer and seller.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who’ specializes in real estate litigation. Please contact him if you need legal assistance purchasing residential or commercial real estate.

Feldberg, Et Al. v. Coxall ORDER on Plaintiff’s Emergency Motion for Endorsement of Memorandum of Lis Pende…

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The old Robert Frost poem Mending Wall goes “Good fences make good neighbors.” But a neighbor can quickly turn from good to bad when a they maliciously construct a “spite fence” on the property line. And that includes Sarah Palin who installed this 14 feet monstrous fence at her Wasilla, Alaska home.

What Is An Illegal Spite Fence?

Spite fences are those which neighbors put up extremely close to the other neighbor’s property for the purpose of annoying or inconveniencing the neighbor, and not for any legitimate other reason. In certain circumstances in Massachusetts, courts can rule that certain types of fences are illegal “spite fences,” and order that they be taken down, decreased in height or award damages to the complaining neighbor.

Under the Massachusetts Spite Fence Law (Gen. Laws ch. 49, § 21) ((Interestingly, Massachusetts was one of the first states to enact a spite fence law in 1887)) a fence is an illegal “spite fence” if:

A fence or other structure in the nature of a fence which unnecessarily exceeds six feet in height and is maliciously erected or maintained for the purpose of annoying the owners or occupants of adjoining property….

Whether a fence is an illegal spite fence depends on the circumstances. Usually spite fences are erected where neighbors have been fighting or in a legal dispute of some kind, and the fence is installed as a form of revenge or pay-back. In the vast majority of towns and cities, fences are allowed to be up to 6 feet tall. If the fence in question is over 6 feet tall, and there is evidence that it was installed maliciously, it may be an illegal spite fence.

In a recent dispute on Concord Street in Wilmington (see photo right), a neighbor has installed a very ugly make-shift plywood spite fence with a blue tarp attached. This precipitated a proposal to pass a new fence by-law in Wilmington. I’m not sure of the circumstances surrounding this particular fence, but it is certainly borders on a classic spite fence. In another reported case, the Land Court ordered a neighbor to take down a makeshift fence with spray painted signs and no trespass warnings.

Most folks who erect spite fences will claim the fence is for privacy, but if the home faces an entirely different direction, you can debunk that as a cover for maliciousness. Neighbors may also try to get around the Spite Fence Law by installing a row of trees over 6 feet tall behind the fence. These, too, may be considered illegal.

What Can I Do If My Neighbor Puts Up A Spite Fence?

Under the Spite Fence Law cited above, you can sue your neighbor and ask the court to take down the fence and also seek damages. Under this law and upon a showing of “irreparable harm” the court has the power to impose an injunction ordering that the fence be taken down or reduced to 6 feet tall. Alternatively, the court can award damages.

The difficulty with these cases is that you need to prove you neighbor acted “maliciously” in installing the fence. You will need to marshal evidence to prove that, and that’s where an experienced Massachusetts real estate litigation attorney would add tremendous value. These cases are complex and judges will often require evidentiary hearings before imposing an order taking down a fence. It’s not a “do it yourself” type of situation!

If you are struggling with a boundary line issue or a potential “spite fence,” don’t hesitate to contact me at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com. I have successfully litigated quite a lot of these cases.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate litigation attorney. Mr. Vetstein frequently represents Massachusetts residents in contentious boundary line, fence, and adverse possession cases.

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Why Would Anyone Want To Be A Landlord In Massachusetts?

I just settled a very troubling landlord-tenant case which demonstrates everything which is wrong and unfair with Massachusetts landlord-tenant and eviction law from the landlord perspective. This horror story is played out every Thursday in the summary process sessions of District and Housing Courts across the state. The laws which favor tenants so dramatically were passed decades ago in the 1970’s when tenements and slumlords still existed. Those days are long gone, but the outdated laws remain on the books, giving Massachusetts the well-deserved reputation of being one of the most unfriendly places to own investment property. The time has come to restore some semblance of legal balance between small property owners and tenants.

A Familiar Horror Story

The landlord is a 70 year old woman who rented out her family’s old farm house. The tenants lived there under a month-to-month tenancy at will agreement for 6 years without incident. The owner wanted to move back into the home for financial reasons, so she informed the tenants who immediately started threatening to call the board of health. Mind you, the owner had the right to ask the tenants to leave for any reason at all under a 30 day tenancy at will. The owner was forced to serve a 30 day notice to quit which resulted in the tenants’ immediate report to the local board of health and withholding of rent. The owners were cited for several minor code violations which they addressed promptly, but every time the health inspector came out, the tenant “reported” new alleged problems (likely caused intentionally by the tenants), and often did not allow the inspector to gain access. When the owner started an eviction action, and the tenants predictably shot back with a slew of counterclaims. Because the law is so favorable to the tenants, as I will discuss below, the owner was forced to pay the tenants money to get them to move out. Even though the owner felt she addressed all the issues promptly and competently, the existence of any code violation, however minor, rendered her case “dead on arrival” in Housing Court. To get rid of the headaches and potential liability, the landlord had to pay ransom money and waive the unpaid rent.

Unfortunately, this story is all too common in Massachusetts eviction courts, and something has to be done.

A Legal Minefield For Landlords

For landlords, navigating Massachusetts landlord-tenant law is like walking barefoot through a IED-filled field in Afghanistan. At some point, you’ll likely blow off a leg. Allow me to outline just a sampling of these laws and the penalties for landlords’ non-compliance:

  • Breach of implied warranty of habitability:  The first thing a savvy tenant will do after receiving an eviction notice is call the board of health to get the owner cited for code violations. Any violation, however minor, effectively enables the tenant to live rent-free during the case by withholding rent, and the owner will be compelled to make the necessary repairs while the eviction is pending. There have been many instances where tenants have intentionally inflicted property damage to claim code violations.  Other penalties:  reduction or elimination of rent owed; tenant cannot be evicted; triple damages; payment of tenant’s attorneys’ fees.
  • Breach of quiet enjoyment: This is another tenant favorite claim. It used to be for when slumlords would shut off utilities to tenants, but that rarely happens anymore. I’ve seen this used when tenants are “inconvenienced” by landlords’ repeated attempts to access the premises to make repairs. Penalties:  tenant gets to stay in possession; up to 3 months’ rent or actual damages, whichever is more; payment of tenant attorneys’ fees.
  • Retaliation:  Even if the landlord can evict a tenant at will for any reason, the landlord cannot “retaliate” against them if they make any complaints about property conditions. This is why tenants will immediately start squawking about property issues when faced with eviction, because the retaliation law will protect them even though they are not entitled to lifetime occupancy.  Penalties:  tenant gets possession; up to 3 month’s rent in damages; payment of tenants’ attorneys’ fees.
  • Security deposit/last month’s rent violations: Oh, where do I start on this one. As I’ve written about extensively here, Massachusetts landlords need a Master’s degree in Accounting to comply with the Security Deposit law and all of its procedural traps. From giving a special receipt and statement of condition, to putting the money in a special separate account, to paying interest every year, even one minor slip up will subject the landlord to mandatory triple damages and payment of tenants’ attorneys’ fees. This can torpedo an eviction case from the get-go.
  • Consumer Protection/Chapter 93A:  If all these minefields weren’t bad enough, at the end of the day, tenants are allowed to claim that any of the above warrants an award of triple damages and attorneys’ fees under the Mass. Consumer Protection Act.

Time for Meaningful Legal Reform

As I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of the laws protecting tenants were passed in the 1970’s when rental housing was far more problematic than it is now in 2012. Due to political pressure from tenant activists and liberal groups, lawmakers have been reluctant to level the playing field. Unfortunately, these draconian laws disproportionately hurt the small property owners who own 80% of the rental stock in Massachusetts. Laws which make investing and managing rental property hurt the economy and result in higher rents. There are several bills pending at the State House which will provide landlords with more incentive to own rental property in Massachusetts. The most sensible proposal is the much-awaited rent escrow law.

A.      Rent Escrow

Massachusetts is one of the minority of states which does not have some form of rent escrow law. The need for one is absolutely critical because without it landlords incur large losses when the tenant’s defensive claims of “bad conditions” turn out to be minor, nonexistent or, worse yet, the result of intentionally inflicted damage to the property by the tenant in order to live rent-free.

A mandatory rent escrow law would require any tenant who is claiming rent withholding to pay the withheld rent to a local court month by month until code violations are repaired. After repairs are done, either the landlord and tenant agree on how the escrowed rent should be divided, or a judge orders a fair settlement. In most cases, the owner will get back most of the withheld escrowed rent. But the most important impact of a mandatory rent escrow law is that those nonpaying tenants who do not escrow can be promptly evicted for nonpayment of rent. Although nonpayment evictions will still take about three months, and owners will lose about three months of rent, much-longer-delayed evictions and the free rent trick will be stopped.

B.      Security Deposit Reform

Presently, the security deposit law provides mandatory triple damages and payment of tenants’ attorneys’ fees for a violation however minor. The law should be reformed to provide a safe-harbor and discretionary penalties for when landlords make a good faith effort to comply but get caught up in the procedural mess, like for example if they put the deposit in a savings account instead of a special deposit account.

C.      Remove Automatic Possession For Tenants

Presently, the law is drafted so that if a tenant prevails on any number of claims for property conditions, etc., they most likely cannot be evicted. This is especially unfair in the tenancy at will context where the landlord does not need any reason to evict a tenant. The result is that tenants get free passes and occupancy for life as long as they can dig up a counterclaim or two. This needs to be changed.

What Property Owners Can Do: Lobby and Speak Out

The tenant community, backed by well-funded public interest legal services groups, have a strong lobby at the Legislature and love to portray these issues as a form of “class warfare.” In the end, however, everyone gets hurt, because if it’s more expensive to own rental property in Massachusetts, those costs will be passed on to tenants.

Property owners should support the lobbying efforts of the Massachusetts Rental Housing Association and their local chapter. The Small Property Owners Association has a good page on how to lobby your local elected officials. Here is a list of all pending rent escrow and landlord-tenant reform bills up at the State House. Senate Bill 779 is the major piece of legislation to bring up.

Visit your local legislator’s office during office hours and speak to them (or their aids) about your concerns on the issues. In many cases, they won’t know about the bills and you will have to educate them. Send letters and emails to your legislators identifying the bill numbers and explaining why you support or do not support these bills. Go to fund raisers for your Representatives and Senators. Let them know that you vote and that you want your vote to count!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate and eviction attorney. For more information, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Are There Liability Concerns For Accepting Back Up Offers?

My colleague Rona Fischman at the Boston.com Real Estate Now Blog had an intriguing question on the legalities surrounding accepting back-up offers. This question is especially timely with the rise of bidding wars in the Greater Boston real estate market. Rona asks:

I have been told that a back up offer cannot be presented to a seller because it is inducement to interfere with a contract in place (the accepted offer.) I have also been told that a back up offer must be presented, forthwith, like any other offer. Since I never list property, I don’t know which one is true. Can you give a legal and practical explanation for the blog?

Answer:  I do not believe that merely soliciting and presenting a back-up offer can give rise to a legal claim for interference with contractual relations as long as the seller does not break the existing contract with the buyer. Moreover, I believe that real estate agents have a legal and ethical obligation to present to their seller clients all offers made on the property, but it is the seller’s preference whether or not to solicit back up offers once he has already accepted an offer.

What Is a Back-Up Offer?

For those who do not know, a back-up offer is an offer made after the seller has already accepted and signed an offer to purchase with a buyer, in the hopes that the first offer will fall through and the seller will select the back-up offer. It is the seller’s decision whether to accept back-up offers at all. Back-up offers are common in bidding wars where there is frenzied competition for a well-priced property. Most buyers who submit a back-up offer will continue with their home search because the probability that their back-up offer is ultimately accepted is usually a long-shot.

Unlawful Interference with Contract?

Rona is worried that accepting back-up offers could expose an agent to liability for interfering with an existing contract. I don’t think she has much to worry about unless the seller tries to cancel the existing deal without legal right.

In the real estate context, the requirements to make out a valid claim for unlawful “interference with contractual relations” are the following:

  • There must be an accepted and signed offer to purchase between the buyer and seller which is sufficient to form an enforceable contract under Massachusetts law;
  • The competing buyer (making the back-up offer) must have knowledge of the contract;
  • The competing buyer must have intentionally induced or persuaded the seller not to perform its contractual obligations, i.e, not proceed with the transaction;
  • The interference was improper in motive or means; and
  • The plaintiff was legally harmed.

Under this legal definition, there is liability only where the seller unlawfully breaks the existing offer/contract with the first buyer. As a general matter, merely submitting a back-up offer (and not formally accepting it) will not support a legal claim because there has been no breach of the first contract.

A thornier question is what happens if the seller tries to wriggle his way out of the first offer in favor of a better offer? Those are the situations which often result in litigation and the filing of a lis pendens. I would advise any seller and their agent to consult an attorney before they try to break an offer or purchase and sale agreement with a buyer. On the other hand, if a buyer loses his financing and cannot proceed with the transaction, and therefore has defaulted on his contractual obligations, then it may be clear to accept a back up offer. It is always the prudent course to obtain a release and waiver from the first buyer before dealing with a back-up offer. I cannot stress this enough.

What Are Realtors’ Legal & Ethical Duties With Back-up Offers?

There are no specific legal rules surrounding back-up offers. The regulations governing real estate agents in Massachusetts provide that “All offers submitted to brokers or salespeople to purchase or rent real property that they have a right to sell or rent shall be conveyed forthwith to the owner of such real property.” If a listing agent is a Realtor©, they have an additional ethical obligation to “continue to submit to the seller all offers and counter-offers until closing … unless the seller has waived this obligation in writing.”

Back-up offers are on a slightly different footing than offers made while the property is still actively listed. I would say that if a prospective buyer makes an unsolicited back-up offer, that offer must be conveyed to the seller regardless of whether or not she has decided to accept back-up offers. The agent should not make the decision to decline an offer for the client. The seller may, of course, decide to not solicit back-up offers or to solicit them. Such a decision should be noted on the MLS. It’s always the client’s prerogative to solicit back-up offers. For agents, the safe practice is always to convey any offer which comes in, and to have the seller state in writing that she is refusing to accept back-up offers.

If you have any “war stories,” questions, or comments, please post them in the comment section below.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. They can be reached by email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Another Expansion Of Massachusetts Landlord Liability

In yet another case demonstrating Massachusetts’ inhospitable legal environment towards residential landlords, Northeast Housing Court Judge David Kerman has ruled that an owner of a mixed used residential – commercial building is “strictly liable” for a drunk tenant’s fall through a defective porch guardrail. The 17-page ruling is Sheehan v. Weaver, and is embedded below. The imposition of strict liability, sometimes called absolute or no-fault liability, makes landlords 100% liable for the injuries of tenants where there is a building code violation, regardless of whether the tenant was equally at fault for the accident. This is a troubling ruling and another reason supporting the notion that Massachusetts is landlord unfriendly!

Faulty Porch Guardrail

The landlord, David Weaver, owned a building with three residential apartments located above a commercial establishment. None of the apartments were owner-occupied. One of Weaver’s residential tenants, William Sheehan, fell through a porch guardrail, several stories onto the asphalt pavement below, suffering serious injuries. There was evidence that Sheehan was intoxicated, however, the connection of the guardrail to its post gave way because it was defective and in violation of the Building Code.

After a four-day trial in the Housing Court, a jury found for the tenant on the negligence claim, awarding approximately $145,000 after a 40% reduction for the plaintiff’s own negligence. The jury also found the landlord strictly liable, assessing $242,000 in damages.

Building Code Violation At Issue

The Massachusetts State Building Code provides for strict (100%) liability for any personal injuries caused by any building code violation at any “place of assembly, theatre, special hall, public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishment or building.” The landlord argued that the primarily residential structure was not sufficiently commercial to be considered a “building” within the meaning of the Building Code’s strict liability provision. But Judge David D. Kerman disagreed:

“[T]he structure in this case may well be at the outer margin of the class of structures that fall within the ambit of the term ‘building’ in the strict liability law,” wrote Kerman. “However, it is my opinion that the mixed residential-commercial four-unit non-owner-occupied structure in this case is ‘commercial’ and ‘public’ enough to fit within the term ‘building’ in section 51.”

The imposition of strict liability resulted in the landlord being hit with the full amount of the $242,000 judgment with no reduction for the tenant’s comparative negligence due to his intoxication. Ouch.

Commentary: Bad Decision

As I stated to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, this is a troubling ruling. The Building Code provision, passed in the late 1800′s, was clearly intended to cover structures with a distinctively commercial nature, i.e., “public hall, factory, workshop, manufacturing establishing or building.” The law was not intended to cover a predominantly residential apartment building with commercial/retail on the ground floor, in my opinion.

This ruling will now expand liability for residential developers who have built quite a number of mixed-use residential projects in the last few years. This decision can be read as providing strict liability for anyone injured due to any type of building code violation, however minor. Property managers and commercial insurers should be aware of this ruling, and ensure that there are no building code issues which could cause harm to tenants.

Given the concerning expansion of liability in this case, look for this ruling to get appealed. Judge Kerman is a well-respected judge, and this decision is a close call, but I think he went a bit too far outside the legislative intent behind the law.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. For more information, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

Sheehan v. Weaver

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Update (5/3/13): SJC Upholds Ruling, Landlords Should Add Rent Acceleration Clause to Leases

Commercial Landlord Must Wait Out 12 Year Lease Term To Recover For Tenant’s Early Termination

In a decision which underscores the importance of careful commercial lease drafting, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled that under a standard form default indemnity provision in a commercial lease, a commercial landlord must wait out the end of a 12 year lease term to recover unpaid rent from a tenant who abandoned the premises in Year 2 of the lease. The practice pointer here is to always have a current acceleration/liquidated damages clause in your commercial lease. See below for some form language.

The case is 275 Washington Street Corp.. vs. Hudson River Int’l, LLC (Mass. Appeals Court March 9, 2012), and is embedded below.

Dental Practice Goes South Quickly

The landlord and tenant entered into a 12-year lease beginning April 13, 2006, and ending April 16, 2018. The premises, located at 221-227 Washington Street in downtown Boston, were intended for use as a dental practice. Within a year of the lease commencement, the dental practice went under and closed. In May 2008, the dentist told the landlord that he would not be making any further lease payments.

Fortunately, the landlord found a new tenant. A new 10 year lease was signed, covering the remainder of the dentist’s term, but at a lower rent. The landlord sued the tenant for the rent differential.

Standard Indemnification Clause

The lease contained a standard default indemnification clause found in many older standard lease forms such as this:

The LESSEE shall indemnify the LESSOR against all loss of rent and other payments which the LESSOR may incur by reason of such termination during the residue of the term.  If the LESSEE shall default, after reasonable notice thereof, in the observance or performance of any conditions or covenant on LESSEE’s part to be observed or performed under or by virtue of any of the provisions in any article of this lease, the LESSOR, without being under any obligation to do so and without thereby waiving such default, may remedy such default for the account and at the expense of the LESSEE.

Indemnity Provision Lacking

The problem is that under Massachusetts law, recovery under an indemnity clause of a lease cannot be had until the specified term of the lease has ended. The reasoning underlying this legal tenet is that such liability is ultimately “contingent upon events thereafter occurring, because the full amount which the lessee eventually must pay for the remainder of the term cannot be wholly ascertained until the period ends.” Although somewhat reluctant, the Court was bound to follow the law in this instance:

We are cognizant of the concerns raised by this long-established rule barring recovery until the end of the original lease, given the possible intervention of factors, presently unknown, that make the determination of damages uncertain at the present. We also recognize the possibility that this rule, which forces this landlord to wait until 2018 to determine post-termination damages, may in effect make it impossible for the landlord to recover its true damages from this corporate tenant or guarantor, because of the protections afforded by legal processes, such as dissolution or bankruptcy. However, given the present state of the law and the specific terms of the contract to which parties of equal bargaining power agreed, we are constrained, nonetheless, to deny recovery to the landlord under the indemnification clause of this lease.

Time To Change The Old Law?

The Appeals Court, especially the concurring opinion of Justice Kantrowitz, suggested that the time may be ripe for the Supreme Judicial Court to re-examine and modernize the law in this area. So look for this case to possibly go up on appeal.

Solution: Acceleration/Liquidated Damages Clause

The lease in this case did not contain the more current acceleration/liquidated damage clause which provides that upon a rent default, all unpaid rent is automatically due through the end of the lease term as liquidated damages. I recommend language such as this to prevent what happened to the landlord in this case:

If LESSEE shall default in the payment of the security deposit, rent, taxes, substantial invoice from LESSOR or LESSOR’s agent for goods and/or services or other sum herein specified, and such default shall continue for ten (10) days after written notice hereof, and, because both parties agree that nonpayment of said sums when due is a substantial breach of the lease, and, because the payment of rent in monthly installments is for the sole benefit and convenience of LESSEE, then in addition to the foregoing remedies the entire balance of rent which is due hereunder shall become immediately due and payable as liquidated damages. The Parties acknowledge and agree that (i) the liquidated damages hereunder is the best estimate of such damages which would accrue to Lessor in the event of Lessee’s default hereunder; (ii) said deposit represents damages and not a penalty against Lessee.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. For more information, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

275 Washington Street Corp v. Hudson River International LLC (Mass. App. Ct.)

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Case Underscores Importance of Safeguarding Loan Documents And Getting Subordinations

JPMorgan Chase & Co. v. Casarano, Mass. Appeals Court (Feb. 28, 2012) (click to read)

In a decision which could impact foreclosure cases involving missing or lost loan documents, the Appeals Court held that a mortgage is unenforceable and must be discharged where the underlying promissory note securing the mortgage could not be found.

Seller Second Mortgage Financing

This case involved an unconventional second mortgage for approximately $15,000 taken back from a private seller. The homeowner subsequently refinanced the first mortgage several times, but the refinancing lenders’ attorneys never obtained a subordination from the second lien-holder. That was a mistake. The first mortgage wound up in Wells Fargo’s hands which realized that due to the lack of recorded subordination, the second mortgage was senior to its first mortgage.

Alas, a title claim arose and the title insurance company had to step in and file an “equitable subrogation” action. In this type of legal action, a first mortgage holder asks the court to rearrange the priorities of mortgages due to mistake, inadvertence or to prevent injustice.

Where’s The Note?

The second mortgage holder had lost the promissory note which secured its mortgage, and notably, could not locate a copy of it. The mortgage itself referenced the amount of the loan and the interest rate but was silent on everything else, including the payment term, maturity date, and whether it was under seal. The second mortgage holder argued that enough of the terms of the missing note could be “imported” from the mortgage, but the Appeals Court disagreed, reasoning that there wasn’t enough specificity on key terms to enforce the mortgage.

Lesson One: Safeguard Original Loan Docs

This decision underscores the importance of safeguarding original promissory notes and other debt instruments, or at a minimum keeping photocopies so that if enforcement is required, the material terms of the original can be proved to the satisfaction of the court. With all the paperwork irregularities endemic with securitized mortgages these days, missing or lost promissory notes and loan documents have become more prevalent. This decision is potentially problematic for those foreclosures where the original promissory note is lost. The standard Fannie Mae form mortgage does not spell out the loan terms with specificity, instead, it references the promissory note. Indeed, the Fannie Mae mortgage does not even reference the interest rate. Based on this decision, a mortgage without sufficient evidence of a promissory note could be rendered unenforceable and un-forecloseable.

As an aside, a lender who lacks an original promissory note could rely upon Uniform Commercial Code Section 3-309, which provides:

(a) A person not in possession of an instrument is entitled to enforce the instrument if (i) the person was in possession of the instrument and entitled to enforce it when loss of possession occurred, (ii) the loss of possession was not the result of a transfer by the person or a lawful seizure, and (iii) the person cannot reasonably obtain possession of the instrument because the instrument was destroyed, its whereabouts cannot be determined, or it is in the wrongful possession of an unknown person or a person that cannot be found or is not amenable to service of process. (b) A person seeking enforcement of an instrument under subsection (a) must prove the terms of the instrument and the person’s right to enforce the instrument. If that proof is made, section 3-308 applies to the case as if the person seeking enforcement had produced the instrument. The court may not enter judgment in favor of the person seeking enforcement unless it finds that the person required to pay the instrument is adequately protected against loss that might occur by reason of a claim by another person to enforce the instrument. Adequate protection may be provided by any reasonable means.

Lesson Two: Get Subordinations For Junior Liens

This decision also underscores the importance of getting a subordination agreement for second mortgages and other junior lien-holders when closing refinances. A subordination agreement is a contract whereby a junior lien-holder agrees to remain in junior position to a first mortgage or other senior lien-holder during a refinancing transaction. Otherwise, the first in time rule of recording would elevate a junior lien-holder to first, priority position after a refinance. If a subordination was obtained and recorded here, this case would not have occurred.

Disclaimer:  I drafted the original complaint in this case while working at my previous law firm. I had long since left when the case was decided at the Appeals Court.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate and title defect attorney. He can be reached by email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Post image for A Different Type Of Tear-Down: Court Orders Million Dollar Marblehead Manse Demolished For Zoning Violation

Expensive Lesson–Build At Your Own Peril

After a 16 year long saga, wealthy Marblehead mansion owner Wayne Johnson’s battle to save his house from a court-ordered wrecking ball has come to an end. The underlying legal saga is convoluted and complicated, but the end result was swift and destructive — the million dollar mansion is now rubble.

Johnson’s battle started in 1995 when he recorded a plan dividing his land into two lots. One lot contained an existing single-family dwelling. The second lot contained a garage. The house lot complied with all zoning dimensional requirements, but the garage lot didn’t comply with lot width requirements. The Building Inspector incorrectly determined that the garage lot complied with all applicable zoning requirements.

Johnson’s neighbors appealed the Building Inspector’s decision, arguing that the new house would greatly diminish their valuable ocean views. The local zoning board allowed the issuance of a building permit. After the building permit issued, the plaintiffs filed an appeal in Land Court and asked for an injunction to prevent construction on the garage lot. The Land Court judge warned Johnson that proceeding with construction was at his peril. In a decision by another judge in May, 2000, the court ordered the building permit to be revoked. However, the court ruled that the house could remain in place while Johnson attempted to obtain appropriate zoning relief.

Johnson, however, was unable to obtain zoning relief. After several unsuccessful appeals, the Land Court ordered Johnson to remove the house by October 4, 2010. Johnson failed to comply with that order, and the neighbors attempted to hold Johnson in contempt. With the threat of contempt and possible jail looming, Johnson finally threw in the towel.

The Land Court ruling can be read here: Schey v. Johnson and is embedded below.

More Press:
Schey v. Johnson

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