Real Estate Litigation

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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Avoid The Professional Tenant Like The Plague

Using best practices to screen and select good tenants is the most important thing a Massachusetts landlord can do to avoid costly non-payment and eviction problems down the road, as I have posted about on this Blog. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

In my 14 years of practice, I have come across a sub-set of tenants which are extremely dangerous to Massachusetts landlords. They should be avoided like the Plague. I like to call them Professional Tenants.

Let me give you the profile of a typical Professional Tenant. (This is a generalization based on my personal experience, but it’s fairly accurate).

  • History of eviction history and/or delinquency with prior landlords
  • Surprising (and dangerous) knowledge of Massachusetts landlord-tenant law
  • Background in real estate, engineering, contracting
  • Marginal to bad credit: prior history of nonpayment collections, judgments or bankruptcies
  • Gaps in rental history
  • Non-existent or incomplete prior landlord references

The Professional Tenant’s Scheme

Shortly after moving in, they will start to complain about small issues with the rental property. Some will complain to the local board of health to have the landlord cited for code violations. (The state Sanitary Code can trip up even the most conscientious landlord.) Then the Professional Tenant will stop paying rent, claiming they are “withholding rent” due to bad property conditions. Of course, these tenants completely ignore the smart practice that any withheld rent be placed in an escrow account. Then the Professional Tenant will assert the landlord violated the last month rent and security deposit law, and ask for their deposit back, trying to set up the landlord for a triple damage claim.

In the meantime, months go by and the Professional Tenant has failed to pay any rent and the minor code violations, if any, are repaired. The landlord is forced to start eviction proceedings, only to be met with a slew of counterclaims and defenses from the Professional Tenant. The Professional Tenant then sends the landlord a myriad of document requests and interrogatories which automatically delays the eviction hearing by 2 weeks. If the Professional Tenant is really savvy, they will demand a jury trial, which in most small District Courts can delay the eviction by weeks and typically months. Meanwhile, the entire time, the Professional Tenant has still not paid any rent.

Months and thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees later, the landlord finally gets his day in court. And the Professional Tenant doesn’t show up, leaving the landlord with a worthless judgment for thousands in unpaid rent and a trashed apartment.

Screen and Screen Again

The sad thing is that because Massachusetts landlord-tenant law is so tenant friendly, there is not much a landlord can do to avoid this situation, other than not rent to the Professional Tenant in the first place! Once a landlord has signed a lease with a Professional Tenant, they are stuck until the tenant violates the lease. My advice to landlords is to make screening the most important thing you do as a landlord, and do the following:

  • Invest in good credit history checks.
  • Follow up with landlord references
  • Check employment info
  • Check prior bankruptcies
  • If someone seems fishy, they probably are

If you find yourself stuck with a Professional Tenant, give me a call. There are certain things an experienced eviction attorney can do to prevent or minimize these shenanigans. At least you will be fighting back against what I perceive as scam artists.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts landlord tenant and eviction attorney. Please contact him with any questions.

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Six Year Litigation Odyssey Ends With $872,000 Payout

After six years of litigation over a deceptive bait-and-switch condominium purchase scheme, a Cambridge couple has forced the listing broker in the deal to pay them $872,000 in compensation. The case is Oleg Batishchev v. Brenda Cote and others (click to download).

The case started in 2005, after the first time home buyers paid $683,385 for a condominium unit from Perception Ventures LLC. The couple believed they were buying a newly renovated unit on the right side of the building. Victimized by what the trial judge called a “preposterous fraud,” the developer, the listing broker and the seller’s attorney tricked them into buying a unit on the left side of the building which was beset with such substantial and egregious workmanship defects as to render it virtually uninhabitable.

After a two week jury trial by Attorneys John Miller and Jonathan W. Fitch of the Boston firm Sally & Fitch, the developer and his agents were held liable under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. The case dragged on through two appeals, and was finally concluded with the payment of $872,000 from the listing broker.

The couple had previously settled with the sellers’ lawyers for $150,000 and, following a one week jury trial on damages, had also received a damage award of more than $425,000 against their own closing attorney for her malpractice.

What troubles me most about this case is that the attorneys got caught up in this scheme, either intentionally (in the case of the seller’s attorney) or by failing to recognize the shenanigans going on (in the case of the buyers’ attorney). The lesson to be learned is that if there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.

For more information about the case, read Sally & Fitch’s press release here.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Litigation Attorney who has litigated hundreds of cases in the Massachusetts Land and Superior Courts. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Standard Mortgage Contingency Language At Issue

I recently came across a very interesting and scary case from the Appeals Court, Survillo v. McDonough No. 11–P–290. Dec. 2, 2011. (It’s technically an “unpublished” opinion but it’s available to the public). The case underscores how carefully attorneys must craft the mortgage contingency to protect the buyer’s deposit in case financing is approved with adverse conditions.

“Prevailing Rates, Terms and Conditions”

The buyers, Mr. and Mrs. Survillo, submitted the standard Offer To Purchase the sellers’ home in Walpole. The offer provided it was “Not subject to the Sale of any other home.” The sellers accepted the offer. The buyers received a conditional pre-approval from a local bank for a first mortgage in the amount of $492,000. The pre-approval also stated that anticipated loan was “[n]ot based on sale of any residence.”

The parties then entered into the standard form purchase and sale agreement (P & S), with the typical mortgage contingency provision for a $429,000 mortgage loan:

“In order to help finance the acquisition of said premises, the [buyers] shall apply for a conventional bank or other institutional mortgage loan of $492,000.00 at prevailing rates, terms and conditions. If despite the [buyers] diligent efforts a commitment for such loan cannot be obtained on or before October 5, 2009, the [buyers] may terminate this agreement by written notice to the [sellers] and/or the Broker(s), as agent(s) for the [sellers], prior to the expiration of such time, whereupon any payments made under this agreement shall be forthwith refunded and all other obligations of the parties hereto shall cease and this agreement shall be void without recourse to the parties hereto “

Change In Circumstances: Lender Requires Piggyback Loan & Buyers List Their Residence

Due to the buyers’ debt to income ratios, the lender required that the loan be structured as a “piggyback” — a first mortgage of $417,000 and second mortgage of $73,400, and with the condition that the buyers listing their primary residence for sale prior to the loan closing. The buyers absolutely did not want to list and seller their residence, so they wanted out of the deal.

On the last day of the extended financing deadline, the buyers timely notified the sellers that they had “not received a loan commitment with acceptable conditions,” and attempted to back out of the agreement under the mortgage contingency provision. Ultimately, with the buyers refusing to sell their home, the bank denied the buyer’s the mortgage application based on the fact that the “borrower would be carrying three mortgage payments and the debt to income is too high.”

Focus On “Prevailing Terms” Language

The sellers refused to return the deposit, and litigation over the deposit ensued.

The Court framed the case as follows: “Before the extended mortgage contingency deadline of October 21, the buyers received a commitment from the bank for two mortgages totaling $492,000. The P & S’s mortgage contingency was accordingly satisfied unless the bank’s requirement that the buyers list their home for sale was not a “prevailing” term or condition.”

The court started with the assumption that “the typical loan condition for most borrowers is to require them to sell an existing home before the new loan closes. The condition here required only that the buyers list, not sell, their home and it was accordingly not a typical condition.” The buyers argued that because the condition was unusual, it was not a “prevailing” condition within the meaning of the contingency clause of the P & S, despite the fact that the condition was more favorable to them than the standard condition. The court flat out rejected that argument, citing prior rulings that terms of a mortgage contingency presuppose that the buyers will accept commercially reasonable loan terms. If less is required, the condition becomes an option. The court also noted that the buyers failed to notified the sellers that they were unwilling to list or sell their existing home, nor did they insert a proviso to that effect into the mortgage contingency clause. Subsequent events suggested that if the buyers had timely disclosed their intentions to the bank, the loan would have been disapproved, which may well have given the buyers the shelter they sought under the mortgage contingency clause.

The court ruled against the buyers who had to forfeit their $31,000 deposit.

An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth A Pound of Cure

I’m not sure who is to blame here, the buyer’s attorney or the buyers themselves. Probably both.

From a legal drafting approach and as the court pointed out, the buyer’s attorney could have insisted on language into the mortgage contingency provision that the buyers’ financing could not be conditioned on the listing or sale of the buyers’ present residence. After all, the language was in the Offer, so it could have easily been carried over into the P&S. There was no indication from the decision that this was raised or negotiated.

It also seems apparent that the buyers were not particularly up front with anyone on their insistence that they would not list and sell their current residence. If they had been more forthcoming about that, perhaps they could have avoided this situation.

A commenter on Boston.com also places some blame on the loan officer:  “Not all pre-approvals are created equal. For a few minutes of work and adherance to a common standard of practice by the mortgage professional, a true pre-approval is supported by a credit report, the main criteria for ability to qualify for a mortgage. This is generated in a few seconds, and the pre-approval letter usually states subject to verification of income, assets, and property appraisal. Had this been done, THE DEBT TO INCOME RATIO ISSUE WOULD HAVE SURFACED EARLY.”

Based on the loan amount, this mistake or gamble cost the buyers around $31,000 plus legal fees. Ouch!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. Please contact him if you need assistance with a Massachusetts purchase or sale transaction.

 

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Great news from the Land Court — its new online public case information system is now live!

The Land Court is pleased to announce the availability of publicly available case information via the internet. It is called eAccess and the website address is www.masscourts.org. Be sure to bookmark this important tool!

The site allows users to conduct searches by case name, case type and case number. No passwords are necessary. Electronic access to Land Court case information continues to be available at designated public access computers in the Land Court’s public lobby, at the local county Registry of Deeds and Probate sites, and at many District Court, BMC and Probate and Family Courts.

Instructions for use of the Land Court Public Access Site pdf

A screen shot of the search page is below.

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It’s time again for our annual review of highlights in Massachusetts Real Estate Law for the past year. It’s been a very busy year. From the foreclosure fallout, to Occupy Boston, to the new homestead law, there’s been lots to report on. We’ll start in order of importance this year.

SJC Decides Controversial U.S. Bank v. Ibanez Case

2011 started off with a bang with the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in the widely publicized foreclosure case of U.S. Bank v. Ibanez. Our coverage of the case can be read here and here. The Court’s ruling was rather elementary: you need to own the mortgage before you can foreclose. But it’s become much more complicated with the proliferation of securitized mortgages bought and sold numerous times on Wall Street. The Court held that the common industry practice of assigning a mortgage “in blank” — meaning without specifying to whom the mortgage would be assigned until after the fact — does not constitute a proper assignment, at least in Massachusetts. The ruling left many innocent homeowners and title insurance companies scrambling to deal with titles rendered defective due to the ruling. The fallout continues to this day with no resolution by lawmakers.

AG Coakley Sues Major Banks For Foreclosure Fraud

2011 was certainly the Year of Foreclosure Fallout. Earlier in December, Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a huge consumer protection lawsuit over wrongful foreclosures against the top 5 U.S. lenders, Bank of America Corp., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo & Co., Citigroup Inc. and Ally Financial. Coakley also names Mortgage Electronic Registration System, or MERS, the electronic mortgage registration system which proliferated during the securitization boom of the last decade. The lawsuit said it sought “to hold multiple banks accountable for their rampant violations of Massachusetts law and associated unfair and deceptive conduct amidst the foreclosure crisis that has gripped Massachusetts and the nation since 2007.” The case remains pending.

Massachusetts Real Estate Attorneys Win Legal Victory Ensuring Their Place At Closing Table

In the closely watched case of Real Estate Bar Association (REBA) v. National Estate Information Services (NREIS), Massachusetts real estate attorneys won a huge legal victory reaffirming their long-standing role to oversee the closing process and conduct closings in Massachusetts. The case pitted Mass. attorneys vs. out of state notary companies who were trying to conduct notary real estate closings without trained attorneys. Siding with the consumer, the court required “not only the presence but the substantive participation of an attorney on behalf of the mortgage lender.”

New Homestead Law

This year saw the passing of the long-awaited comprehensive revision to our outdated Homestead Act. Here is a summary:

  • All Massachusetts homeowners receive an automatic homestead exemption of $125,000 for protection against certain creditor claims on their principal residence without having to do anything.
  • All Mass. residents are eligible for a $500,000 “declared homestead exemption” by filing a declaration of homestead at the registry of deeds. For married couples, both spouses will now have to sign the form–which is a change from prior practice.
  • Homesteads are now available on 2-4 family homes, and for homes in trust.
  • The existing “elderly and disabled” homestead will remain available at $500,000.
  • If you have a homestead as a single person, and get married, the homestead automatically protects your new spouse. Homesteads now pass on to the surviving spouse and children who live in the home.
  • You do not have to re-file a homestead after a refinance.

More Foreclosure Fallout With Bevilacqua and Eaton Cases

The U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case was the start, but certainly not the ending of the foreclosure fallout. The case of Bevilacqua v. Rodriguez considered property owners’ rights when they are saddled with defective titles stemming from improper foreclosures. The ruling with a mix of good and bad news. The bad news was that victims of defective foreclosure titles could not seek redress through the Land Court “quiet title” procedure. The good news was that the court left open whether owners could attempt to put their chains of title back together (like Humpty-Dumpty) and conduct new foreclosure sales to clear their titles.

Eaton v. Fannie Mae is the next foreclosure case awaiting final decision. As outlined in my prior post on the case, the Court is considering the very important question of whether a foreclosing lender must possess both the promissory note and the mortgage in order to foreclose. Using the “produce the note” defense which has been gaining steam across across the country, the borrower, Ms. Eaton, was able to obtain an injunction from the Superior Court halting her eviction by a foreclosing lender. The SJC heard arguments in the fall and is expected to issue a final ruling early in 2012. A ruling against lenders would be as big, or even bigger, than the Ibanez case.

Lastly, another case to watch for in 2012 is HSBC Bank v. Jodi Matt which will decide whether a lender holding a securitized mortgage has standing to even begin a foreclosure action in the Land Court under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act–one of the first steps in the Massachusetts foreclosure process. The case is should be ready for oral argument in late winter, early spring 2012.

Judge Evicts Occupy Boston Protesters

What would 2011 be without a homage to the Occupy Movement! Citing property and trespass law from centuries ago, Massachusetts Superior Court Justice Frances A. McIntyre issuing a ruling clearing the way for the eviction of the Occupy Boston protest which has taken over Dewey Square in downtown Boston. Our coverage of the ruling is here.

Well, that’s it for a very busy year 2011 in Massachusetts real estate law! The year 2012 is expected to be just as busy, and of course, we’ll be on top of all the breaking news here on the Blog.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate litigator and attorney. Please contact him if you are dealing with a Massachusetts foreclosure title dispute.

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First Reported Mass. Ruling On Home Affordable Modification Program Liability

The fallout from the sub-prime and mortgage crisis continues in Massachusetts courts, and some judges are reacting in favor of sympathetic borrowers. In Parker v. Bank of America, Massachusetts Superior Court (Dec. 15, 2011), Judge Thomas Billings considered what is unfortunately now a very common fact pattern in borrowers’ quest to have their lenders approve loan modifications, or loan mods. The ruling is embedded below.

A Common Story of Lost Paperwork and Ineptitude

In 2007, Valerie Parker granted first and second mortgages on her home in Lowell to Bank of America. She paid the loans on time for the first 24 months. As the economy worsened, however, she anticipated difficulty in making payments, and so she called BofA for advice. The bank told her that because the loan was not in default they could not help her, and that she would have to cease payments if she wanted their assistance. (Is this not one of the most ridiculous, yet common, responses lenders give to troubled borrowers?)

After a lengthy period of lost and repeatedly re-submitted paperwork, BofA informed Parker she qualified for HAMP (Home Affordable Modification Program) relief, underwent a lengthy financial audit over the telephone, and was promised followup documentation and a halt to further collection and foreclosure efforts. BofA repeatedly lost her paperwork; she had to submit and re-submit documents; and she spent hours at a time on hold, waiting to speak with a human being. She did, however, receive the bank’s verbal assurance that she was “pre-qualified” for the HAMP program and that confirmatory paperwork would be forthcoming. BofA never sent the promised documentation, however, and refused to approve a loan modification. Lengthy and repeated telephone calls produced no documents, no approval, and no progress. Finally, BofA told Parker there was no record of her having qualified for the program. She requested and was given the opportunity to reapply, but the documentation still never came. All while, the collection calls continued and the late fees kept mounting, and the loan was at some point placed in foreclosure.

“Inertia Is Not An Option”

Parker asserted a number of different claims against BofA, but the two which stuck, according to the judge, were her claims for fraud and breach of contract. The judge went through a lengthy history of the recent sub-prime crisis, the TARP bailout plan, and the HAMP program, concluding that BofA’s actions against Parker were unfair under these consumer protection programs.

In a great line, the judge said that “inertia is not an option” when a lender considers a borrower’s legitimate request for a HAMP loan modification. Under HAMP, there are strict deadlines by which lenders must respond to a borrower’s application, and foreclosure activity must stop during the consideration period. The judge lamented that federal regulators had failed to pass enforcement mechanisms to protect borrowers from lenders dragging their heels on loan modifications. Noting that borrowers have no other forum in which their claims may be heard and adjudicated other than the courts, Judge Billings held that Parker could claim “third party beneficiary” status of BofA’s participation in the TARP/HAMP program–diverging from several colleagues opinions to the contrary.

Lastly, in a boon for borrowers, the court left open whether lenders could face Chapter 93A liability — with its triple damages and attorneys’ fees — for similar conduct. While Parker’s counsel dropped the ball by not sending BofA a required demand letter prior to filing suit, this option may be open for other borrowers.

Impact of Ruling

This is one of the first court rulings siding with a borrower on a lender’s liability for dropping the HAMP ball. Clearly, this particular judge is well-educated on what’s been going on with the mortgage crisis and was likely fed up with lenders’ shoddy treatment of some borrowers. But is his legal reasoning correct? The judge can certainly be accused of legislating from the bench here, as the vast majority of other court rulings have rejected his reasoning. (At least 6 opinions by my count, mostly from federal court).

But his reasoning does have some intrinsic appeal inasmuch as HAMP is clearly a consumer driven program and the judge is basically saying that lenders must treat HAMP applicants fairly in accordance with the program rules. If what Ms. Parker says is true, there is a minimum level of fairness that she did not receive. But the problem is what if she simply doesn’t qualify for a loan modification? And every lender who entertains a modification request can be subject to civil liability for rejecting an applicant? Would that chill HAMP modifications even more? Rest assured, we will see more cases like Parker reaching the Superior Court and the Massachusetts appellate courts in the near future.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Litigation Attorney who has litigated hundreds of cases in the Massachusetts Land and Superior Courts. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

Parker v. Bank of America (BofA)

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Part 2 of a two part series. For part 1 on filing the Complaint, Venue and Discovery click here.

Expert Testimony

We left off in our last post at the discovery state of litigation. We covered fact discovery of witnesses, but we didn’t address an important component of most real estate litigation cases: experts.

Expert testimony is required when you need to explain to a judge or jury a technical area of the case which is outside the general knowledge of a “regular” person. Experts in a Massachusetts real estate lawsuit can range from appraisers, construction experts, land surveyors, title attorneys, land use planners, civil and wetlands engineers, traffic planners, and handwriting experts. Needless to say, experts are expensive, charging several hundred dollars per hour on an engagement. But they are vitally important. In Massachusetts state court litigation, parties must disclose before trial an expert’s qualifications and a general summary of what the expert will testify to at trial, including his methodology. For litigators like myself, preparing and cross-examining experts is often quite an intellectual challenge and one of the “fun” parts of a trial.

Dispositive Motions

Often in real estate litigation, the case can be decided by way of a “dispositive motion” by the judge prior to trial. In this procedure, called a motion to dismiss or summary judgment, the important facts of the case are undisputed, and the judge can decide the case based on the law. The lawyers will prepare detailed motions, affidavits, and legal briefs, and there will usually be a lengthy hearing before the judge. This procedure will also avoid the need for a trial, saving litigants a much expense. Judges, however, can take a long time deciding a dispositive motion. Months to even a full year is not unheard of.

Pretrial Conference

If the facts of the case are hotly disputed, the case will be set down for a trial date at the pre-trial conference. At the pre-trial conference, the attorneys meet with the judge to discuss readiness for trial, witness lists, expert testimony, unusual legal or evidentiary issues, and the status of settlement talks, if any.

Obtaining a firm trial day these days is pretty much a moving target. It really depends on the county. Middlesex Superior is pretty good at giving firm trial dates, while Norfolk County is not, in my experience.  The Land Court gives out firm trial dates, but has no juries. Prepare to wait several months after the pre-trial conference to get a trial date, which will probably be rescheduled at least once. Massachusetts courts have been beset with budget cuts which has negatively impacted the speed of the courts’ docket. Justice moves slowly in the Commonwealth.

Settlement/Mediation

Given the huge costs and delays of litigation, this is a good place to talk about settlement and mediation. I always explore settlement possibilities of a case early on. If a case can be settled early, both litigants can avoid significant legal expenses and can usually craft a better resolution than a judge or jury can. But clients often come to me very upset and emotional about the situation, so talking settlement may be perceived as “caving in” to the other side. It is not, and clients usually see the light once they get a bill or two from my office.

Mediation is a non-binding settlement process where a neutral mediator (usually a retired judge or experienced attorney) will mediate the dispute between the parties in a structured manner. Both sides get to tell their sides of the story, then the mediator will usually separate the parties into different rooms, shuttling back and forth attempting to broker the peace. There is a cathartic and healing process that often occurs during mediation where parties have a chance to express their anger, resentment, and feelings which can greatly assist the settlement process. Also, the settlement itself often can be much more flexible and creative than what a judge or jury can render after a trial. If mediation does not work out, the case goes back on the trial list. There is no obligation to settle.

Trial

Less than 1% of all civil cases in Massachusetts get to the end of a trial. If your case is in this 1%, prepare yourself for an experience. Jury trials are not for the faint of heart. They are incredibly labor intensive, with the attorneys spending hours upon hours preparing for trial, and burning the midnight oil during the trial itself. The more lawyer time required, the higher the legal bill.

If you are selecting a Massachusetts litigation or trial attorney, ask him or her how many civil jury trials they have done. I’m not talking about former district attorneys who have done a bunch of criminal trials. Complex, civil trials are a totally different animal and call for a lawyer who has done a significant amount of civil trial work. Be wary of any lawyer who claims to have won every trial he has done. There is a saying that a trial lawyer who has never lost a case hasn’t tried many in the first place. Don’t be afraid of small law firm attorneys. In my experience, they are much better trying cases than big firm lawyers who spent the greater part of their careers doing document review and depositions.

Appeals

In the American judicial system, litigants can pretty much appeal anything with impunity. Filing an appeal will usually stop a final judgment from issuing, but in some cases the winning party can ask the losing party to post a bond.

Appeals requires a special skill set, great research, and writing by an experienced Massachusetts appellate attorney. The appeals process can take at least a year or even more to complete. The trial record must be assembled by the trial court. If there was a trial, transcripts need to be ordered from the court reporters or digital tapes and then transcribed. This can take quite a bit of time. Then, the attorneys file lengthy appellate briefs, after which the case is scheduled for oral argument before a panel of appellate justices. After oral argument is held, the court will issue its written opinion, which will either uphold the lower court’s decision, reverse it, or remand it back for a new trial or other action. Appellate opinions are released to the general public and become what is known as the common law of Massachusetts, to be cited as precedent in other cases.

Well, that’s it for now. Remember, litigation should be a last resort, once all attempts at an amicable, reasonable resolution fail.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Litigation Attorney who has litigated hundreds of cases in the Massachusetts Land and Superior Courts. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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For most folks, litigation and courtrooms are as foreign as Belgium. When a new clients comes to me with a potential litigation matter, I spend most of our first consultation discussing the process of litigation and how it works. Then inevitably we have to talk about the cost and expense, which for most lawsuits is a lot more than people expect. In this post, I wanted to provide you with a summary of what happens when you decide to file a Massachusetts real estate litigation and lawsuit, or if you have to defend yourself against one.

First Steps: Filing Or Answering The Complaint & Selecting A Venue

The first step in every Massachusetts lawsuit is the filing of the Complaint, along with a filing fee ($285 in Superior Court). The Complaint sets forth the factual allegations of the lawsuit, along with the formal legal claims such as breach of contract, zoning appeal, adverse possession or fraud.

Most real estate litigation cases where the damages exceed $25,000 are filed in either the Superior Court or the Land Court. (For smaller matters under $25,000 you can file in the local District Court; small claims cases are for $7,500 or less).

The Land Court is a specialized court with expertise in real estate disputes. I’ve written about the Land Court here. The Superior Court is the “jack of all trades” trial court, and hears just about every type of civil and criminal dispute at the trial level. Depending on the facts of the case, there are strategic advantages to filing in either Superior or Land Court.

After the complaint is filed, a Summons is issued which must be formally served by constable or sheriff on the “defendants” in the case. The attorney will arrange for service of the summons and complaint to be made and a sheriff will show up at the defendant’s home or business with the legal papers. Defendants have 20 days to “answer” the complaint. The Answer is a formal response to the Complaint, and the defendants can also assert any “counterclaims” he or she may have against the plaintiff.

Pre-Judgment Remedies

Many real estate litigation cases involve asking the court for some type of relief or action during the initial stages of the lawsuit. This is called “pre-judgment relief.” In many real estate cases, a litigant will ask the court for a lis pendens on property, which is a formal notice of the claim recorded on title. In other cases, a litigant will ask for an injunction or restraining order stopping a landowner from building or taking other adverse action which would injure their property.

Asking a court for such pre-judgment relief requires filing motion papers, legal memoranda and often multiple court hearings where the lawyers will argue the issues before the judge. This will add another level of expense on the case, often quite a bit. I usually give clients a ballpark figure of $5,000 for taking a case through the pre-judgment relief stage–could be less, could be more, depending on the response from the other side.

Often cases can be won or lost at these early stages as a lis pendens can stifle a potential sale or an injunction can shut down a construction site, thereby forcing a favorable settlement. Thus, it is very important to have an experienced and savvy Massachusetts real estate litigation attorney work up the case properly and argue the case forcefully during a pre-judgment remedy proceeding. There are certain ways to increase your chances of success at this stage and even obtain relief without the other side even knowing you are going to court, called ex parte relief, if the situation warrants. (Ex parte in Latin means “from (by or for) one party.”)

Phase 2: Discovery

For cases on the normal track, once the answer is filed and all factual allegations and legal claims are raised in the case, it moves to the next stage: discovery. Discovery is the process where each side shares information about the case with each other. Litigation is not supposed to be a cat-and-mouse-hide-the-ball game.

This is a good time to discuss how long it takes to get to a trial in a Massachusetts lawsuit. With huge budget cuts in the courts, it is taking up to 2+ years for most civil cases to reach trial. Yes, you read that correctly. It can take even more time in some cases. I’ve had a case in Norfolk County (Dedham) ready for trial 3 different times, only to get bumped at the last minute, each time costing the client thousands of dollars in legal fees and months of delay. There is really nothing a litigant can do about these delays (save for settling the case out of court).

The discovery stage is the most labor intensive and expensive part of the case, with lawyers taking depositions of witnesses and filing and answering formal written questions, called interrogatories, and responding to requests for document production. There are often disputes and motions which have to be resolved in this stage. Depositions can easily cost $1,000 each, and discovery in a fairly involved case can run easily up to $10,000 + in legal fees.

For the next post, we will discuss Phase 3: Summary Judgment/Pre-Trial, Going To Trial, and Appeals (click here). Stay tuned!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts Real Estate Litigation Attorney who has litigated hundreds of cases in the Massachusetts Land and Superior Courts. For further information you can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

 

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Worcester Businessman Built Regulation Sized Baseball Field In His Backyard

Harking back to the old days when sandlot ballfields were packed with neighborhood kids, David Massad II, a Worcester car dealer, didn’t plow over a cornfield in Iowa to build a baseball field in his yard; he just leveled the trees behind his 7,382-square-foot home in Shrewsbury to build a regulation sized baseball field for his kids and friends to play on. This being Massachusetts, his neighbors cried foul. The case was just decided by the Appeals Court which, not surprisingly, ruled in favor of the neighbors, holding that the homeowner’s association rules and regulations prohibits the use.

Field of Dreams

In 2004, Massad decided to build a regulation sized baseball field, complete with clay infield, fencing, sprinklers and bleachers, behind his upscale Grey Ledge development home in Shrewsbury. After neighbors cried foul, Mr. Massad and his wife just lost a legal battle with neighbors who say they didn’t buy season tickets to ball games when they purchased their homes. Massad, meanwhile, says he was just trying to provide a place for kids to play ball in a town that sorely lacks ball fields.

According to the Worcester Telegram, “It sounded pretty simple,” said Massad, 52, whose business is only coincidentally named Diamond Chevrolet. “The kids needed a place to play, so I built a field. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and I’ve never charged anyone to use it.” The Massads even obtained a special permit from the zoning board to allow for the field.

Massad Field, Shrewsbury. Credit: Worcester Telegram

As reported by the Telegram, the field may be isolated, set well in the rear of Massad’s 14-acre property, but the issue is the cars that go up and down the development to get there. In 2009, Massad built a private driveway and parking lot on his property, but players and fans still must use the private common driveway that lines the eight-home development and ends at Massad’s handsome brick Colonial at the top of the cul-de-sac.

HOA Covenants & Restrictions Control

The Grey Ledge Homeowners Association had recorded standard Covenants and Restrictions providing that:

“The Lots shall be used for single family residential purposes only.” It further provides that “[t]he acceptance of a Deed to a Lot by any Owner shall be deemed an acceptance of the provisions of this Master Declaration, the Trust and the By-Laws and rules and regulations of the Grey Ledge Association, as the same shall be amended from time to time, and an agreement by such Owner to be bound by them in all respects;” and that “[t]he Lots … shall have the mutual burden and benefit of the following restrictions on the use and occupation thereof, which restrictions, except as otherwise provided or allowed by law, shall run with the land.”

The Appeals Could held that, despite the Massads obtaining local zoning approval for the baseball field, it was not consistent with the character and planned use of the luxury development as a single family enclave. “As matter of law, the hosting of organized league baseball games (whether formal games or mere practices) for such leagues as American Legion Baseball and Worcester Heat violates the master declaration’s restriction to use for ‘single family residential purposes only,'” Justice Joseph Grasso held.

On legal grounds, the ruling is not surprising and correct, in my opinion. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Massad and his neighbors couldn’t have worked out a “collective bargaining revenue sharing” plan so the kids could just play ball.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney and devoted Red Sox fan. Please contact him if you need legal assistance purchasing residential or commercial real estate.

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Joe Paterno Conveys Home to Wife For $1, “Love and Affection”

For topical reasons, I have had no reason to post about the despicable Penn St. child abuse scandal on this blog. Until now — when I came across an interesting New York Times article on Joe Paterno’s recent real estate activity. The Times reports that this summer “Joe Pa.” transferred title to his State College home to his wife for $1 and “love and affection.” Some say the transfer was intended to avoid the inevitable fallout from the Penn St. child abuse scandal and legal action brought by victims of the scandal. Joe Paterno’s attorney, however, says that this transfer was part of the Paternos’ long standing estate plan.

Fraudulent Transfers

The debate centers over what’s known legally as a fraudulent transfers. Fraudulent transfers are property conveyances made with the specific intent to place the property outside the reach of creditors, or made where “the debtor received less than a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer and made it while insolvent.” The latter definition, in plain English, means the owner was broke and received less than market value for the sale of the property. Fraudulent transfers can be undone by the courts so creditors can tap into a home’s equity to satisfy legal judgments.

In Joe Paterno’s case, the $1.00 stated consideration for the transfer to his wife typically raises a red flag as a potential fraudulent transfer. If Paterno can prove that the transfer was indeed made as part of a legitimate estate plan, then he could avoid a fraudulent transfer determination. If the transfer is determined to be fraudulent so as to avoid liability for the child abuse scandal, the transfer to his wife can be undone by his creditors with the help of the court. And this is true even if Joe were to file bankruptcy. Moreover, the look-back period for fraudulent transfers is rather long–as long as 4 years under the Massachusetts Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act, and even up to 10 years in the case of conveyances into trusts (where the debtor holds the beneficial interest) under 2005 bankruptcy law amendments.

Also, fraudulent transfers are typically excluded from coverage under owner’s title insurance policies. So if you purchased a property which later becomes the subject of a fraudulent transfer lawsuit, you may be on your own, which is a scary proposition.

Asset Protection, Homesteads and More

There’s nothing wrong or illegal about protecting your assets for the future. There are a myriad of legal and safe methods from protecting your property. But, if you wait until there is a problem, it’s usually too late to fix it. The same is true for asset protection planning. Simply put, do it as early as possible, well before creditors are chasing you down.

The first choice should almost always be to declare homestead protection on your principal residence. We’ve written about the new, enhanced Massachusetts homestead protection quite a bit. In a nutshell, a homestead will protect up to $500,000 in equity from most creditors. It’s a relatively simply form recorded with the county registry of deeds.

For more sophisticated asset protection devices such as trusts, family limited partnerships, LLC’s, and even offshore vehicles, I would recommend a reputable estate planning attorney. My friends at Pabian & Russell in Boston are a good place to start.

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

 

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No Easy Fix For Defective Foreclosure Titles After U.S. Bank v. Ibanez Ruling

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its opinion today in the much anticipated Bevilacqua v. Rodriguez case considering property owners’ rights when they are saddled with defective titles stemming from improper foreclosures in the aftermath of the landmark U.S. Bank v. Ibanez ruling last January. (Text of case is embedded below). Where Ibanez consider the validity of foreclosures plagued by late-recorded or missing mortgage assignments, Bevilacqua is the next step, considering what happens when lenders sell defective foreclosure titles to third party purchasers. Previously, I discussed the oral argument in the case here and detailed background of the case here.

The final ruling is mix of bad and good news, with the bad outweighing the good as fixing defective Massachusetts foreclosure titles just got a lot harder and more expensive. But, contrary to some sensationalist headlines, the sky is not falling down as the majority of foreclosures performed in the last several years were legal and conveyed good title. Bevilacqua affects those minority percentage of foreclosures where mortgage assignments were not recorded in a timely fashion under the Ibanez case and were otherwise conducted unlawfully. Importantly, Bevilacqua does not address the robo-signing controversy, which may or may  not be considered by the high court in another case.

The Bad News

First the bad news. The Court held that owners cannot bring a court action to clear their titles under the “try title” procedure in the Massachusetts Land Court. This is the headline that the major news outlets have been running with, but it was not a surprise to anyone who has been following the case. Contrary to the Daily Kos, the court did not take the property away from Bevilacqua. He never held good title it in the first place–and you can blame the banksters for that. If you don’t own a piece of property (say the Brooklyn Bridge), you cannot come into court and ask a judge to proclaim you the owner of that property, even if the true owner doesn’t show up to defend himself. It’s Property Law 101.

The Good News

Next the good news. The court left open whether owners could attempt to put their chains of title back together (like Humpty-Dumpty) and conduct new foreclosure sales to clear their titles. Unfortunately, the SJC did not provide the real estate community with any further guidance as to how best to resolve these complicated title defects.

Background: Developer Buys Defective Foreclosure Title

Frank Bevilacqua purchased property in Haverhill out of foreclosure from U.S. Bank. Apparently, Bevilacqua invested several hundred thousand dollars into the property, converting it into condominiums. The prior foreclosure, however, was bungled by U.S. Bank and rendered void under the Ibanez case. Mr. Bevilacqua (or presumably his title insurance attorney) brought an action to “try title” in the Land Court to clear up his title, arguing that he is the rightful owner of the property, despite the faulty foreclosure, inasmuch as the prior owner, Rodriguez, was nowhere to be found.

Land Court Judge Keith Long (ironically the same judge who originally decided the Ibanez case) closed the door on Mr. Bevilacqua, dismissing his case, but with compassion for his plight.

“I have great sympathy for Mr. Bevilacqua’s situation — he was not the one who conducted the invalid foreclosure, and presumably purchased from the foreclosing entity in reliance on receiving good title — but if that was the case his proper grievance and proper remedy is against that wrongfully foreclosing entity on which he relied,” Long wrote.

Given the case’s importance, the SJC took the unusual step of hearing it on direct review.

No Standing To “Try Title” Action In Land Court

The SJC agreed with Judge Long that Bevilacqua did not own the property, and therefore, lacked any standing to pursue a “try title” action in the Land Court. The faulty foreclosure was void, thereby voiding the foreclosure deed to Bevilacqua. The Court endorsed Judge Long’s “Brooklyn Bridge” analogy, which posits that if someone records a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge, then brings a lawsuit to uphold such ownership and the “owner” of the bridge doesn’t appear, title to the bridge is not conveyed magically. The claimant in a try title or quiet title case, the court ruled, must have some plausible ownership interest in the property, and Bevilacqua lacked any at this point in time.

The court also held, for many of the same reasons, that Bevilacqua lacked standing as a “bona fide good faith purchaser for value.” The record title left no question that U.S. Bank had conducted an invalid foreclosure sale, the court reasoned.

Door Left Open? Re-Foreclosure In Owner’s Name?

A remedy left open, however, was whether owners could attempt to put their chains of title back together and conduct new foreclosure sales in their name to clear their titles. The legal reasoning behind this remedy is rather complex, but essentially it says that Bevilacqua would be granted the right to foreclosure by virtue of holding an “equitable assignment” of the mortgage foreclosed upon by U.S. Bank. There are some logistical issues with the current owner conducting a new foreclosure sale and it’s expensive, but it could work.

That is if the SJC rules in the upcoming Eaton v. FNMA case that foreclosing parties do not need to hold both the promissory note and the mortgage when they foreclose. An adverse ruling in the Eaton case could throw a monkey wrench into the re-foreclosure remedy–it would also be an even bigger bombshell ruling than Ibanez, as it would throw into question the foreclosure of every securitized mortgage in Massachusetts.

In Bevilacqua’s case, he did not conduct the new foreclosure sale, so it was premature for the court to rule on that issue. Look for Bevilacqua to conduct the new foreclosure and come back to court again. The SJC left that option open.

Other Remedies & What’s Next?

The other remedy to fix an Ibanez defect, which is always available, is to track down the old owner and obtain a quitclaim deed from him. This eliminates the need for a second foreclosure sale and is often the “cleanest” way to resolve Ibanez titles.

Another option is waiting out the 3 year entry period. Foreclosure can be completed by sale or by entry which is the act of the foreclosure attorney or lender representative physically entering onto the property. Foreclosures by entry are deemed valid after 3 years have expired from the certificate of entry which should be filed with the foreclosure. It’s best to check with a real estate attorney to see if this option is available.

The last resort is to demand that the foreclosing lender re-do its foreclosure sale. The problem is that a new foreclosure could open the door for a competing bid to the property and other logistical issues, not to mention recalcitrant foreclosing lenders and their foreclosure mill attorneys.

Title insurance companies who have insured Ibanez afflicted titles have been steadily resolving these titles since the original Ibanez decision in 2009. I’m not sure how many defective foreclosure titles remain out there right now. There certainly could be a fair amount lurking in titles unknown to those purchasers who bought REO properties from lenders such as U.S. Bank, Deutsche Bank, etc. If you bought such a property, I recommend you have an attorney check the back title and find your owner’s title insurance policy. Those without title insurance, of course, have and will continue to bear the brunt of this mess.

More Coverage:

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate litigation attorney who’s handled numerous foreclosure title defect matters & cases in Land Court and Superior Court. Please contact him if you are dealing with a Massachusetts foreclosure title dispute.

Bevilacqua v. Rodriguez; Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court October 18, 2011

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Massachusetts Summary Process Evictions: An Unlevel Playing Field For Landlords

How do you evict a tenant in Massachusetts? In Massachusetts, evictions are called “summary process.” According to the rules governing eviction cases, summary process is supposed to be “just, speedy, and inexpensive.” In practice, however, summary process can be anything but that. In fact, as I always inform my landlord clients, Massachusetts is one of the most tenant friendly states in the country, and an eviction can be costly, frustrating and unfair to landlords. In some cases, it can take many months to evict a tenant.

Further, Massachusetts eviction practice is loaded with traps for the unwary and procedural complexities for landlords. Landlords who represent themselves do so at their own peril and will often arrive at court with their cases dismissed for not following these requirements. It’s not a do-it-yourself situation.

Grounds For Eviction

A.      Non-payment

There are several common grounds for evicting a tenant. The most common is for non-payment of rent. In these cases, the landlord must send the tenant a statutory 14 day “notice to quit” before starting the eviction process. The 14 day notice to quit must be drafted carefully, and the best practice is to have it served by a constable or sheriff to ensure proof of delivery. The landlord must prove in court that the tenant received the notice, and service by constable or sheriff will automatically qualify as “good service.” Certified mail is not good enough as tenants can avoid pickup. Having an experienced eviction attorney draft the notice to quit can prevent have your case being “dead on arrival.”

B.      No-Fault

Another common ground for eviction is for termination of a 30 day tenancy at will, otherwise known as a no-fault eviction. Again, a 30 day notice to quit must be served on the tenant before commencing an eviction. Landlords often trip up on this type of notice with short months. In practice, judges will often give tenants in no-fault evictions a bit more leeway in terms of vacating the premises.

C.      For cause

“For cause” evictions encompass the range of bad behavior by tenants in violation of lease provisions. It could be illegal activity, drug use, excessive noise, uncleanliness, harassment of other residents, non-approved “roommates” and the like. Like all other evictions, the landlord must issue a notice to quit to the tenant stating the specifics of the offenses. “For cause” evictions are the most involved of all evictions as the landlord must offer proof by way of live testimony of the tenant’s violations of the lease. Getting police officers to show up for an eviction hearing can be challenging. For drugs and other illegal activity, Massachusetts also has a special expedited eviction process.

Read our post on the Massachusetts Notice To Quit: Don’t Be Dead On Arrival At Eviction Court

Going to Court

Starting an eviction requires the preparation and service of a Summary Process Summons and Complaint. You can choose to file your case in the local District Court or the Housing Court which is specialized to hear evictions. The Housing Court fees are less expensive, but can be busier. Some Housing Court judges have the reputation of being tenant or landlord friendly as well. Some would probably be happier retired and playing golf. It’s a tough job these days.

The summary process summons and complaint form is complicated to the layperson. It must be first served by a constable or sheriff on the tenant. Then, no less than 7 days after, it must be filed with the court by the “entry date,” which is always a Monday. The hearings are almost always on Thursday morning. Again, it’s best to have an experienced Massachusetts eviction attorney handle the legal paperwork.

Tenant Defenses and Counterclaims

Through the use of discovery requests, defenses and counterclaims, tenants in Massachusetts have ample legal means to delay and beat evictions. All tenants have a right to file “discovery” – formal requests for information and documents – from the landlord, which will automatically delay the hearing for two weeks. The tenant also may assert defenses and counterclaims against the landlord. These can range from improper notice or service, state Sanitary Code violations, no heat/hot water, failure to make repairs, retaliation, discrimination, and violations of the security deposit law—which carries triple damages and attorneys’ fees. (See my prior post on security deposits). Regardless of the merits of such claims, these defenses and counterclaims make the eviction process more complicated, time-consuming, and expensive.

Read my post on the Massachusetts State Sanitary Code — Everything A Landlord Wanted To Know But Was Afraid To Ask

Agreements for Judgment and Mediation

Eviction sessions are very busy. In some courts, there are over 100 cases stacked up on any one day and only one judge to hear them all. Accordingly, the courts will encourage parties to work out their differences on their own through mediation which is an informal sit-down between the parties to discuss ways to resolve the case. Some courts have housing specialists who can preside over the mediation session. Mediation is always non-binding so if no agreement can be reached you can proceed to a trial.

In the Housing Court, there are trained housing specialists who facilitate the mediation process. There are many advantages for landlords to mediation, and I almost always recommend giving it a try. The end result of a mediation is for the parties to sign an agreement for judgment. In a non-payment case, you can structure a payment plan and/or voluntary move-out. For a “cause” eviction, you can provide for a “last chance” agreement or move-out. The major benefit for landlords is that an agreement for judgment becomes a binding court order and the judge is supposed to enforce it upon proof of a violation. It also shows the judge that the landlord has been reasonable and accommodating. Experienced Massachusetts eviction attorneys will also make the tenants waive their rights to appeal and right to delay the case any further so as to avoid last minute requests for more time to vacate.

On the other hand, sometimes the situation is untenable and you have to go before the judge. Some judges hold a basic hearing, giving both sides the opportunity to speak. Some judges, particularly in the Housing Court, are more formal and require an actual trial with live witnesses and exhibits. I’ve had hearings last one minute and jury trials in eviction cases go on for days. But I’m always prepared to put on a case on for trial, as I always have my client present in court or on standby.

Appeals

Tenants in eviction cases do have a fairly robust right of appeal which can greatly delay resolution of the case. (A good reason in and of itself to do an agreement for judgment waiving appeal rights). However, in certain cases, the landlord can ask the court to impose an appeal bond so the tenant must pay rent into court to proceed with the appeal. Most tenants do not have the financial ability to do that, so that will terminate the appeal.

If you have any questions or need assistance with a Massachusetts summary process eviction, please contact me via email at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or by phone at 508-620-5352.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts summary process & eviction attorney who has handled over 2,000 eviction cases all across Massachusetts. For help with a landlord tenant matter, please email him at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or call him at 508-620-5352.

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26297-cooperation-handshakeSeller Couldn’t Sit Back & Watch Construction Project Unfold

Massachusetts appeals judges have been mighty busy this summer issuing real estate decisions. From the forced removal of condo buildings to toxic mold, to foreclosure eviction defense, it’s been no summer vacation in Massachusetts real estate law.

Handed down today is a case right from a first year law school property exam, Hurtubise v. McPherson, embedded below.

As most real estate professionals know, contracts for the sale of real estate must be in writing and signed by the party to be charged, i.e, the seller. This is a rule of law going back to English common law and is called the Statute of Frauds which can be found in the General Laws of Massachusetts, Chapter 259, Section 1. As with most black letter law, there are a few exceptions to the general rule, and this case is a textbook example of the “detrimental reliance” exception to the Statute of Frauds.

Hand-Shake Land Swap Agreement

Here are the facts of the case. Hurtubise and McPherson owned adjoining tracts of land in the town of Templeton. Hurtubise operated a storage business on his property. He wanted to build an additional storage shed along the border between his property and McPherson’s property. Hurtubise realized that he could not meet the setback requirements of the local zoning code unless he acquired land from McPherson. Hurtubise approached McPherson, explained his need, and proposed a land trade, offering to convey to McPherson a portion of the front of his (Hurtubise’s) property in exchange for the portion of McPherson’s land at which Hurtubise intended to erect the new storage shed. McPherson agreed to the proposal and the parties shook hands.

Hurtubise proceeded with his plans for construction of the new building. He obtained a building permit and began to excavate along the border of McPherson’s lot. During the seven to eight weeks of construction, Hurtubise saw McPherson at the site. McPherson never objected to the location of the new building. Hurtubise eventually constructed a 300 x 30-foot storage shed for $39,690.

After construction, McPherson objected and accused Hurtubise of taking more land than he initially had represented. McPherson informed Hurtubise that an exorbitant payment of $250,000 would resolve the dispute which Hurtubise refused to pay. McPherson then notified the town that Hurtubise’s new building encroached on his property. The town’s building commissioner revoked Hurtubise’s building permit and ordered him to cease occupancy of the storage shed. After McPherson threatened to demolish the building, Hurtubise brought suit to enforce the oral agreement.

Exception To Written Contract Rule

As mentioned above, to be enforceable, real estate contracts for the sale of property must be in writing and signed by the seller, at minimum. As Judge Mitchell Sikora wrote in the opinion, “however an equitable qualification puts some flexibility into the joints of the Statute.” An oral agreement for the sale of land can be valid if the party seeking enforcement, in reasonable reliance on the contract and on the continuing assent of the party against whom enforcement is sought, has so changed his position that injustice can be avoided only by specific enforcement. In non-legalese, this means that if you start a construction project and spend thousands of dollars upon the promise of a land deal, albeit not in writing, you may be able to enforce that promise.

Because Hurtubise just sat by idly and watched McPherson construct his shed at considerable cost without objection, the court ruled that he couldn’t then complain there wasn’t a written agreement, in an attempt to wriggle out of the land swap deal. The court then ordered Hurtubise to convey McPherson the land necessary to build the shed.

This case is one of the very few instances where a court has upheld an oral hand-shake real estate agreement. The take-away: make sure your real estate contracts are always in writing and signed!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate litigation attorney who’s handled numerous real estate contract breach cases in Land Court and Superior Court. Please contact me if you are dealing with a Massachusetts real estate contract legal dispute.

Hurtubise v McPherson Case

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