MA real estate litigation

This post is a continuation of my discussion about the recent Massachusetts Appeals Court case of NRT New England, Inc. v. Moncure (click for link). Last week I talked about why the decision was very important in upholding the standard liquidated damages clause in the the typical purchase and sale agreement.

This week I’ll talk about the court’s ruling that the listing broker violated its fiduciary duties when it messed around with the escrow deposit.

Quick Take-Away

The important take away from this case for all real estate agents is that if you are holding a deposit as an escrow agent, don’t even think about messing with it even if there’s a legitimate dispute about your commission or other monies owed to you. It’s not your money! The best advice is to let the dispute run its course and continue holding the funds in escrow.

Dispute Between Listing Broker and Buyer

The facts of this case are a bit unusual. Listing Broker represented the seller in a purchase of residential property in Wayland, MA. Under the standard purchase and sale agreement, the buyer posted a $92,500 escrow deposit which Listing Broker held as an escrow agent. The same buyer apparently used Listing Broker on another transaction and owed it nearly $35,000 in fees.

The buyer lost its financing and defaulted on the contract, thereby forfeiting the $92,500 deposit. (I covered that in my prior post). Listing Broker took an assignment of the buyer’s right to the escrow funds, but didn’t tell its client that right away. Then Listing Broker tried to strong-arm its client by threatening litigation if he didn’t accept $2,500 and release the escrow deposit to Listing Broker.

Breach of Fiduciary Duty and Chapter 93A Violation

The court was none too happy with Listing Broker’s course of action here. The court reaffirmed that Listing Broker had a fiduciary duty — one of the highest duties under law — to hold the funds for the benefit of the seller and not to engage in any self-dealing. The court found that Listing Broker’s collection of a debt against the escrow deposit while it was acting as escrow agent was a clear breach of fiduciary duty.

The kicker was that the court imposed triple damages and an award of attorneys’ fees under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. So Listing Broker is now on the hook for $277,500 plus thousands in legal fees. Ouch!

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Overview: Lis Pendens, Latin for “A Suit Pending”

A lis pendens is Latin for “a suit pending.” Under the Massachusetts lis pendens law, a lis pendens is a notice endorsed by a judge certifying that there is litigation pending involving the title or occupancy rights to a property. Where real estate deals go sour, a court will often issue a lis pendens where a buyer seeks “specific performance” of a real estate contract in order to force a seller to go through with a transaction. Lis pendens are also common in other real estate cases such as boundary, title, zoning, and ownership disputes. The lis pendens is recorded at the registry of deeds against the property and its owner(s), creating a serious cloud on the title to the affected property. A lis pendens will, in many cases, effectively prevent the owner from selling the property until the claim is resolved–thus, earning its well-deserved reputation as dangerous arrow in a real estate litigator’s quiver.

Heavy Ammunition For Buyers

Since the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held in 1998 that the standard Greater Boston Real Estate form Offer To Purchase is a binding contract, buyers have used the lis pendens with great success against sellers who unjustifiably try to back out of Offers to Purchase and Purchase and Sale Agreements. Aggressive buyer attorneys would often obtain a lis pendens without prior notice to the seller (called ex parte relief), and this would give buyers a huge advantage and effectively derail any pending sale of the property until the judge resolved the claim.

Recent Changes To The Law

In response to complaints that litigants were abusing the law with frivolous claims for lis pendens’, lawmakers amended the law in 2003. Now, claimants seeking ex parte relief must show there is a clear danger that the seller, if notified in advance, will convey, encumber, damage or destroy the property. Sellers also have a new remedy to stop frivolous claims: a “special motion to dismiss” which carries with it an award of attorneys’ fees and costs. The playing field is a bit more leveled now, yet the lis pendens remains a powerful tool for real estate attorneys.

Dealing With A Lis Pendens

Dealing with a meritorious lis pendens remains very difficult. Standard owner’s title insurance policies do not insure against them. Further, most title companies hesitate to affirmatively insure a lis pendens as they would effectively be underwriting the ultimate success of the lawsuit. Sometimes, however, coverage can be obtained for an additional premium and/or with some form of indemnification or security. In the absence of insurance, a lis pendens will remain a cloud on title until the claim is ultimately resolved in the courts, which these days can take many years. Given the high cost of litigation, a financial settlement is often the only way to resolve the matter in a cost-effective manner.

As an experienced real estate litigator who has obtained and defended scores of lis pendens’, please contact me with any questions about a Massachusetts lis pendens.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced and creative Massachusetts real estate litigator who loves to help property owners defend their contract or property rights in court. Please contact him at [email protected] or 508-620-5352 for a no-obligation consultation.

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