Massachusetts Real Estate Law

Email Disclaimers: Toothless, Useful, Or A Little Of Both?

by Rich Vetstein on February 2, 2013

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A Simple Email Disclaimer Cannot Hurt & Can Only Help

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

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

Contract Negotiations

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 For many agents and attorneys, e-mail has become the default mode of communication, replacing the telephone and the outdated fax.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

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

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

Practice Pointer:

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

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

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

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

Confidential Communications

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

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

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

Practice Pointer:

I use this simple email disclaimer:

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

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

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

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

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2011 Massachusetts Real Estate Law Year In Review

by Rich Vetstein on December 30, 2011

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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April 1st marks the Boston Red Sox’s Opening Day. No more wait ’til next year. This is the year!

Come to think of it, there is a lot that Youk, Pedroia, Big Papi and the rest of the Red Sox can teach us about real estate. Here are a few tips–

Listen to your Manager and your General Manager. Your Manager is your real estate agent. Your General Manager is your real estate attorney. Tito and Theo (yeah!). Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman (boo!!!). This is the foundation of your team. Listen to them. Trust them. They will lead you to the World Series–your closing.

Spring training is more than just practice. In real estate, spring is the busiest time of year. So apply your eye black and get your game face on. Make your best offer. Swing for the fences. Everything counts in the spring in real estate.

When you get up to the plate, make sure you have your batting helmet and battling gloves on, and you’ve studied the pitcher. In real estate, this means that if you are buying, you need to be well prepared. Get pre-qualified or even better, pre-approved for a mortgage so your offer will be seriously considered by the seller. Studying the pitcher means do your homework. Have your real estate agents pull comparable sales and obtain market research before settling on a offer price. Same for sellers. It’s not what you need or want for a price, but what the market will bear. Reality check.

Baseball is a rewarding long-term investment. Watching a baseball game can be a long term investment. (Sometimes too long!). So is real estate. Think long-term. This is going to be your home for the next several years. Don’t lose sight of that.

Don’t get caught stealing. Sellers, be honest and upfront about your home and its problems. The home inspector will most likely find all the issues you’ve tried to hide, so disclose up front. Otherwise, you’ll lose all credibility, and the deal will be that much harder to close.

Expect an occasional curveball. With tight credit requirements and longer underwriting, closing in 30 days is very difficult. Delays are becoming more prevalent as well. So, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Statistics & numbers are critical. ERA stands for Earned Run Average, not a well known local real estate office. CMA stands for Comparative Market Analysis. For real estate, you need to crunch a lot of different numbers: price per square foot, PITI, down payment, taxes, etc. You can’t properly analyze a baseball team or a real estate market without understanding the numbers. Sabermetrics for real estate anyone?

Waiting until next year is not always the best strategy. This is more true than ever. Most experts believe we have hit bottom in the Greater Boston area. Interest rates are still at historical lows. It’s time to pine tar the bat and get up to the plate. Get out of the on deck circle.

Spitting should never be permitted in a dugout or a living room. ‘Nuff said.

Play Ball and go Red Sox!!!

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Richard “Lefty” Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney and life-long, diehard Red Sox fan. Rich was once a fire-balling southpaw pitcher in Little League, striking out 14 batters in one game. His baseball career is now relegated to second-guessing managerial decisions and throwing things at the TV.

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Signing or not signing?A lot more than you might think. Plus, Massachusetts law now requires attorneys to preside over residential real estate closings.

Many buyers and sellers often wonder what a real estate closing attorney does other than conduct the closing. Well, quite a bit of work actually.

The closing attorney acts as the “quarterback” of the closing process, performing many time consuming tasks preparing a transaction from intake to closing. Important note: many borrowers don’t realize that they may request to select their own closing attorney instead of the bank attorney. The new RESPA rules which went into effect on January 1 encourage lenders to allow borrowers to select from a list of attorneys or their own personal attorney. This will most often save you several hundred dollars because you won’t have to hire a separate attorney to review/negotiate the purchase and sale agreement.

Intake/Title Examination

When the title order arrives from the lender, the closing attorney first orders a municipal lien certificate, which verifies the real estate taxes and other municipal charges on the property. Insurance binders and payoffs of mortgages are also ordered.

The closing attorney is responsible for examining the title to the property. For purchases, the title is researched going back 50 years. The closing attorney carefully reviews the title examination to ensure there are no title defects; if there are any issues, the attorney will work with all parties to resolve them. Some title defects are extremely difficult to resolve. (By law, the closing attorney must provide new home buyers with a certification of title).

Title Insurance

The closing attorney also coordinates the issuance of title insurance to the lender and the new home buyer. I always recommend that buyers obtain their own title insurance policies because even with the most accurate title examination, there can be hidden title defects that could derail a later sale or refinance. Look no further than the Land Court Ibanez foreclosure mess for what can happen when you don’t get an owner’s title policy.

The Closing

As the closing day approaches, the closing attorney will coordinate with the lender for the preparation and delivery of numerous documents to be signed at closing, including the mortgage, promissory note, truth in lender disclosures, and most importantly, the HUD-1 Settlement Statement. The closing attorney will also coordinate with the seller to receive the deed to the property, final utility bills, smoke detector/CO2 certificates and condominium 6(d) certificates. As outlined in the Settlement Statement, the closing attorney is responsible for handling a number of issues at closing:

  • Payoff and discharge of mortgages
  • Payment and allocation of real estate taxes and utilities (water, oil, etc.)
  • Payment of realtor commissions
  • Disclosure and payment of lender fees and closing costs
  • Funding of mortgage escrow account
  • Payment of transfer taxes and recording fees
  • Payment of pre-paid interest
  • Distribution of sale proceeds
  • Title V septic certification and condominium 6(d) certification

The closing attorney then conducts the closing. He will explain the numerous loan and closing documents signed by buyer and seller, collect and distribute all funds, and otherwise ensure that the closing is properly conducted.

Post Closing

After the closing, the attorney processes the loan funding, performs a title rundown to ensure there are no changes in the title, then records the deed, mortgage and other recordable instruments. The attorney will also ensure that all paid off mortgages and liens are discharged. Title insurance policies are issues several weeks after the closing.

Seller Attorney Responsibilities

Customarily, a seller’s attorney in Massachusetts has the following responsibilities:

  • Generate the first draft of the purchase and sale agreement
  • Order mortgage payoff statements
  • Assistance with any title clearing efforts such as obtaining old mortgage discharges, death certificates
  • Draft the quitclaim deed and power of attorney
  • Prepare trustee’s certificate
  • Obtain condominium 6d certificate, smoke detector certification, final water/sewer readings (Realtor typically will obtain these as well)
  • Representation of seller at closing

We are experienced Massachusetts real estate closing attorneys. Please contact us if you need legal assistance with your purchase, sale or refinance transaction.

 

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