Real Estate Litigation

Significant Impacts Hitting: Registry and Court Closures, Closing and Financing Delays, Social Distancing, School Closings, Quarantine Potential

As I was writing this post tonight, Gov. Baker ordered the shutdown of all schools through April 6, closed down restaurants and bars, and is banning gatherings over 25 people. Also announced tonight is the shut down of all Trial Court facilities on March 16 and March 17, which includes the Cambridge and Suffolk (Boston) Registries of Deeds. We are now hitting the tipping point, and going forward there will be substantial impacts on the real estate and legal industry.

I first wrote about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic five days ago. Seems like an eternity ago. As of that writing (data as of March 9), there were 729 reported cases in the US, with 27 deaths. As of tonight March 15, cases have over quintupled with Johns Hopkins reporting 3,722 confirmed cases and 61 deaths. With the well publicized testing delays, the real number of cases are likely far higher.

Registry of Deeds Impacts

As mentioned above, Gov. Baker just ordered the closure of all Trial Court facilities for Monday March 16 and Tuesday March 17. Both Cambridge and Suffolk (Boston) Registries are housed in Trial Court facilities so they will be closed for those two days. I spoke to Maria Curtatone, Registrar of Deeds for Cambridge Middlesex South, and she indicated that this may well be the precursor to widespread shutdown of all registries of deeds and courts throughout the state. We will await further announcements on that.

Update (3/17/20) — Suffolk and Cambridge are closed to the public until at least April 6. Currently, they are both still processing electronic recordings for recorded land. All Land Court recordings and plans must be sent in by overnight or regular mail.

We have just received a chart below showing current Registry status:

I remain concerned, however, that all Registries will be forced to shut down and will not offer in person, mail or electronic recordings. If that occurs, we will see a potentially catastrophic impact to real estate in Massachusetts. Title insurance companies have assured its attorney agents that they will offer “gap coverage” in case recordings are delayed. This coverage offers insurance coverage between the time of the physical closing and the time of actual recording of documents at the registry. However, it remains to be seen how this will play out. Will mortgage payoffs still be processed even though deeds will not be recorded? Will sellers allow buyers to get keys and move into homes if deeds aren’t recorded and their sale proceeds are held in escrow? We will need to work through these issues.

I am also concerned if COVID-19 starts hitting closing attorney offices. If a lawyer or staff member is infected, it could result in the quarantine of their entire office, essentially shutting it down for some time.

COVID-19 Contingency Provision

In my previous post, I discussed a new COVID-19 Impact Clause for Offers Purchase and Sale Agreements. (Sample language below). It is imperative that these clauses are used in both Offers and PSA’s. It’s also very important that all parties and their attorneys work together cooperatively throughout this crisis, acknowledging that there will likely be substantial impacts and delays. The goal, as always, is to get to the closing and complete the deal, by any means necessary.

COVID-19 Impact Provision. The Time for Performance may be extended by either Party by written notice for an Excused Delay which materially affects the Party’s ability to close or obtain financing. As used herein an Excused Delay shall mean a delay caused by an Act of God, declared state of emergency or public health emergency, pandemic (specifically including Covid-19), government mandated quarantine, war, acts of terrorism, and/or order of government or civil or military authorities. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Agreement, if the Time for Performance is extended, and if BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock would expire prior to the expiration of said extension, then such extension shall continue, at BUYER’S option, only until the date of expiration of BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock.  BUYER may elect, at its sole option, to obtain an extension of its mortgage commitment or rate lock. Notwithstanding the foregoing, said Extension shall not exceed [insert number of days].

Virtual and Remote Closings

Another impact that we are already seeing is that parties to the real estate transaction are afraid of traveling outside their homes right now (or even being visited at home) and being in contact with other people, especially those who are high risk. My colleagues and I are working on an emergency executive order for Gov. Baker to sign which would temporarily authorize remote or virtual closings using such technology as Zoom and Docusign.

For more information on this please read my new post, Massachusetts Remote Notarization Bill Filed in Legislature

Court Closings

Update (3/17/20): The Supreme Judicial Court today ordered that, because of the public health emergency arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning tomorrow (March 18, 2020) and until at least April 6, 2020, the only matters that will be heard in-person in Massachusetts state courthouses are emergency matters that cannot be held by videoconference or telephone. Each of the seven Trial Court departments, in new standing orders to be issued today, will define emergency matters for their departments.  As a result of the SJC order, courthouses will be closed to the public except to conduct emergency hearings that cannot be resolved through a videoconference or telephonic hearing.  Clerk’s offices shall remain open to the public to accept pleadings and other documents in emergency matters only.  All trials in both criminal and civil cases scheduled to commence in Massachusetts state courts between today and April 17, 2020, are continued to a date no earlier than April 21, 2020, unless the trial is a civil case where the parties and the court agree that the case can be decided without the need for in-person appearance in court. Where a jury trial has commenced, the trial will end based on the manifest necessity arising from the pandemic and a new trial may commence after the public health emergency ends. Courts, to the best of their ability, will attempt to address matters that can be resolved or advanced without in-person proceedings through communication by telephone, videoconferencing, email, or other comparable means.

A link to the SJC Order OE-144 is here.

In addition to the closings on March 16-17, the Massachusetts Court System announced over the weekend major “triage” changes reducing the number of persons entering state courthouses. These rules are effective Wednesday March 18, 2020. A link to all of the new changes can be found here — Court System Response to COVID-19. A summary of each court and respective changes are as follows:

Superior Court — All jury trials postponed until April 22. Motions handled by individual judges with preference for telephonic hearing and postponement where necessary to limit number of people entering courtroom. Emergency matters may proceed normally. The new Standing Order 2-20 can be found here.

Housing Court — All cases including evictions (except emergencies) postponed until after April 22. Matters may be heard earlier upon a showing of good cause. New Housing Court Standing Order is here.

Probate and Family Court — Trials postponed until May 1. Motions and pre-trials heard telephonically or postponed until after May 1. Modification complaints won’t be heard until after May 1. New Probate and Family Court Standing Order 1-20 is here.

District Court — No jury trials until after April 21. All criminal appearances rescheduled for 60 days, and no earlier than May 4. Arraignments and Bench trials may proceed. The new District Court Standing Order is here.

Land Court — All trials postponed until after April 21. All other motions and proceedings shall be held telephonically at judge’s discretion. Registration of title documents should not be done in person. Mail or email is now preferred. (Not sure how that will work). New Land Court Standing Order 2-20 is here.

Appeals Court — Oral argument for March will be telephonic.

Supreme Judicial Court — Please see the Court’s website.

As you can glean from the changes, virtually all trials are being pushed out through the end of April. Motion hearings are court specific with telephonic hearings being substituted for in-person hearings. Of course, if the courts are all shut down, all bets are off. With no staff, the courts will not even be able to handle new filings. The system would just stop in its tracks, except for the most emergency of matters.

Lender/Financing Delays

This week we will see if there are any major disruptions to lenders’ ability to provide financing. I am seeing some smaller mortgage companies moving to remote employee staffing. I’m also hearing about appraisal delays. If there are government employee impacts such as at the IRS for processing tax transcripts, there could be delays with underwriting. I think it’s inevitable that we will be seeing lender delays moving forward.

Municipal Closings

I am also hearing of closings of municipal departments, which may affect the availability of final water/sewer readings and possibly smoke detector certificates. Title 5 inspections could also be impacted.

25 Person Social Gathering Restriction

New restrictions on crowd sizes that Gov. Charlie Baker issued on Sunday, March 15, could upend open houses. The restrictions banned gatherings of 25 or more people. Brokers seemed to anticipate a possible drop-off in attendance, even before Baker’s restrictions and despite strong numbers the past couple of weeks. “Next week may be a different story,” Jason Gell, a Keller Williams broker and president of the Greater Boston Association of Realtors, said on March 12. “Unfortunately, any decline in open houses or listings is likely to make the conditions for buyers even more difficult.”

Social Distancing, School Closures and Possible Lockdown

The impacts of COVID-19 are manifesting not necessarily in the actual infection and sickness of patients (which I’m not discounting at all) but all the measures we are taking to “flatten the curve.” I want to urge all my readers that COVID-19 could wind up being the worst global pandemic since the Spanish Flu and should be taken as seriously as life and death. If you can work from home, do that and don’t go into the office. If you can arrange for remote employee access, please do that. Take advantage of technologies like Zoom, Docusign and Dotloop. Please keep your kids at home. No playdates, family gatherings or hang-outs. They say we are only 2 weeks behind Italy and you see what’s going on there. Stay safe! More updates to follow as I get them.

-Rich

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Allen Seymour – Arraignment Brookline District Court

Summary Judgment Ruling In Favor of Forgery Victim Allows Case to Proceed to Trial

As I’ve written here, I have been representing three victims in a brazen and complex real estate forgery scam. The ringleader was Allen Seymour of Oxford, who used forged deeds, fake notary stamps and driver’s licenses to sell properties out from under homeowners, flipping their properties to wealthy investors, and pocketing the cash. Seymour targeted properties in Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville. By accounts, he made off with over $2M in illicit sale proceeds. Seymour also worked with a group of accomplices including a Newton police lieutenant. The cases have been featured in several Fox News 25 segments. While Seymour remains in jail awaiting trial on 22 felony indictments, the civil cases have been ongoing for almost two years, and are heading towards trial.

I just received the first major court ruling in the cases from Superior Court Justice Douglas Wilkins. The ruling is noteworthy because it appears to be the first time a Massachusetts judge has issued a written decision dealing with the unique type of forgery that occurred in this case.

The Deed Forgery Scam

Forged Deed First Page
Forged Deed Second Page

The facts of the case are pretty surreal. My client is the owner of a three family property in Brookline, assessed at $1.5 Million. He was behind on his mortgage, and Seymour (using the alias “Rich Chase”) approached him with a foreclosure rescue scheme. Seymour had him sign a mortgage payoff authorization form which contained a separate signature page with a notary block – which would be used later to perpetrate the fraudulent scam. Ordinarily, mortgage payoff authorizations are not notarized. Behind my client’s back, Seymour took the notarized signature page of the payoff form and attached it to a quitclaim deed and recorded it with the registry of deeds. This deed “sold” the property from my client to Seymour’s accomplice for some 30% of its value, at $480,000. While this was happening, Seymour orchestrated a flip of the property for $750,000 to an LLC owned by Fred Starikov, the owner of City Realty in Boston. Starikov’s LLC then took out a $850,000 mortgage on the property from Bee Investments LLC. Seymour then made off with the sale proceeds, and tried to flee the country with a duffle bag of cash and a trash bag filled with Oxycontin. Fortunately, he was caught in South Carolina by the FBI, and brought back to Massachusetts to face multiple felony charges.

Lawsuit Asserts Claims for Forgery and Fraud

On behalf of the victim, I brought claims for quiet title and fraud, asserting that the quitclaim deed was a forgery. Under Massachusetts law, a forgery of a deed conveys no title. It is null and void, and title reverts back to the original owner as if the forgery never occurred. This is very important in these cases, because a forgery would also avoid the defense asserted by Starikov and his lender being a “bona fide good faith” purchase or lender. This defense, if successful, could allow them to keep title to the property. Starikov and his lender also asserted a claim for “equitable subrogation.” This theory is used to enable a lender to seek repayment of monies paid out in the transaction (typically mortgage proceeds) on the theory of unjust enrichment and mistake.

What is a Forgery?

Starikov and his lender filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the case prior to trial, arguing that the deed wasn’t a forgery because my client’s signature was “genuine” and on the deed itself, and asserting the good faith and equitable subrogation defenses. In what appears to be a case of first impression, Justice Wilkins held that the transfer of an altered signature page onto a deed was in fact a forgery under the common law definition. As he wrote in his decision:

Red Flags: Good Faith and Equitable Subrogation

Judge Wilkins also rejected the good faith purchaser and equitable subrogation defenses. As I argued, the judge recognized that there were several “red flags” with the deed and the purchase and sale agreement (which was also forged) which could have put a closing attorney on notice of the irregularities in the transaction. These red flags are properly considered at trial, the judge ruled.

What’s Next?

Overall, I’m very pleased with Judge Wilkin’s ruling. He understood the issues, and provided some much needed justice for my client. So now the case will proceed to trial (or settlement). I will keep you appraised of any further developments. I’ve embedded the entire opinion below for your reading pleasure.

Nelson v. Chandler Cazenove LLC (Middlesex Mass. Superior Court) Jan. 23, 2020 by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Parties Who Negotiated Past Purchase and Sale Agreement Deadline Waived It, Court Rules

The Massachusetts Appeals Court just came down with a ruling which should be a cautionary tale to everyone in the residential real estate business. It’s an interesting fact pattern, but not necessarily unusual. For those with short attention spans, the Court held that the standard deadline to execute the purchase and sale agreement is not necessarily a hard deadline. Rather, the deadline can be waived by the parties if they negotiate beyond the date, even without a formal extension in place. The Court also held that where the property is owned by several individuals, even if only one of those individuals sign the offer, this is not necessarily fatal to the deal.

Ferguson v. Maxim, Mass. Appeals Court, 18-P-1081 (Nov. 6, 2019)

In the case, the buyer, David Ferguson, and the seller, Joyce Maxim, signed the standard form Offer to Purchase put out by the Massachusetts Association of Realtors for the sale of residential property in Leominster. (For my post comparing the MAR form with the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, click here). It turns out that title to the property was actually held by a group of five individuals including Maxim, but we will get to that in a few. As is standard, the Offer provided that the parties would enter into a standard form purchase and sale agreement by a specific deadline. However, the seller’s attorney did not sent out a draft PSA until after the deadline, and negotiations continued well past the deadline without any issue raised by the parties or their attorneys. Both attorneys had suggested formalizing an extension of the PSA deadline at various times, but a formal extension agreement was never signed. At some point the seller’s attorney tried to cease the negotiations acknowledging that “we are well beyond our [PSA] date.” A week later, the buyer’s attorney tried to resurrect negotiations and save the deal. Further negotiations ensued between the parties, but they were abruptly stopped by the seller’s attorney who stated that the deal was for all intents and purposes dead.

Mr. Ferguson, the buyer, was naturally upset, and sued, seeking an order of “specific performance” to enforce the deal, based on well established law that an offer to purchase is a legally binding contract for the sale of real estate. (Read the case if you want to learn about various procedural issues that arose in the case with respect to the buyer’s obtaining a lis pendens and the seller’s special motion to dismiss under the lis pendens law.).

Two Important Take-Aways

The important take-aways from the ruling were twofold. First, the Court ruled that the typical deadline to execute the purchase and sale agreement is not always a hard deadline. Some people may be surprised to here that, but under Massachusetts law, a deadline in any contract can be “waived” by the parties words, actions, or conduct. Here, the Court said that a waiver of the deadline could be found where the seller’s attorney didn’t provide the draft PSA until after the deadline and the parties freely negotiated well past the deadline, even without a formal extension in place. Second, the Court also held that where the property is owned by several individuals, only having one of those individuals sign the offer is not necessarily fatal to the deal. If there is evidence that the signatory had apparently authority to sign for the others, or that the sellers ratified the offer, then the contract could be enforced. So now the buyer’s case will continue on for trial. Interestingly, during the pendency of the case, the sellers sold the property to another party. If the buyer is successfully, that new buyer is going to be very unhappy because his transfer will be voided! He may want to lawyer up himself.

Let’s Play Monday Morning Quarterback!

Now, what could have been done differently in this case to avoid the bad result for the seller? For starters, the seller’s attorney should have delivered the draft PSA on time. Once the parties started negotiations after the PSA deadline, they were in “no man’s zone” and that can only come back to hurt the sellers. Deadlines need to be taken very seriously, and sharp lawyers will always send out emails or other written reminders of them, and reserve their rights to terminate an agreement if the parties blow past a deadline without a written extension in place. The buyer’s attorney played this correctly, and didn’t push on the deadline issue because the law would favor his client on the waiver issue (which it ultimately did).

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It’s been awhile since I’ve posted, and that’s due in large part to my work on several complex cases involving challenges to deeds. So I figured since I’ve done a ton of legal research and writing on the subject in the actual cases, why not write about it?

When you think about undue influence and mental capacity, one conjures up the classic scene of the “evil” son putting a deed to the family house in front of a dying parent in the hospital, signing over the house and excluding all of the other siblings. Now, I’ve had a case where that actually occurred! But these cases run the gamut of situations.

These cases are often intra-family disputes, and can involve challenges to deeds and real estate transfers, as well as wills. Will contests are a different animal altogether, so I won’t cover those in this post. The common theme in these cases is that someone (say an heir of a deceased person or a sibling) is unhappy that a parent or sibling signed over a deed to someone else (say a brother or son) and thinks there was something nefarious behind it, and wants to essentially un-do that transfer.

Legal Standards Governing Deeds and Notaries Public

Let me start with some basics about the law of deeds and notarizations. In order to be considered enforceable and accepted for recording at the registry of deeds, a quitclaim deed must be executed before a notary public. A notary public’s job is essentially to ensure that the signatory is signing the deed is doing so freely and voluntarily. A Notary Public is governed by a comprehensive set of regulations under Executive Order No. 455 — Standards of Conduct for Notaries Public passed by Gov. Romney in 1994. A notary must examine a government issued form of identification in order to verify the identify of the person signing the deed. The notary does not have to make a medical or psychological determination as to whether the signatory is legally competent. Under the regulations, however, the notary is prohibited from notarizing a deed if the signatory “has a demeanor that causes the notary public to have a compelling doubt about whether the principal knows the consequences of the transaction or document requiring the notarial act,” or “in the notary public’s judgment, the principal is not acting of his or her own free will.”

A notary must also keep a journal of all notarizations performed (however, attorneys are exempt from this rule). The journal must contain the date, time and location of the notarial act, the signature, name and address of the person signing the document, the type of identification provided, and a description of the document notarized. The notary journal can prove to be a critical piece of evidence in a deed challenge case. (Note that the absence of a journal entry or journal itself does not render the deed or document invalid on its face).

Importantly, a notary public does not act as a lawyer or judge overseeing the legality of the deed or the conveyance in general. The regulations specifically provide that a “notary public has neither the duty nor the authority to investigate, ascertain, or attest to the lawfulness, propriety, accuracy, or truthfulness of a document or transaction involving a notarial act.”

Now this is very important. A quitclaim deed that is validly executed and acknowledged properly by a notary public and recorded with the registry of deeds is presumed by the law to be valid and enforceable. So how can someone challenge a deed which looks to be validly executed and notarized? Let me explain.

Undue Influence

Undue influence typically arises when the signatory to a deed (often elderly or mentally challenged) is under the influence of someone he or she trusts (often a close relative), and that person uses such influence to make them sign a deed under coercion or duress of some kind. The law defines undue influence as “whatever destroys free agency and constrains the person whose act is under review to do that which is contrary to his own untrammelled desire.” Four factors are usually present in a case of undue influence: (1) an unnatural disposition is made (i.e, the recipient would not otherwise have been entitled to own the property) (2) by a person susceptible to undue influence to the advantage of someone (3) with an opportunity to exercise undue influence and (4) who in fact has used that opportunity to procure the contested disposition through improper means. If undue influence can be established, a court can render the deed voidable and essentially undo the transaction in certain circumstances.  

Proof of undue influence is often challenging and involves recreating the circumstances of the deed signing and also examining the medical history of the person signing the deed many years ago. Medical records will need to be obtained. We often hire medical experts to give opinions on the victim’s neurological state. These cases are complex and can be expensive to litigate.

Lack of Mental Capacity

A person signing a deed must have a minimum level of mental capacity and awareness to know and understand what they are doing and that they are doing so under their free will. Mental capacity and undue influence often overlap. Lack of mental capacity may be found where a person may be affected by congenital deficiencies in intelligence, mental deterioration that accompanies old age, the effects of brain damage caused by accident or organic disease, and mental illnesses evidenced by such symptoms as depression, bipolar, or other neurological impairment. Like undue influence, proof of mental capacity can be challenging and involves medical records and expert medical witnesses as to the signatory’s mental state. A notary public should usually be the first line of defense in a situation where the signatory appears mentally incompetent, but often that does not happen or the signatory does not appear mentally challenged for the few minutes it takes to sign a deed. If lack of capacity can be established, a judge can invalidate the deed.

Forgery

Forgeries are a different situation all together. A forgery occurs when the person who is supposed to sign the deed did not sign it at all — someone else forged their signature on the document, and somehow had it notarized (often falsely). In my publicized forgery cases involving the accused criminal Allen Seymour, he allegedly forged victims’ signatures on deeds, then used a fake notary stamp on the deeds.

Under the law, if a deed is forged it is completely null and void — as if the deed never existed in the first place. Title reverts back to the original owner, and any subsequent good faith buyer or mortgage companies are out of luck. (That’s why you always get owner’s title insurance).

Proof of forgeries often requires a handwriting expert. Handwriting analysis is an interesting science, and I’ve dealt with it in several cases. Experts are usually former FBI agents or police detectives.

Litigating Challenges to Deeds

These cases are often brought in the Superior Court or Land Court under their quiet title jurisdiction. Sometimes they are brought in Probate Court. Claimants often seek a lis pendens (notice of legal claim) at the start of the case in order to prevent the property from being transferred or mortgaged while the case plays out. Sometimes, the signatory to the challenged deed is deceased, making the evidentiary history far more difficult to obtain and prove. Sometimes, the notary public is deceased or cannot be located. And sometimes the attorney who drafted the deed and participated in the signing has passed or cannot be located. Each case presents its own unique factual history and challenges.

It goes without saying that you need a very experienced real estate litigation attorney to handle this type of case. They are complex, both legally and factually, and can get very expensive, very quickly. But the stakes are usually quite high, with property values being so astronomical here in Massachusetts.

If you are dealing with one of these situation, please feel free to call (508-620-5352) or email me [email protected], and I would be happy to take a look at your case.

Good luck, Rich

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Attorney General Healy Announces Indictments Against Allen Seymour and Ex-Wife

As I’ve written here before, I have been representing three families victimized by convicted felon, Allen Seymour, in a brazen complex real estate forgery scam. As a result of the courageous testimony from my clients, I’m happy to report that a statewide Grand Jury has just handed down a 22 count indictment against Seymour on charges of forgery, uttering, larceny, and money laundering. Seymour’s ex-wife, Tina Seymour, was also charged with conspiracy to commit forgery.

Seymour, who used the alias “Richard Chase,” targeted elderly and unsophisticated homeowners. He used forged deeds and fake notary stamps to sell their properties out from under them, flipping them to wealthy investors, and pocketing the cash. Seymour targeted properties in Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville. As claimed in my lawsuits, Seymour also worked with a group of accomplices including Newton police lieutenant, Francis Foley III, who was not indicted but remains under investigation and on paid leave from the force.

Allen Seymour fled the state and was apprehended in South Carolina in May, and is currently being held without bail pending probation surrender hearing scheduled for a later date. He will appear in Worcester Superior Court on Jan. 7, 2019 for a hearing regarding his probation surrender. Tina Seymour will be arraigned in Hampden Superior Court at a later date.

I have filed three civil actions in Middlesex Superior Court, seeking to quiet title and restore ownership to the victims. The cases are ongoing.

First American Title Company has issued a statewide Fraud Agent Alert concerning this scheme.

Boston 25 News reported on the indictment below

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Kenney v. Brown:  First Reported Decision Under Act Clearing Title to Foreclosed Properties

In a ruling applauded by the conveyancing bar and title underwriters, Land Court Justice Robert Foster has dismissed a borrower’s challenge to a 2007 foreclosure sale even though the borrowers recorded an affidavit reflecting the alleged title defect within the time period set by the Act. This is the first court ruling that I am aware of interpreting the new Act Clearing Title to Foreclosed Properties.

The Title Clearing Act, now codified in Mass. General Laws Chapter 244, section 15,was enacted by Gov. Baker last year in an effort to minimize the impact of several troublesome SJC rulings which cast doubt on titles coming out of foreclosures, including the seminal case of U.S. Bank v. Ibanez. The Act establishes a three-year deadline to bring a legal challenge to a foreclosure. To timely bring a challenge, an aggrieved homeowner must file lawsuit challenging the validity of the foreclosure sale, and must also record a copy of the lawsuit in the registry of deeds before the limitations period expires.

The plaintiffs argued that even though the Act expressly calls for the timely filing of a copy of the complaint challenging a foreclosure sale with the Registry of Deeds, the timely recording of their affidavit provided sufficient notice of their claim to satisfy the intent of the statute.

But Judge Robert B. Foster found the plain language of §15 controlled. “The language of the Statute is conjunctive,” Foster ruled. “It requires both the commencement of an action in court and the recording of the complaint or pleading with the registry before the deadline. The recording requirement is not surplusage. It is not simply a notice provision, but rather an additional requirement necessary to file a timely suit.”

Because the plaintiffs failed to comply with §15’s requirement to record their amended complaint within one year of the effective date of the act, Dec. 31, 2016, the judge concluded that their wrongful foreclosure claims were barred.

This is a great ruling for the conveyancing bar. Judge Foster’s decision furthers the underlying purpose of the statute to provide clarity of title in the wake of the foreclosure crisis and the Supreme Judicial Court’s 2011 decisions on wrongful foreclosure in Bevilacqua v. Rodriguez and U.S. Bank National Association v. Ibanez. The whole purpose of the act is to slowly clear away these defective foreclosure titles. It was also important for Judge Foster to clarify that so-called “5B affidavits” do not satisfy the act’s recording requirements. I have seen an increased prevalence of borrowers and attorneys recording bogus 5B affidavits in an attempt to cloud titles and shake down third party buyers and title insurance companies.

The 23 page court opinion can be read below.

Kenney v. Brown (Mass. Land Court) by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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Text Messages Enforceable As Written Contract, Court Rules

With the proliferation of email and texts as the primary method of communications in real estate negotiations, it was just a matter of time before Massachusetts courts were faced with the question of whether and to what extent e-mails and texts can constitute a binding and enforceable agreement to purchase and sell real estate. In a ground-breaking case, Land Court Justice Robert Foster ruled in a case of first impression that text messages may form a binding contract in real estate negotiations–even where a formal offer has not been signed by the seller. This is huge wake up call for the remaining industry people who still believe that electronic communications are not legally binding.

St. John’s Holdings LLC v. Two Electronics, LLC

The case (embedded below) involves a commercial real estate deal between two businesses both represented by commercial real estate brokers for the purchase and sale of an industrial park property in Danvers. Two Electronics, as seller, and St. John’s Holdings, as buyer, negotiated for several weeks exchanging two “Binding Letters of Intent” spelling out all material terms of the proposed purchase of $3.2 Million. Towards the culmination of the negotiations, the real estate brokers exchanged several emails and texts, with the seller’s agent sending an email that his client was “ready to do this,” then a text that —

“[the seller] wants you to sign first, with a check, and then he will sign. Normally, the seller signs last or second. Not trying to be stupid or to the contrary, but that’s the way it normally works. Can Rick sign today and get it to me today? Tim”

The buyer signed four copies of the final Letter of Intent and tendered the deposit check with the buyer broker, after which the buyer’s broker sent the seller’s agent another text — “Tim I have the signed LOI and check. It’s 424 [PM]. Where can I meet you?” Shortly thereafter, the two agents met, and the buyer’s broker tendered the buyer signed Letter of Intent along with the deposit check.

Unbeknownst to the buyer, that same day, the seller had received another offer on the property, and proceeded to sign that offer. The seller then refused to sign the Letter of Intent with St. John’s. St. John’s sued, claiming that the series of letters of intent, emails and text messages constituted a binding and enforceable contract.

Intersection of 17th Century Statute of Frauds with 21st Century Text Messages

In Massachusetts, the Statute of Frauds requires that contracts for the sale of real state must be in writing signed by the party (or agent) to be charged. In the old days of pen and paper, application of the Statute was quite simple. If there wasn’t a written agreement signed in wet, ink signatures, there was no binding contract. With the proliferation of e-mail and text communication, application of the Statute of Frauds has become much more nuanced.

In the case discussed here, Judge Robert Foster noted several recent judicial decisions holding that emails may be binding as well as the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, under which parties may impliedly consent through their actions to make email and text transmissions binding and enforceable. Emphasizing the fact that the seller’s agent signed his name “Tim” at the end of the critical text message, the judge found that the text message was sufficiently “signed” under the Statute of Frauds to constitute a binding agreement at the culmination of the previous communications and unsigned letters of intent. The judge also found persuasive that the seller’s agent told the buyer’s agent to have the buyer sign the letter of intent first, and that’s exactly what the buyer did. Finding in favor of the buyer, the judge denied the seller’s motion to dismiss and issued a restraining order against the seller’s conveyance of the subject property.

Take Away: IMO, Watch What You Say!

This area of the law is really becoming a dangerous minefield. After the e-mail ruling came out a few years ago, I advised my clients to use the following disclaimer: “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.”

The problem, however, with text messages is that they are so short and informal. It’s not practical to use a legal disclaimer on texts, and there’s no technology that I’m aware of that would insert one into every text. You could always start off a negotiation with the caveat that electronic communications will not create a binding contract until a formal offer is executed. Also, it’s always a good idea to end every email/text with “subject to seller/buyer review and approval” when negotiating an offer. But, such boilerplate language can always be waived by subsequent conduct or actions.

This case reminds me of Lomasney’s First Rule of Politics:  “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.” — and by winking that does not mean an emoji. ?

And always take screenshots of important texts…just in case.

This post is sponsored by Brian Cavanaugh, Senior Mortgage Banker, Mortgage Network

Cav Zillow

St. John’s Holdings LLC v. Two Electronics, LLC by Richard Vetstein

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Tales From The Boundary Line Trenches

by Rich Vetstein on January 31, 2016

41 Oakland Street image 3A picture is worth a thousand words.” – Old Photograph Found In Attic Key to Victory

I handle a fair amount of Massachusetts boundary line and adverse possession disputes. For those who don’t know, adverse possession is a legal doctrine in Massachusetts where one property owner can make a claim of ownership over his neighbor’s land if such use was “open, hostile, adverse, notorious and exclusive” for 20 or more years. These disputes often come up where neighbors don’t know the true location of their property line, and one neighbor puts up a fence, retaining wall or has essentially annexed the land of the other neighbor.

In my most recent case, I am defending a gentleman whose next door neighbor claims adverse possession to an area about 15 feet into my client’s side yard which includes a small portion of the neighbor’s driveway. The dispute arose because my client wanted to put up a 6 foot privacy fence along the lot line. The neighbor sued, asking the court for a preliminary injunction to stop the installation of the fence.

My opponent claimed adverse possession dating back to when he purchased the property in 1985. The first problem I had was that my client bought his property in 2009. Thus, in order to poke holes in the claimed 30 year period, I had to track down the former owners of his property. Luckily, I found them — a charming elderly couple living in Medway. I met them over the weekend and sat down at their kitchen table with the case file and photographs. They said my opponent was a liar and disputed virtually everything he said in his lawsuit.

The elderly man went up to his attic and found several old photographs showing his then young grandchildren playing in the sideyard. That’s the picture in this post. In the background of the photo dating back two decades, you can see a fence in the disputed side yard area. The fence essentially destroyed my opponent’s adverse possession claim because he was physically prevented from using the disputed area, and thus, could not prove 20 years of uninterrupted and adverse use. When I showed the photos to opposing counsel, the response was that his client didn’t remember the fence despite the fact it was there for at least 10 years of his ownership. How convenient!

After working all weekend on the case and armed with the photographs and affidavits from the prior owners, I felt optimistic heading into the injunction hearing before a judge in Norfolk Superior Court. In order to obtain an injunction, the plaintiff is required to show a “likelihood of success on the merits.” The bottom line was that I caught my opponent in a lie, given that he never disclosed the existence of the fence in his original complaint, then came up with the convenient excuse that he didn’t remember it. The judge ruled that the neighbor could not establish adverse possession at this juncture of the case, and denied his motion for an injunction.

As with every adverse possession case, relentless preparation and determination to investigate the history of the property is critical. I was more prepared than my opponent, and that is one of the reasons why I won this round.

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100316_photo_vetstein-2-150x150.pngIf you are dealing with a Massachusetts boundary or property line dispute involving adverse possession, please contact me at [email protected] or 508-620-5253. I’ve handled scores of these cases successfully through trial and appeal.

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Restricted-Access-Signs---Industrial-43894BBHPLYALU-baBy-Pass Housing Court For Expedited Superior Court Restraining Order Procedure

I recently handled an interesting case involving an unauthorized family member taking up residence in my client’s rental unit. My client, a doctor, owns a very nice condo unit in the Theatre District in Boston. He and his family live next door in the adjacent unit. The client signed a one year lease with a wealthy foreign national from Jordan, a middle aged lady. Per the lease, the tenant was the only authorized occupant for this 1BR unit. There was no discussion about family members being authorized occupants, and my client would not have agreed to it.

My client comes to find out that the tenant’s 20-something year old son, who attends a local college, has taken up residence in the unit. To make matters worse, the kid hosts several loud late night parties reeking of marijuana and cigarette smoke. My client is incensed, and to add insult to injury, he is fined several thousand dollars for noise and lease violations by the condo association. My client attempts to take action against tenant and son, but they hire a well known tenant’s rights attorney who stonewalls the two attorneys hired by the client. The client finally hires me.

Typically, this type of case would be filed as a standard eviction case in busy pro-tenant Boston Housing Court. The tenant’s attorney is also well known there. Accordingly, I needed to find a way to bypass Housing Court and take away this lawyer’s home court advantage.

So I came up with an creative approach. I filed a restraining order application in Superior Court to remove the son as an illegal trespasser. Although Superior Court typically handles major civil cases, it does share jurisdiction with the Housing Court over trespass cases requesting equitable relief. I served the interloper with a formal trespass notice, then filed the Superior Court application a few days later. The judge granted the move out order, after which my client and I had the pleasure of taking a victory walk down Tremont Street to serve the move out order. We were able to have the management company immediately change the locks and remove all the kid’s possessions. He is now permanently barred from entering the building. And the best part was that he left his wallet and passport in the unit! My client is now preparing the unit for rent to a better tenant. 

As the saying goes, “possession is 9/10ths of the law”!!!

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1__1263399571_0444-300x199One of Largest Verdicts In A Condominium Dispute

In a David vs. Goliath case pitting a Demoulas family heir against an elderly Brandeis professor over a tony Back Bay townhouse, the Appeals Court has let stand a $1.85 Million jury verdict — one of the largest awards in a private condominium governance dispute. The case is also one of the first to successfully employ the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act in a private real estate dispute. With interest and an award attorneys fees of $1.9 Million, the judgment will swell close to $4 Million — providing a cautionary tale to condominium trustees who abuse their power for ulterior purposes. The case is Kettenbach v. Wodinsky, Mass. Appeals Court (Jan. 6, 2015), embedded below.

A Classic David vs. Goliath Tale

In 1996, Michael and Frances (Demoulas) Kettenbach bought a unit in the 5 unit townhouse located at 303 Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay. (Frances is the sister of Arthur T. Demoulas who was recently reinstated as CEO of Market Basket after a publicized family fight). With the goal to acquire all of the units and convert the building to a grand single family Back Bay residence, Kettenbach purchased three more units, leaving only the top floor unit owned by Jerome and Bernadette Wodinsky. The Wodinskys, who had owned their the fourth floor unit for over 30 years, didn’t want to sell.

According to the court’s ruling, Kettenbach enlisted Gary Crossen, a former prominent Boston attorney who was the Demoulas family’s trial lawyer in their epic family litigation in the 1990’s. When the Wodinsky’s made it clear they were not selling, Kettenbach and Crossen began to put the proverbial “squeeze” on them. Armed with the controlling interest in the condominium association, they summoned state inspectors to condemn the building elevator, leaving the 82 year old Wodinsky, who suffers emphysema, to make the daily climb up 86 stairs to his fourth floor unit. Instead of repairing the elevator, Kettenbach voted to replace it at a $275,000 price tag. When the roof leaked, rather than repair it, Kettenbach insisted on installing a new one – even though it was only 10 years old. He also completely replaced the building’s heating system and did a massive overhaul of the electrical system. The result was a $1 million special assessment, 20% of which Kettenbach attempted to impose on Wodinskys. Kettenbach also hired a private investigator who showed up at Mrs. Wodinsky’s workplace and threatened her with bankruptcy.

Staggering Jury Verdict

Not backing down, the Wodinskys sued, asserting claims under the little used Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, abuse of process, civil conspiracy, and the Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. They won an early victory when a trial judge issued an injunction forcing Kettenbach to fix the elevator. The case went to trial in 2011 over 19 days, and the jury returned a whopping $1.85 Million verdict in the Wodinsky’s favor. Although the trial judge vacated the judgment on the Chapter 93A count, which would have given the Wodinsky’s triple damages, he left the judgment intact on all other claims. Both parties appealed.

Jury Verdict Upheld on Appeal

On appeal, Appeals Court Justice William Meade upheld the entire jury verdict and judgment, and awarded the Wodinsky’s their appellate attorneys’ fees and costs, which will balloon the judgment against Kettenbach to well over $4 Million and change. The justice held that there was ample evidence that:

Kettenbach and Crossen coerced, intimidated, and threatened the Wodinskys in an effort to force them out of their home. This evidence includes: the Kettenbachs’ active attempts to condemn and decommission the building’s only elevator; the excessive period of time during which the elevator was unusable, which forced the elderly Wodinskys to walk up and down four flights of stairs; Crossen and the Kettenbachs’ manipulation of the board’s voting process to the Wodinskys’ detriment; the Kettenbachs’ demand that the Wodinskys pay twenty percent of expensive, unneeded projects that were not lawfully voted upon by the board; the Kettenbachs’ instituting litigation against the Wodinskys to collect such payments while simultaneously forgiving the assessments of another owner who agreed to sell her unit; and the Kettenbachs’ hiring of a private investigator to visit Bernadette at her work place for the specific purpose of threatening the Wodinskys with bankruptcy.

Since a member of the Demoulas family is involved, you can bet that this case isn’t over yet, and that he will try to get the Supreme Judicial Court to hear this case. And he might be successful as this is a huge jury verdict and, as mentioned earlier, one of the largest involving the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.

Expansion of Condominium Trustee Liability?

Although this was a particularly unique and egregious case, this ruling could be used to expand liability against condominium trustees to for state civil rights violations arising out of contentious governance and assessment disputes. I’m not so sure that the Mass. Civil Rights Act is the appropriate vehicle to address this sort of private claim, because I don’t see how it invokes traditional constitutional rights which the Act was intended to protect. The SJC will have to sort this out but if they don’t take this case, this ruling will be the law of the land. Either way, I will bet that we haven’t heard the end of this dispute.

Kettenbach v. Wodinsky

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massachusetts condominium super lienUpdate 3/30/16: SJC Reverses Appeals Court, Allowing Rolling Lien Procedure

Ruling Hurts Condominium Associations’ Collection Efforts

The Massachusetts Condominium Act gives condominium associations the ability to file a “super-lien” for unpaid monthly condominium fees, six months of which is given priority over a first mortgage against the unit. The super-lien has proven to be a very effective method for condominiums to collect delinquent fees because lenders will often pay off the super-priority amount so as not to affect their mortgage priority.

But what happens when a unit owner owes more than six month’s worth of condo fees? In that situation, innovative condominium attorneys have developed a practice of filing multiple lien lawsuits to create a “rolling” lien for successive 6 month periods. Unfortunately for condominium associations, the Appeals Court recently put the kibosh on this practice in the case of Drummer Boy Homes Association v. Britton (Nov. 7, 2014).

Rolling Lien Practice

In the Drummer Boy case, the unit owner withheld payment of condo fees in a dispute with the condominium trustees over parking rights and fines. (Note, this is a big “no-no” as the law provides that a disgruntled unit owner must pay fees under protest). The condominium lawyers filed three separate and successive lawsuits asserting a super-lien over 18 months worth of unpaid fees. The lawsuits were all consolidated. A district court judge ruled, however, that the association had a super-priority lien over only the first 6 months before the first lawsuit, not the 18 months’ worth claimed.

Court: Super-lien Limited To 6 Months Of Fees

On appeal, the Appeals Court likewise held that the association’s super-lien only covered the initial 6 month period, not the 18 month period claimed. The Court reasoned that the Mass. Condominium Act was modeled after the Uniform Condominium Act which clearly provided that the maximum amount of a super-priority lien was 6 months worth of fees, and that this was a fair balance between the interests of lenders and condominium associations. Of course, the condominium association is free to collect all of the outstanding fees from the unit owner and sell the unit at auction, but the first mortgage will have priority over all of the fees except for 6 months plus attorneys’ fees, so it’s essentially a Pyrrhic victory.

As the condominium attorneys over at Perkins|Ancil are saying, this ruling may be appealed to the SJC and going forward associations will likely be forced to avail themselves of the remedy of foreclosure sooner rather than later in order to fully protect their financial interests. Failing that, condominium associations will have to lobby the Legislature for a change in the super-priority lien amount over above the 6 month cap. This remains a case to watch!

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how to handle criticismAttorney’s Obnoxious Conduct At Closing Factor in Large Award

Every now and then I have a contentious deal where I should be wearing a black and white referee’s shirt instead of a shirt and tie. I’m usually successful in getting everyone to calm down and close the transaction. The case of KGM Custom Home Builders v. Prosky (embedded below) recently decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is an example of how really bad behavior at a real estate closing can get a party into big legal trouble.

45 Acres in Mansfield for Sale

The Prosky family of Mansfield entered into an agreement to sell 45 acres of developable land to KGM Custom Builders. The sale price was linked to the number of buildable lots that KGM could permit. After spending over $300,000 in 5 years including weathering an appeal, KGM was able to obtain permits for 60 residential units. However, the Proskys received a better offer for the land and a dispute over calculation over the purchase price arose. Nevertheless, KGM was not willing to back down, and scheduled a closing. Repudiating the contract, the Prosky’s attorney informed KGM that it should calculate the liquidated damages provision in the contract because the sellers were not going to sell.

Closing Shenanigans

A closing was nevertheless scheduled at which the Prosky’s attorney showed up with a professional videographer as “defense strategy.” The parties’  attorneys started yelling at each other, and KGM’s attorney shut off all electricity to the building, but the videographer was able to tape with battery power. KGM’s attorney demanded that the Prosky’s attorney produce the closing documents he was supposed to have drafted. The Prosky’s attorney waived the documents in the air, and when the buyer’s attorney went to grab them, he pulled them back and asked if could read them from 2 feet away. KGM, with funds on hand, was ready, willing and able to close, and took the Prosky’s attorney’s antics at the closing as not engaging in good faith, and walked out. At the end of the closing, one of the sellers asked the videographer, “can you explain to me what just happened”? (I would love to see this videotape!).

Anticipatory Repudiation, Breach of Good Faith and Fair Deal, or Both?

Naturally, KGM sued the sellers. The trial judge ruled the sellers had engaged in anticipatory repudiation but he calculated the sales price in favor of the sellers at over $1M, giving the buyer the option of going forward with the deal or taking the liquidated damages because the buyers had also breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing with their attorney’s antics at the closing. The buyer elected damages, and the judge awarded nearly $500,000 in permitting costs and attorneys’ fees. The sellers weren’t happy with this, so they appealed.

On appeal at the SJC, the legal issue was whether the law allowed the trial judge to provide the buyer with this favorable election of remedies. With few exceptions, outside of the commercial law context, Massachusetts has not generally recognized the doctrine of anticipatory repudiation, which permits a party to a contract to bring an action for damages prior to the time performance is due if the other party repudiates. One such exception occurs where a seller of land informs the “holder of an enforceable option” to purchase that he plans to sell the land to a third party. The high court ruled that this case fit within this exception and upheld the award of damages to the buyer. Naturally, the court seemed particularly upset about the behavior of the seller’s attorney at the closing. In fairness, the SJC did slash the attorneys’ fee award by $120,000, but with statutory interest accruing for several years now, the end result will likely be the same — the sellers are out a lot of cash.

Fortunately, these types of antics are very much the exception rather than the rule at Massachusetts closings. There is really no excuse for this type of unprofessional behavior at a closing, no matter how contentious the dispute. If a party is going to elect to terminate a deal, go ahead and do it without the theatrics. After all, what you say and do at a real estate closing may come back to bite you and your client.

KGM Custom Home Builders v. Prosky (MA SJC 5/30/14)

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

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

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Massachusetts Tenant Rent Escrow Bill Set To Pass This Term?

by Rich Vetstein on February 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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100316_photo_vetstein (2)-1Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a vocal advocate for Massachusetts landlord rights and can be reached at [email protected] or 508-620-5352.

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

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

Old Debts Come Back to Haunt Developer

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

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

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

Interfamily Conveyance = Resulting Trust = Creditor Wins


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

Moral Of The Story: Trash the Nominee Trust

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

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

 

 

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

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

Zoned For Business or Residential?

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

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

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

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

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

Exculpatory Clause in Standard Form P&S Not Applicable

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

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

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

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

Advice For Realtors Going Forward

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

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

 

Dewolfe v. Hingham Center

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

by Rich Vetstein on February 2, 2013

email-1-354x385

A Simple Email Disclaimer Cannot Hurt & Can Only Help

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

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

Contract Negotiations

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

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

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

Practice Pointer:

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

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

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

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

Confidential Communications

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

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

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

Practice Pointer:

I use this simple email disclaimer:

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

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

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

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

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stop20foreclosure1Court Uses Novel Equitable Assignment of Mortgage Theory 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cavanaugh v. GMAC Mortgage — Massachusetts Land Court by

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recy3Triple Damage Penalty for Willful Cutting Of Neighbor’s Trees 

Neighbors typically get really mad when you chop down their trees. Really mad….and it can get the guy with the chainsaw into a lot of legal trouble. Can you say “triple damages”?

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

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

That said, I always advise property owners who intend to cut trees near boundary lines to consult a survey or plot plan to ensure that the trees are not on their neighbor’s land.

Measure of Damages: Restoration Cost Value

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

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

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

Branches Over The Property Line

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

Utility Tree Cutting

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

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

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

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Richard D. VetsteinRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who has handled numerous illegal tree cutting and boundary line disputes. Please contact him at [email protected] or 508.620.5352.

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

ma-lowell-hamiltoncanal

Condo Construction Defect Claims Now Easier To Bring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq.Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced condominium and construction litigation attorney. Please contact him at 508-620-5352 or [email protected]

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