Friday, June 30, 2017

Supremes Speak. I Listen. So Should You.


And yet here’s more from the Texas Supreme Court regarding commercial property. This one shocked me and I suspect you’ll be hearing / seeing / reading more about it.

Jay Cohen, trustee of various trusts, transferred several properties owned by the trusts into different partnerships. One involved the “West Newcastle” property, which Cohen transferred to Flat Stone II, Ltd. The controlling shareholder of Flat Stone’s general partner, Matthew Dilick, gave Regions Bank a mortgage to secure a personal loan.

When the loan wasn’t repaid because Dilick defaulted, Dilick transferred a piece from the West Newcastle property to a new entity. Cohen sued Dilick, alleging a fraudulent transfer and that Dilick lacked authority to mortgage the parcel. Cohen also filed notices of “litigation pending” (lis pendens) on the various pieces of property involved in the lawsuit.

One of the Notices of Lis Pendens stated that the purpose of the underlying suit was to invalidate the transfer of property and Regions Bank lien. The trial court granted the Dilick’s motion to expunge the Notices of Lis Pendens.

While Cohen was appealing the Expunction Order, Dilick sold one of the parcels to Sandcastle for $750,000.

Meanwhile the Texas court of appeals overturned the trial court’s Expunction Order, so Cohen added Sandcastle as a defendant to cancel its recent purchase. When Dilick sold another piece to NewBiss for $1.8 million, Cohen added NewBiss as a defendant to the same litigation.

And now to the important part: Both Sandcastle and NewBiss claimed that they lawfully relied on the trial courts Expungement Orders, which had the effect of voiding any notice derived from the Lis Pendens.

The trial court agreed that the Expungement Orders superceded the Notice of Lis Pendens, and that such Notices were void. That was the first win for Sandcastle and NewBiss. Cohen appealed.

The Texas Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court. That was the second win for NewBiss and Sandcastle. An appeal to the Texas Supreme Court followed.

At our State’s highest Court, Cohen argued that expunction of the Notices of Lis Pendens does *not* relieve a purchaser from the duty to review the underlying lawsuit to determine if it could impact future ownership. NewBiss and Sandcastle defended by stating the obvious: that is what the word “expunction” means, to remove from a record, erase or destroy.

The Supremes decided that, no, the word “expunction,” at least in the context of Notices of Lis Pendens, does not mean what we think it means. Rather, the word means that although the chain of title may be free from the recorded Notice, the E word does not have the affect of ignoring the underlying lawsuit altogether.

The Texas Supreme Court reversed the Judgment of the court of appeals and trial court. NewBiss and Sandcastle lost this last round and are now charged with knowledge of the contents of a lawsuit they believed was no longer relevant due to the Expunction Orders. See Sommers v. Sandcastle Homes and NewBiss Property.; Case No. 15-0847; Texas Supreme Court; June 16, 2017: http://cases.justia.com/texas/supreme-court/2017-15-0848.pdf?ts=1497621851.  

Lessons learned:

1.      The implication of this case is far-reaching. This means that if a Notice of Lis Pendens has ever been filed (even though later released / discharged / expunged), purchasers, tenants and lenders are still charged with understanding what was contained in the Notice as well as the underlying lawsuit. This appears to be the case even though after release / discharge / expungement, the Notice would not typically appear in a commitment for title insurance.

2.      If a purchaser, tenant or lender fails to review the Notice (again, even though it’s been released), the purchaser / tenant / lender may find itself defending a claim regarding fraudulent transfer or other legal issue. And, the title insurer may refuse to defend or indemnify claiming that the Notice (even though released) was a matter of public record, accessible to anyone who looked for it online.

3.      Our Texas legislators will need to fix this when they next meet. In 2019. We’ll need new laws to the effect that the word “expunge” means exactly what we think. Otherwise and until that happens, smart buyers, lenders and tenants will need to instruct title agents to specifically search for all Notices of Lis Pendens affecting the target property, even though they may appear to have been subsequently released. Because a recorded Release – and I’m struggling writing this – but it appears that a recorded Release of Lis Pendens is ineffective and provides no safe harbor to buyers, lenders and tenants and everyone else who trusts that the word “release” or “expunge” means exactly that.

                                                                                    Stuart A. Lautin, Esq.*


* Board Certified, Commercial (1989) and Residential (1988) Real Estate Law,
Texas Board of Legal Specialization

Licensed in the States of Texas and New York

Reprinted with the permission of North Texas Commercial Association of REALTORS®, Inc.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Boo Bradberry and the San Francisco Rose


Our Supremes (Texas Supreme Court, that is) never get involved in eviction cases. Certainly not in commercial evictions. Not that I can recall, anyway.

With one recent exception.

Shields Limited Partnership owns commercial property in Dallas, which was leased to Boo Bradberry and subleased to 40/40 Enterprises, Inc. Boo and 40 have operated the San Francisco Rose there, which has been a Dallas-area Greenville Ave fixture since the 1970s.

Boo was not timely with his rent payments, and regularly violated the Lease terms by paying late. Without fail, Shields accepted the rental when tendered without protest or assessment of late fees.

In May 2012 Boo was late again with the rental payment, which was not tendered until June 13. The late rent payment was, again, accepted without protest.

If Boo had properly exercised a lease option, his rate starting June 1 would have increased to $3,340 per month. Instead, Boo continued to pay $3,000 per month. And Shields continued to accept it.

In November 2012 Shields’ broker sent Boo an email notice that Boo had incurred late charges, and declared that Boo was a month-to-month tenant.

Since no further rent payments were received, Shields’ broker sent Boo a notice of default in December 2012.

Almost one full year later – October 2013 – Boo received additional default notices and Shields offered Boo a new lease with a rent rate of $9,700 per month. When Boo refused, Shields started an eviction lawsuit.

The JP Court ruled in Boo’s favor, as did the Dallas County Court. The Texas Court of Appeals affirmed, finding essentially that Shields’ actions in constantly accepting late rental payments without protest is inconsistent with the assertion that Boo had failed to fulfill the lease obligations.

The main point before the Supremes turned on the non-waiver provision in the Lease, which said exactly what you think it would say:

“Landlord’s failure to enforce any provisions of [the] Lease or its acceptance of late installments of Rent shall not be a waiver and shall not estop Landlord from enforcing that provision or any other provision of [the] Lease in the future.”

So the issue is only whether Shields could, by its conduct in continually accepting late rent, waive the non-waiver provision of the Lease.

After pages of discussion and case citations from 1945 on (let’s not forget this is the Texas Supreme Court), the Supremes held that Shields’ constant acceptance of late rent payments does not waive the non-waiver clause. Meaning: Shields could still claim a Lease default and evict Boo.

Wow. Got to be honest with you – I did not see this coming although I should have. Since the Texas Supreme Court accepted review of the case, that meant that new laws were headed our way. Because, see above. Our Supreme Court never reviews commercial eviction cases.

See Shields Limited Partnership v. Boo Nathaniel Bradberry and 40/40 Enterprises, Inc.; Case No. 15-0803; Texas Supreme Court; May 12, 2017: http://docs.texasappellate.com/scotx/op/15-0803/2017-05-12.guzman.pdf.

Lessons learned:

1.      If a Texas landlord has been accepting late rents without protest, perhaps there is still a means to evict a tenant for non-payment. Maybe.

2.      But rather than litigate the case to the Supreme Court, a Texas landlord would be wiser to reject the late rental, or accept it “under protest” and consistently enforce late provisions. In that manner, appellate litigation should not be needed.

3.      There’s a procedural point I don’t understand. Texas laws only allow residential evictions to be appealed past the county court level. See TPC 24.007: http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/PR/htm/PR.24.htm. This has been our laws since at least 1983. I need to read this case again and figure out how / why this commercial eviction was appealed, twice, past that level.

**Reprinted with the permission of North Texas Commercial Association of REALTORS®, Inc.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Good Faith & Fair Dealing




 
First, let me explain how this month’s topic landed on my desk and in your email inbox folder. I am a licensed lawyer in both Texas and New York. As such, my clients come from a diverse geographic area. Property owners, tenants, landlords, developers, brokers, agents and property managers in New York have a different view of The Way Things Work then we do in Texas.

Some of their differing views of TWTW relate to an obligation of good faith and fair dealing. And, this duty (or, non-duty) then trickles down to the choice of law clause found in virtually every Contract and Lease.

Let me [try to] explain by using a recent case to illustrate.

Hilfiker Square owns land in which Thrifty Payless is a tenant. Recorded covenants prohibit construction without first obtaining 90% consent of the those who own and those who occupy the shopping center.

In 2010 Hilfiker had an opportunity to sign a long-term ground lease with a restaurant tenant. In 2011 Hilfiker started to request the needed consents in order to proceed with development and leasing.

All parties including the City agreed to the plan. But not Thrifty. Thrifty objected to the plan for three distinct reasons – parking utilization, driveway operations, and visibility.

Hilfiker engaged a third-party engineering firm and a third-party architectural firm to analyze and address these concerns. Each specialist concluded that development would not materially impact Thrifty’s parking, driveways, or visibility.

Undaunted, Thrifty still refused to consent. So Hilfiker sued Thrifty Payless, alleging that Thrifty breached an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing by depriving Hilfiker of its opportunity to enter into the ground lease with the restaurant-tenant. Hilfiker claims that its damages are $1.6 million, which corresponds to the amount the ground lease area would be worth if it were developed as projected.

Thrifty defended by claiming that the recorded covenants grant to Thrifty the absolute right to prevent Hilfiker from building a restaurant at Hilfiker Shopping Center. No reasons required. Consequently, Thrifty requested that the Court toss the case.

This case comes to us from Salem Oregon, and so far the only portion that has been litigated to completion is Thrifty’s request that the Court dismiss the lawsuit.

The Oregon Court found that Oregon law imposes a duty of good faith and fair dealing in the performance and enforcement of every contract. The purpose, writes the Court, is to prohibit improper behavior and ensure the parties will refrain from any act that would have the effect of destroying or injuring the right of the other party to receive the “fruits” of the contract.

I suppose that Oregon contracts bear “fruit.” But that’s a digression.

From there, it wasn’t a far stretch for the Oregon Court to conclude that Hilfiker had a reasonable expectation that Thrifty would negotiate, reasonably and in good faith, concerning any proposed amendments to the recorded covenants as long as such amendments are not materially adverse to Thrifty’s financial interest.

And so Hilfiker’s claim withstands Thrifty’s Motion to Dismiss. See Hilfiker Square, LLC v. Thrifty Payless, Inc., 6:16-cv-01855-MC; District Court of Oregon; November 29, 2016: https://casetext.com/case/hilfiker-square-llc-v-thrifty-payless-inc.

This is the place where I stress that Oregon’s laws are different than those in Texas, at least on this point. Texans don’t have a duty of good faith and fair dealing with respect to real estate purchases, sales, leasing, management, and development, unless that obligation is inserted into the document or unless a special relationship exists between the parties.

But Texas real estate brokers and agents do have a similar, implied duty!

Lessons learned:

1.      The laws of each State (take Louisiana, as an extreme example) can be radically different than other States. See above.

2.      This case illustrates why contracting parties need to be smart about the boilerplate choice of law clause hidden on Page 23 of the Contract or Lease. Depending on the clarity of your crystal ball, selecting Texas in that section may backfire.


3.      The B/L: Some “standard” Contract and Lease provisions deserve attention and consideration. The choice of laws clause, often overlooked, might require more scrutiny.

                                                                                    Stuart A. Lautin, Esq.*

               * Board Certified, Commercial (1989) and Residential (1988) Real Estate Law,
                  Texas Board of Legal Specialization

                 Licensed in the States of Texas and New York

                Reprinted with the permission of North Texas Commercial Association of REALTORS®, Inc.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Oral Contracts - Binding or Not?




 
We have all been told that oral agreements are not binding. But don’t tell that to David Reyes and Sonia Valenzuela.

In 1993 David and Sonia approached Annette Burrus and inquired about buying one of her lots in Tornillo Texas. Tornillo is a colonia in El Paso County, on the border, with a population of 1,568 as of the last census.

Burrus claims she advised them that she had no lots for sale, but instead she offered to rent them a portion of her 11-acre tract. Burrus offered to purchase a mobile home of their choice, which she would move to the property at her expense. Thereafter, David and Sonia and their children could rent the mobile home and the lot from Burrus on a month-to-month basis.

Burrus purchased a mobile home as selected by David and Sonia, and had the home moved to the lot. David and Sonia paid $500 before moving into the mobile home in September 1994, and thereafter paid $200 per month. For 17 years.

Although Burrus saw the relationship as Landlord and Tenant (but evidently Burrus neither repaired nor maintained any portions of the lot and home), David and Sonia believed that they had agreed to purchase the mobile home from Burrus for $21,000, that their initial $500 payment was a down payment on the lot, and that the $200 monthly payments were to be applied as principal and interest on a seller-financed Note.

As would be the case in a contract for deed transaction, David and Sonia anticipated they would receive full title to both the mobile home and lot from Burrus once they paid off the loan.

Shortly after they moved in, David and Sonia erected a chain link fence around the perimeter of the lot, installed plumbing fixtures, lighting and ceramic tiles in the home, built a shed and dog kennel and planted trees. Then they added a porch and several rooms to the mobile home, moved the home to the center of the lot and paid to have a concrete slab poured on which to build the additions.

In all, David and Sonia spent over $22,000 in materials for the improvements with no reimbursement from Burrus.

In March 2011 Burrus began negotiating to sell her acreage to Tornillo DTP VI, LLC, which included the lot where David and Sonia were living. Evidently Tornillo DTP was buying the property to lease it to Dollar General, which intended to build a retail store at the site.

Burrus signed a contract with Tornillo DTP in January 2012, in which she would receive $90,000 for the sale, with a closing date in February 2012. After Burrus informed David and Sonia of the closing, demolition crews hired by Tornillo DTP came onto their property and began removing improvements including the fence, trees and dog kennel. So David and Sonia sued both Burrus and Tornillo in April 2012, attempting to stop the demolition.

David and Sonia resolved their dispute with Tornillo DTP, then turned their gun turrets towards Burrus. The jury determined that an oral agreement existed for Burrus to sell her property to David and Sonia, Burrus breached the agreement, and David and Sonia were damaged.

The trial court entered judgment awarding David and Sonia $70,000 in damages, $92,000 in attorney’s fees and $23,000 related to Burrus’ failure to render annual accounting statements as provided by Texas’ contract for deed statutes.

Burrus appealed, contending that oral agreements regarding real estate are prohibited in Texas.

The appellate court first concluded that ordinary real estate transactions in Texas must be written. But also that there were exceptions to that rule when valuable and unreimbursed improvements were made to the property, and when fairness and equity requires Courts to enforce an unwritten agreement.

I’ll spare you the 23-page single-spaced analysis written by the Court, but you can already guess the outcome. The trial court’s judgment for David and Sonia is affirmed.

See Burrus v. Reyes, Case No. 08-14-00265-CV, Texas Court of Appeals, 8th District, March 8, 2017: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=18368523796023647491&q=burrus+v.+reyes&hl=en&as_sdt=6,44.   

Lessons learned:

1.      Beware the oral agreement. Yes Texas law still says that real estate agreements regarding the purchase and sale of property must be written. And yet judges and juries can still find a way to ignore the law.

2.      The oral-agreements-are-not-binding-in-Texas-theory is even more problematic regarding leasing, where real estate leases for a term of one year or less need not be written. That can be particularly dangerous in the context of short-term executive office leasing, short-term warehouse leasing or a “holiday” lease of retail space.


3.      The B/L: If for no other reason than clarity, get it in writing!

                                                                                    Stuart A. Lautin, Esq.*

           Reprinted with the permission of the North Texas Commercial Association of REALTORS®, Inc.