Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Real Estate Fraud

William Myre engaged an engineer to prepare a plat for Hunt County property he owned. Although there were no drainage plans as required by county regulators, Hunt County approved it anyway and the property became Cole Estates. Thereafter, Craig Development, Inc. purchased Cole Estates from Myre.

Carl Meletio and others bought some Cole Estates lots from Craig Development, Inc. (“CDI”) between 2000 and 2002. Cole Estates became a residential subdivision.

Some of the properties in Cole Estates flooded during significant rainstorms between 2002 and 2006. Meletio sued CDI and Myre. The jury determined that Myre had committed fraud by failing to disclose to Meletio and others that Cole Estates might be inundated by floodwaters. Judgment was rendered for Meletio, and Myre appealed.

In the appeal Myre claimed that he could not have committed fraud, since he did not owe a duty of disclosure to the individuals to whom he did not sell property. Myre reminded the appellate court that he sold the property to CDI, not Meletio. Myre served only as the developer, and claimed that Myre’s duties were owed only to CDI. Therefore, if the property owners were damaged their recourse should be directed against CDI, not Myre.

The 5th District Court of Appeals ratified Texas law that “. . . a seller is under a duty to disclose materials facts that would not be discoverable by the exercise of ordinary care and due diligence by the purchaser, or that a reasonable investigation and inquiry would not uncover.” The Court cited a case providing that a party cannot be guilty of fraudulently concealing facts of which he is not aware.

Finding that Myre had no relationship with any of the plaintiffs and therefore Myre had no duty of disclosure to them, the Court concluded that Myre could not be liable for fraud. The fraud portion of the judgment was reversed. See Myre v. Meletio, 05-08-00576, Fifth District Court of Appeals, Dallas Division; judgment rendered February 26, 2010.

Bottom line:
1. Real estate disclosure duties are typically owed to property purchasers and tenants by their immediate sellers and landlords.
2. Disclosure duties are also owed by brokers and agents to their principals and to their opposing parties as well.
3. It is surprising that real estate brokers and agents were not sued. If CDI’s broker and agent were sued in this case, both the trial court and appellate court could have asserted liability against them if they had knowledge of the flooding issue, and failed to disclose.

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

Monday, January 16, 2012

Commercial Lease Enforceability - Landlord v. Tenant

May a Landlord enforce a lease obligating the tenant to operate a nightclub or bar, when the tenant cannot obtain a liquor license? Merry Homes, Inc. thought so. Chi Hung Luu thought differently.

The Houston trial court entered a judgment declaring the commercial lease void for illegality, since Luu could not obtain a liquor license. Evidently the Bellaire site was too close to a school and hospital. The Houston trial court awarded Luu $6,000 for the security deposit, and $25,300 in attorneys fees. Merry Homes – the landlord – appealed.

In June 2005 Luu signed a 5-year Lease. The use clause provided that Luu may only use the premises to operate a nightclub or bar, and “for no other purpose.” The Lease also stated that Luu could not use the premises for any activity that violates laws.

Luu promptly submitted his liquor application to the City of Houston after the Lease was signed. The application was denied. The site was within 300 feet from a public school and a public hospital, and consequently, no nightclub / bar license would be issued. The City suggested that Luu might qualify under the “restaurant exception” rules, but Luu chose not to do so because of the expense of installing a full kitchen.

Luu requested the return of his deposit and termination of the Lease. Merry Homes refused.

Luu never occupied the premises. Instead he sued Merry Homes, requesting a judicial determination that the purpose of the Lease was impossibly frustrated, and therefore the Lease must be terminated.

The Houston Court of Appeals decided on February 19, 2010, that both the Houston trial court and Chi Hung Luu were correct. Mr. Luu could not legally perform his obligations in the Lease. A contract to fulfill an obligation which cannot be performed without violating law is void. The Lease was terminated by the Court.

Bottom line:
1.  Be careful with use clauses. It may have been better for the Landlord to offer some flexibility in that provision.
2.  The Landlord may have enjoyed a better position if it had clarified that rent was due regardless of Tenant’s use or non-use of the premises.
3.  A provision in a Lease stating that the Tenant has fully explored compliance with all laws and is satisfied might also have helped this Landlord.

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

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Commercial Foreclosures and Correction Deeds

It is rare that The Supremes review a real estate case. But in December 2009 the Texas Supreme Court decided Myrad Properties vs. LaSalle Bank. The case was about a timely subject – Texas foreclosure.

Myrad financed two apartment communities in Killeen with LaSalle Bank NA’s predecessor. Myrad signed a $1 million note and a deed of trust. The deed of trust was recorded in Bell County. The deed of trust contained separate property descriptions for both the Casa Grande Apartments and La Casa Apartments.

Myrad defaulted. LaSalle Bank posted a notice of foreclosure upon only the Casa Grande property. At the foreclosure auction in Bell County, the substitute trustee read only the property description for Casa Grande. LaSalle was the only bidder, offering almost $1 million.

LaSalle received and recorded a substitute trustee’s deed for the Casa Grande property.

Two days later Myrad sued LaSalle, to keep it from filing a correction deed covering the La Casa property. When LaSalle filed it anyway, Myrad asserted that LaSalle owned only the Casa Grande property, while Myrad retained ownership of La Casa free of LaSalle’s deed of trust lien.

Both the trial court and court of appeals held that LaSalle’s correction deed was effective to transfer ownership of both Casa Grande and La Casa to LaSalle.

The Texas Supreme Court reviewed the history of correction deeds and determined that such deeds can be used to correct minor defects and imperfections. However, correction deeds cannot be used to convey additional, separate properties. The correction deed filed by LaSalle was void.

Bottom line:
1. Foreclosures are risky business.
2. Purchasers at foreclosure auctions sometimes make mistakes. So do lenders. Trustees too.
3. Be wary of correction deeds.

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