Monday, August 28, 2017

Real Estate: Former Homeowners' Association President's Emails were Defamatory

           In the Fairfax Circuit Court case of Cornwell v. Ruggieri, the trial judge and jury found that the plaintiff homeowner was defamed by four emails written and published by a former association president and awarded $9,000.00 in damages. These emails alleged that the homeowner had stolen association funds five years earlier. The former association president tried to defend the case on the basis that the statements were simply a matter “of opinion”, not a matter of fact (as required under Virginia case law to recover damages), but the trial judge disagreed.
     The trial judge instructed the jury that under Virginia law the defendant, in his role as association president, had a “limited privilege” to make defamatory statements without being liable for damages. However, if it was proved by “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant had “abused” the privilege, the defamatory statements were not protected. The trial judge instructed the jury that there were six possible ways (outlined below) that the homeowner could prove that the former association president abused the limited privilege.
     The homeowner presented evidence that the defendant made statements (1) with reckless disregard; (2) that were unnecessarily insulting; (3) that the language was stronger than was necessary; (4) were made because of hatred, ill will, or a desire to hurt the homeowner rather than a fair comment on the subject; and (5) were made because of personal spite, or ill will, independent of the occasion on which the communications were made.
     The jury was given a specific interrogatory with regard to each of the four defamatory statements:
· Did the defendant make the following statements?
· Were they about the plaintiff?
· Were they heard by someone other than the plaintiff?
· Are the statements false?
· Did the defendant make the statements knowing them to be false, or, believing them to be true, did he lack reasonable grounds for such belief or act negligently in failing to ascertain the facts on which the statements were based?
· Did the defendant abuse a limited privilege to make the statement?
     For each question as to all four emails, the jury answered “yes”. After a three-day trial, the verdict was rendered in favor of the plaintiff -- $9,000.00 in damages.
     This case gives a good reminder that homeowner association board members must be knowledgeable, professional and well-advised when serving their communities.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Bankruptcy: Vehicle Repossessions/Automatic Stay

     The United States District Court of Abingdon, Virginia, in the case of Nationsbank N.A. v. Bush reversed a Bankruptcy Court decision finding that the creditor bank had violated the Bankruptcy Code's automatic stay against actions by creditor's against bankrupt debtors.
     The District Court found that in order for the bank to have violated the automatic stay, the bank must have known of the debtor's filing. The District Court found that the notice of filing was mailed to the proper address and was not subsequently returned undelivered may support the conclusion that the bank received notice, it does not support the conclusion that the bank received the notice before the sale date. The issue was not whether the bank ever received notice, but when the bank received the notice. The District Court found that there was no evidence from which the Bankruptcy Court could have found that the bank received the notice before the sale.
     Despite the favorable ruling, creditors should be very careful to establish a checking system so that violations will not occur. The penalty for violations range from jail time to fines and attorney's fees.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Collections: Construction Case Garnishments

     The United States District Court in Alexandria has reviewed a matter important to many supplier and contractor creditors: the garnishment of funds due their debtors from another party. The case was U.S. v. Harkins Builders Inc. In Harkins a material supplier was pursuing a garnishment proceeding against a builder who owed money to the judgment debtor, a drywall subcontractor. The Court ruled that the supplier was not bound by a mandatory arbitration clause in a separate contract between the builder and the drywall sub.
     In Harkins a materials company supplied drywall materials to drywall subcontractors. When the drywall subs failed to pay for the materials, the supplier obtained a federal court judgment for $278,520. The supplier then initiated a garnishment proceeding against a builder to attach monies owed by the builder to the drywall sub under a contract between them. As garnishee, the sub confessed assets but argued that the amount it owed to the drywall sub should be reduced by setoffs totaling $50,853 allegedly owed by the sub to the builder under their contract. The garnishee also argued that any dispute about these setoffs must be resolved through arbitration, as provided in the contract between the drywall sub and the builder.
     The Court rejected the contention that the resolution of the amount of money owed by the builder to the drywall sub and subjected to garnishment must be accomplished through arbitration. As a judgment creditor of the drywall sub, the supplier was not a party to the contract between the sub and the builder, and its interest was limited to the drywall sub's property interest in the builder's hands. The parties to the drywall builder contract agreed to arbitration as an efficient procedural mechanism for resolving contractual disputes, including disputes over amounts owed. The agreement to arbitrate, however, does not add or subtract value in the calculus for determining the value of the contract right. The Court ruled that since the judgment creditor was afforded court procedures for determining the value, the fact that the property before the court was created by a contract containing an arbitration clause did not require a non-party to the contract to follow the contract's procedural mechanisms for dispute resolution. Accordingly, the federal courts assumed jurisdiction to make the decision.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Foreclosure: Notice of Sale

     The Code of Virginia provides specific guidance as to giving notice of a foreclosure sale.
     §55-59.1 requires that the written notice of sale contain the time, date and place of the proposed sale, as well as either (i) the instrument number, or, deed book and page number, of the instrument of appointment filed pursuant to §55-59-59 (appointment of substitute trustee), or, (ii) a copy of the executed and notarized appointment of substitute trustee. Personal delivery or mailing a copy of the advertisement by certified or registered mail is sufficient.
     §55-59.1 requires the trustee to send written notice of the time, date and place of the sale to (i) the present owner of the property … (ii) any subordinate lienholder … (iii) any assignee of such note … (iv) any condominium unit owner’s association that has filed a lien … (v) any property owner’s association that has filed a lien … (vi) any proprietary lessees’ association that has filed a lien.
     It is important to know that in addition to the notice required by statute, the note or the deed of trust may contain additional notice requirements. Accordingly, the trustee should examine both of these documents.
     §55-59 provides that the notice can be sent by either the trustee or the lender.