Monday, September 25, 2017

Real Estate: Homeowner Associations - Easements

     Cases involving HOA powers are frequently fact specific and governing document specific. Recently, the Frederick County Circuit Court decided a case in which a homeowners association was held in violation of the homeowners association’s restrictive covenants and liable for compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees because it removed a wall on a homeowner’s property. The homeowner spent a considerable amount of time and effort improving a portion of a shared roadway that was on his property. He cleared the land, widened the pathway, and built an eight foot retention wall along the pathway. The HOA notified the homeowner that the wall was encroaching on the right of way and told the homeowner that it must be removed at the homeowner’s expense. There was no board of directors hearing or meeting before the decision was made. Without further notice, the wall was removed but the homeowner refused to pay. In addition to tearing down the wall, the HOA installed drainage culverts in the right of way which resulted in silt flowing into the property’s septic system. The HOA filed suit and obtained a General District Court judgment for the expense of removing the wall. The homeowner then appealed the judgment to the Frederick County Circuit Court and filed a complaint against the HOA. The homeowner claimed that the HOA acted outside its authority under the restrictive covenants, which constituted trespass. The HOA filed a counterclaim, alleging breach of contract and violation of the Property Owners’ Association Act (Va. Code Section 55-508). The court held in favor of the homeowner and found that the HOA exceeded its authority under the restrictive covenants. The HOA did not have authority to remove the wall or to install the drainage culverts. In addition, the HOA did not have the ability to charge the homeowner for either the removal of the wall or the installment of the drainage culverts. The court awarded the homeowner compensatory damages of $28,500 (the value of the wall and cost of returning the property to its prior condition) and attorneys’ fees of $48,844.  
     It is important to ensure that HOA covenants provide for the powers necessary to take self-help to effect repairs and remove violations. It is also important for HOAs to work through the proper channels and act within its authority granted by restrictive covenants. Failing to do so can be costly for an HOA. The law firm of Lafayette, Ayers & Whitlock, PLC has experience in drafting, reviewing, and amending HOA documents, as well as, representing HOAs in court.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Bankruptcy: IRA Funds are not disposable income in Chapter 13

       The case of Solomon v. Cosby, decided by the United States District Court in Baltimore, Maryland, served as a good review (although bad outcome) of how Individual Retirement Account funds are treated in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
     The Appeals Court reversed the Bankruptcy Court's decision that IRA funds are disposable income, and that the debtor's Chapter 13 plan should be rejected as not paying "all of the debtor's projected disposable income".
     In Solomon, the debtor, a retired physician, had proposed a Chapter 13 plan excluding approximately $1.4 million invested in an IRA. The debtor was facing tort claims of sexual misconduct from several former medical patients who sought damages of $160 million at the time he filed his Chapter 13. The plan provided for only $45,000.00 over five years.
     The Appeals Court held that under the clear terms of Bankruptcy Code §1325(b)(2), the debtor's IRA funds are not "income". Both the statutory definition of "disposable income" as income that is received by the debtor, as well as the requirement that projected income must be calculated over the life of the plan, contemplate income that a debtor is actually receiving at the time of the confirmation hearing, the debtor was not actually receiving any disbursements from his IRAs. The debtor also insisted that he had no intentions of withdrawing funds from the IRAs during the life of the plan.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Collections: Bad Check Collection and the Fair Debt Practices Collection Act

     Those who actively engage in the collection of debts as a third party are cognizant of the fact that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) applies to their collection activities. However, does the FDCPA apply to notices given as a prerequisite to criminal prosecution for passing bad checks? The United States District Court at Charlottesville, Virginia, in the case of Shifflett v. Accelerated Recovery, examined the issue but did not give a definitive answer.
     Virginia Code §18.2-183 states that letters are required to be mailed to debtors to establish a prima facie case of fraud or knowledge of insufficient funds in order to pursue criminal prosecution. The creditor/defendant in Shifflett argued that it had never sought recovery through the civil process, it had always pursued a criminal warrant in cases where it was unable to collect an unpaid check.
     The debtors/plaintiffs, on the other hand, argued that the creditor was required to give notices pursuant to the FDCPA. The essence of the debtors' argument was that the notices sent by the creditor, regardless of the creditor's practice or intent, constituted a "communication" pursuant to the language of FDCPA §1692(a) and therefore trigger the notice requirements of FDCPA §1692(a).
     The Court did not rule as to whether the FDCPA applies to notices pursuant to Virginia Code §18.2-183. Instead, the Court focused on distinctions between the creditor's letters in Shifflett and that which is required by Virginia Code §18.2-183 for criminal prosecution. The Court found that the creditor's letters did not evidence the creditor's intent to pursue criminal remedies as opposed to civil remedies. The creditor claimed that the language of its letters referring to "the legal process" indicated its intent to use the criminal legal processing not the civil legal process. The Court, however, stated that it was unable to discern precisely in what manner the phrase "legal process" objectively discriminates between the criminal legal process and the civil legal process.
     The Court also noted that the creditor's letters also advised the debtors that payment must be made within ten days from the date of the letter. Virginia Code §18.2-183 provides that notice mailed by certified mail or registered mail with evidence of returned receipt shall be deemed sufficient and equivalent to notice having been received by the maker or drawer. The creditor did not present evidence that it sent the letters by either certified or registered mail with the request of a returned receipt.
     The Court also noted that the creditor's letters stated explicitly that it is "attempting to collect a debt..." By contrast, the Court stated that it could not locate any language within the letters by which even vaguely suggest that the creditor had sent the notices in furtherance of pursuing a criminal proceeding.
     Accordingly, the Court found that the creditor failed to demonstrate that the letters were sent to the debtors pursuant to the requirements of Virginia Code §18.2-183, and therefore, found the creditor liable for its failure to comply with the notice requirements of §1692(a) of the FDCPA.
     The lesson from Shifflett - when contemplating pursuing legal measures for “bad checks” it is important to use counsel with experience in both criminal and civil law.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Foreclosure: Sale Price and Delays in Sale

       The trustee is under a duty to “use all reasonable diligence to obtain the best price.” 
     If the trustee determines that in order to fulfill his fiduciary duty to realize the highest price for the property, a recess is necessary, he or she should recess the sale. Arguably, the recess is within the scope of the discretion afforded trustees in the conduct of the foreclosure sale. For example, if a bidder who previously advised the trustee of his interest in bidding on the property is delayed, the trustee, in his discretion, may recess the sale to a later hour on the same day to allow the bidder to attend the sale. If the trustee fails to accommodate the bidder and the property is sold for a price less than the bidder was willing to pay, the trustee may have breached his duty to “use all reasonable diligence to obtain the best price.” A decision by the trustee to recess the sale, however, should not impair the sale by making it impossible or impracticable for the bidders to appear and bid at the recessed sale.
     The postponement of a foreclosure sale to a different day is not a recess and is governed by statute. Virginia Code §55-59.1(D) provides that the trustee, in his discretion, may postpone the sale to a different day, and no new or additional “notice” must be given. Presumably, the “notice” referred to in this section is notice of the postponement. The trustee needs only to announce at the sale that it has been postponed. §55-59.2(D) provides that if the sale is postponed, the trustee must advertise the “new” sale in the same manner as the original advertisement. Read in conjunction, these sections require the trustee who postpones the foreclosure to re-advertise the sale in the same manner as the original sale was advertised. Although the secured obligation will not need to be accelerated again, all other aspects of the foreclosure must be completed. Effectively, a postponed sale is a new sale in which the trustee must complete all acts that he or she completed in the first sale.