Monday, September 25, 2023

Real Estate: Homeowner Associations – Damages Caused by Common Area Tree

Townes at Grand Oaks Townhouse Association, Inc. v. Baxter is case from Richmond Circuit Court that illustrates the importance of carefully drafted HOA agreements. The HOA sought to recover expenses for removing a tree that fell from common area onto a homeowner’s condo. The Richmond Circuit Court held that the HOA agreement did not exempt the HOA from paying removal costs because a portion of the tree remained on the common area. The court noted that there was no Virginia authority for these facts, but stated that the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that in cases of fallen trees between adjoining properties in the absence of negligence, there is no liability for property damages on the landowner from where the tree fell. However, the HOA agreement is a contract that created the obligation for the HOA. The agreement had a provision requiring the HOA to maintain and replace trees, and another provision exempting the HOA from liability to an owner for repairing or replacing any portion of the lot or the improvements provided the homeowner has insurance as required by the agreement. The HOA relied on the first provision, but the court determined that that reliance was misplaced as it did not cover this situation. The HOA relied on the second provision because the homeowner did not have the required insurance for “the structure of each lot”, but only insurance for the inside of the home. However, the court heard evidence from the homeowner that he understood the language to only require internal insurance. The court noted three primary reasons for holding for the homeowner:
(1) “Removal of the tree from the lot is not a repair or replacement, but merely something necessary before the physical work of restoration of the damaged structure can begin.”

(2) “The exemption from liability applies when the homeowner has "fire and extended coverage insurance" with applicable coverage. Considering the varying types of insurance that the market may provide, there is no evidence that the insurance required under the contract terminology must cover trees removal. Whether such a policy would is left to speculation.”

(3) “The tree removal would necessarily involve removal of a portion of the tree from the common area as well as from Defendant's lot and home. I question whether, in any event, the total removal cost should be assigned to the defendant rather than some prorated amount.”

It is important to ensure that HOA agreements include provisions that would govern a broad spectrum of potential issues and disputes. 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, 2023

Bankruptcy: Redemption – An Introduction

In general. Bankruptcy Code §722 provides debtors with the right to redeem property. The redemption option is being exercised more often (as opposed to reaffirmation) because collateral loan balances are frequently much greater than the value of the underlying collateral, and, because redemption financing options are growing. The code states:

[a]n individual debtor may, whether or not the debtor has waived the right to redeem under this section, redeem tangible personal property intended primarily for personal, family, or household use, from a lien securing a dischargeable consumer debt, if such property is exempt under section 522 of this title or had been abandoned under section 554 of this title, by paying the holder of such lien the amount of the allowed secured claim of such holder that is secured by such lien in full at the time of redemption.

Financing options. In the past redemption has been rare, as what debtor in bankruptcy has the ability to raise money for a lump sum purchase price, and what lender would make such a loan? There is, however, an option available for debtors, and debtor attorneys are aware of it. The option is to borrow the redemption price from “specialized” lenders, such as the company called “722 Redemption Funding, Inc.” This company is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. The company has been in business for a number of years and has expanded into other states - Virginia is one of them. Once the loan is made, this company takes a non-purchase money security interest in the vehicle and has first priority since the debtor has redeemed from (and therefore extinguished) the lien if the prior lender. To add insult to injury, this company uses another Cincinnati company (Collateral Valuation Services, L.L.C.) to prepare a vehicle condition report in an effort to determine the lowest possible value for the vehicle. If you have yet to see redemption by this method, I am sure that you will see one soon.

How do you value the collateral? This is a good question that does not always have a clear answer. To make it complicated, the method for determining redemption value differs in Chapters 7 and 13.

To determine collateral value in Chapter 7 cases, the case law is clear that the retail value should be used. The law is not so clear, however, in Chapter 13 cases. In 2004 I tried two cases before Judge Tice in the United States Bankruptcy Court, Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Virginia, involving this very issue. The debtors’ attorneys filed motions for redemption proposing to pay the trade-in value rather than the retail value. I objected to the motions, arguing that they were not proposed in good faith based upon these proposed values, and, that the creditors would be irreparably harmed. In doing the legal research it became clear that there was no preexisting Virginia decision controlling the decision, and that different states were taking different positions – some states use the wholesale value, some use the retail value, and, some use something other value determined by either an average of the two or utilizing other factors, such as the expected return to the creditor from a disposal of the collateral in a commercially reasonable manner. Of course I argued that it is unfair to place the entire burden and the risk of loss on the creditor, especially since it was the debtor who was in default! Ultimately, Judge Tice, having reviewed all of the tests applied across the country, wrote a detailed opinion. Judge Tice ruled that debtors should not be forced to redeem at retail valuation because the purpose of Bankruptcy Code §722 is to allow debtors to avoid having to pay the cost for replacing a vehicle. He ruled that a close approximation to the wholesale or liquidation value would be fair to creditors given the fact that creditors will save the cost of repossession and resale – that the redemption value should resemble an amount which the secured creditor would expect to recover upon the repossession and reasonable commercial disposition of the property.

Since these decisions, the law has not become clearer. Judge Tice was presented with a similar issue in In re Hutchinson, where the court found that the fair redemption value was to be determined after considering the varying appraisals submitted. The court did not choose the trade in appraisal or the retail appraisal, but stated that debtors should not have been forced to redeem their car at a retail valuation (replacement value) of the property. Further, a close approximation to the wholesale or liquidation value was fair to the creditor in light of the fact that the repossession and resale costs would not have been incurred in light of the redemption. The court held that the redemption value should resemble an amount which the secured creditor would expect to recover upon repossession and reasonable commercial disposition of the property. The fair redemption value ultimately was determined to be a value between the trade in appraisal and the retail appraisal.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Collections: Note Guarantee Upheld

In the case of NationsBank v. Mahoney, the Fairfax County Circuit Court upheld a note and guarantee agreement, as well as the sale of collateral pursuant to the terms of these documents.

The guarantor in Mahoney argued that the creditor acted in bad faith. The guarantor asked the Court to imply in the note and guarantee agreement additional terms from the commercial good faith provision of Virginia Code §8.1-203. The Court, however, found that the note and guarantee agreement's provisions were "within the preview of the Uniform Commercial Code as adopted in Virginia", and that each alleged act of bad faith was expressly authorized in the terms of the note and guarantee agreement. The Court ruled that it could not imply the terms requested because the result would be to negate or materially alter the explicit terms freely agreed upon by the parties.

The lesson from Mahoney is that properly prepared notes are the key to collection should the loan become sour. Legal review of loan documents prior to execution can be more cost effective than legal representation after default.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Foreclosure: Lost Notes

Virginia Code §55-59.1(B) addresses the situation where the noteholder has lost the original note. With the frequency of sales of notes on the secondary market, the loss of the original note documents occurs more often than might be expected. The Code provides that if the note or other evidence of indebtedness secured by a deed of trust cannot be produced, and, the beneficiary submits to the trustee an affidavit to that effect, the trustee may proceed to foreclosure. However, the beneficiary must send written notice to the person required to pay the instrument stating that the instrument is unavailable and that a request for sale will be made of the trustee upon the expiration of fourteen days from the date of the mailing of the notice. The notice must be sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, to the last known address of the person required to pay the instrument, as reflected in the records of the beneficiary, and shall include the same and the mailing address of the trustee. The notice must also advise the borrower if the borrower believes that he may be subject to claim by a person other than the beneficiary to enforce the instrument, the debtor may petition the circuit court of the county or city whether the property lies for an order requiring the beneficiary to provide adequate protection against any such claim. Failure to give the notice does not affect the validity of the sale.