Monday, April 15, 2024

Real Estate: Common Area Parking Spaces Must be Assigned Equally

The Court of Appeals of Virginia recently issued an opinion affirming a Circuit Court decision holding that common area parking spaces must be assigned equally. The case involved a suit by a homeowner, Patrick Batt, against Manchester Oaks subdivision in Fairfax County. The subdivision contained 57 townhouses, 30 of which were constructed with a garage and driveway (garaged lots) and 27 of which were constructed with an additional bedroom and bathroom in lieu of a garage (ungaraged lots). The subdivision included a common area with 72 parking spaces.

The subdivision was subject to a declaration, administered by the homeowners association that gave the association the right to designate a maximum of two parking spaces for the exclusive use of each lot owner. However, the association was not required to ensure that parking spaces were available to any particular owner or to oversee use of the parking spaces. Batt had purchased a garaged lot in 1990, before the subdivision was complete. At that time, residents parked wherever they chose. In 1993 or 1994, the developer began assigning two parking spaces to each ungaraged lot. The remaining 18 parking spaces were designated as “visitor” parking, available to all lot owners on a first-come, first-served basis. 

In 2009, the association issued one visitor parking permit to each lot owner and posted a parking policy on its website. Any vehicle not displaying a permit while parked in the visitor parking spaces would be towed. In December 2009, the association amended the declaration to provide that the association had the right to designate two parking spaces exclusively to each of the ungaraged lot owners on a non-uniform and preferential basis. In June 2010, Batt sued the association, claiming that the unequal treatment of owners over parking space assignments violated the declaration. The association argued that Batt’s suit was barred by the December 2009 amendment to the declaration.

The circuit court ruled in Batt’s favor, finding that the amendment was invalid for six reasons. The association appealed. The Court of Appeals ruled, in summary, that equality is inherent in the definition of “common area.” A “common area” is defined as, “[a]n area owned and used in common by residents of a condominium, subdivision, or planned-unit development.” Black’s Law Dictionary defines “in common” to mean “[s]hared equally with others, undivided into separately owned parts.” Accordingly, the court held that the association must assign common area parking spaces to all lot owners equally, if at all, unless the declaration expressly provided otherwise. In this case, the court did not find that unequal assignment was authorized.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Bankruptcy: Dischargeability of Debt - False Financial Statement

In the case of I. H. Mississippi Valley Credit Union v. O'Connor the United States Bankruptcy Court at Richmond, Virginia, reviewed the creditor's complaint objecting to dischargeability pursuant to two sections of Bankruptcy Code §523.

In O'Connor the debtor was involved in a scheme with a car dealer to buy and sell "grey market" Mercedes Benz in Germany and then bring them to the United States to be refitted for sale at a profit, after which the dealer would pay off the credit union loan and split the profits with the debtor. During the conduct of this business, the debtor provided to the credit union an inaccurate vehicle identification number (VIN) on a loan application and also failed to list a loan from another credit union on an application.

The Court found as fact that the debtor made misrepresentations as to the vehicle identification number and the existence of the Mercedes, and that the credit union relied on the existence of such an automobile in making the loan to the debtor. However, the Court found that the credit union did not meet its burden to show that the debtor knew that the representations were false when made. The debtor gave the loan officer the VIN appearing on the bill of sale from the car dealer, and although the insurance company requested from the debtor a corrected VIN for insurance purposes, the credit union presented no other relevant evidence that would show that the debtor knew that the VIN was false at the time he applied for the loan.

The credit union argued that the debtor showed reckless disregard for the truth in not checking to verify that the VIN provided by the car dealer was accurate or that there existed a Mercedes Benz automobile. The Court, however, was not inclined to find reckless disregard for the truth. In regard to the VIN, the Court noted that in a majority of automobile purchases the buyer does not compare the VIN written on the bill of sale against the VIN on the automobile itself, nor does the buyer call the VIN in to the manufacturer's corporate headquarters for verification. In regard to the Mercedes, the Court found that there was no reason for the debtor to have doubted the existence of the vehicle. The debtor's only interest in the vehicle was that it could be refitted by the car dealer and then resold at a profit. Further, the debtor had already successfully conducted two such transactions with the credit union without seeing either of the cars involved in these transactions.

The Court ruled that the debtor's representations regarding the VIN and the existence of the Mercedes Benz automobile were not made in reckless disregard to the truth. Further, the Court ruled that the credit union had failed to show any intent to deceive on the part of the debtor in making such representations. Accordingly, the Court ruled that Bankruptcy Code §523 (a)(2)(A) did not render the debt nondischargeable.

The Credit Union also raised the issue on nondischargeability based upon material false financial statements pursuant to Bankruptcy Code §523 (a)(2)(B). The Court took evidence from the credit union regarding information written by a loan officer on the loan request form as well as the written deposition of that officer. The Court found as fact that a loan to another credit union was not included on the loan request forms to the plaintiff credit union. The Court noted that in deciding the issue of materiality the Court must determine whether the credit union would have made the loan knowing of the outstanding obligation to another credit union, considering what weight the plaintiff credit union gives to its debt-to-income ration limit. The Court noted that the evidence by the credit union was not clear as to what debt-to-income ratio would have disqualified the debtor. The Court observed that a limit of 35 percent appeared on the form, but the debtor was approved with a debt-to-income ration higher than 35 percent. The Court decided that it was more probable than not that under the totality of circumstances of this particular fact situation that the credit union relied not on the debt-to-income ration, but instead on the debtor's high professional salary, low living expenses, and an established relationship in which during the past ten months two $20,000 "grey market" loans were paid off about the time of the due date of the first monthly installment. The Court concluded that the credit union's reliance on the debtor's false financial statement was not reasonable. Accordingly, the Court ruled that Bankruptcy Code §523 (a)(2)(B) did not render the debt nondischargeable.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Collections: Bank Denied Lawyer Fees Due to Problem in the Guaranty

In the case of Jefferson National Bank v. Estate of Frogale, a Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge denied the award of attorney's fees to a bank because the guaranty agreement did not have a provision for attorney's fees even though the promissory note clearly provided for 25% attorney's fees. The Loudoun Court found that the guaranty referred only to collection of "charges or costs" upon default. The Court ruled that this language was ambiguous, and as such, construed the ambiguity against the bank because they drafted the documents.

In Frogale a corporation defaulted in the payment of a note and the bank sued the note's guarantor. The guarantor filed a motion for summary judgment regarding the question of the guarantor's liability for attorney's fees. The Loudoun Court reviewed the Virginia Supreme Court case of Mahoney v. Nationsbank. In Mahoney the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that a note and guaranty are two separate agreements, but each must be construed in the light of the other. In doing so, the Loudoun Court stated that it was "crucial that the bank chose to distinguish in the Note between 'all other applicable fees, costs and charges' and attorney's fees; and that it chose not to place a specific attorney fee obligation in the guaranty." The Loudoun Court pointed out that the bank could have placed an attorney's fee provision in the guaranty just as it had done in the note.

The lesson of Frogale is that you should be careful that when you have guaranties you ensure that the language in the guaranty "mirrors" the language in the promissory note - without mirror language, there can be a problem, with mirror language, ambiguity should not be an issue.