Winning Bidder At Sheriff’s Sale Entitled To Recoup Some, But Not All, Of His Deposit After Sale Is Vacated

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Auction (pd)A recent decision from the Appellate Division drives home (1) the duty of sellers at sheriff's sales to announce all material information about the property being sold at the sale, (2) the duty of bidders at sheriff's sales to perform independent due diligence about the property notwithstanding that announcement, and (3) the flexibility of Chancery Division courts to fashion remedies when both fail to fully satisfy their obligations.

In Wells Fargo Bank Bank, N.A. v. Torney, plaintiff foreclosed on property owned by defendant, obtained final judgment against defendant, and proceeded to sheriff's sale. In advance of the sheriff's sale, plaintiff submitted its "sheriff's sale package" to the Camden County Sheriff. Included in the package was a short form property description (required under N.J.S.A. 2A:61-1), which, among other things, disclosed that the property was subject to a $94,000 first mortgage. The existence of this prior mortgage was also disclosed in the conditions of sale attached to the short form property description, and in the Affidavit of Consideration submitted by plaintiff in connection with the foreclosure. Finally, the short form property description also contained the following disclaimer: "all interested parties are to conduct and rely upon their own independent investigation to ascertain whether or not any outstanding interest remain[s] of record and/or have priority over the lien being foreclosed and, if so[,] the correct amount due thereon."

Edward Shuman, who would eventually be the winning bidder at the sheriff' sale,  learned about the sale through the sheriff's website, which did not mention the prior mortgage. Also, at the sheriff's sale, plaintiff did not announce, as part of its "general announcements," that the property was subject to a prior mortgage. And, on the "printed condition of sale, the box next to 'subject to a first mortgage' was not checked." Shuman claims that he did not know about the prior mortgage when he placed his winning bid on the property, and did not learn about it until later that day when he inquired about the existence of any tax liens on the property. Once he learned about the mortgage, he contacted plaintiff and requested that the sale be vacated and his deposit returned. When plaintiff refused, Shuman filed a motion seeking the same relief. 

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In New Jersey, You Can Now Disapprove A Real Estate Contract By Email Or Fax (But Not Telegram)

     by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Telepgraph (pd)Anyone who has bought or sold real estate in New Jersey is familiar with "attorney review." When you buy or sell a house, you sign a contract that is almost always prepared by a broker. The contract must contain a standard provision stating that the buyer and seller have the right to have an attorney review the contract. This "attorney review" period lasts three days. The contract becomes legally binding if, at the end of that three-day period, neither the buyer's nor the seller's attorney disapproves of the contract. If either side disapproves, their attorney must notify the other side's broker by certified mail, telegram, or personal service. In Conley v. Guerrero, a case that seems to be a case study in the concept of raising form over substance, the New Jersey Supreme Court updated this requirement to allow the notice of disapproval to also be sent by fax or email. (Those of you still using telegrams may be out of luck, however, because this no longer appears to be an appropriate method of service for the notice of disapproval.) 

In Conley, plaintiffs signed a form contract to purchase a condominium unit from sellers. It contained the standard "attorney review" provision. After signing the contract, but during the attorney review period, sellers received competing offers to purchase the property and eventually entered into a new contract to sell it to a new buyer for a higher price. Sellers' attorney sent a disapproval of plaintiffs' contract to both plaintiffs' counsel and the broker (who was a duel agent represented both plaintiffs and seller) during the attorney-review period. He sent the notice via email, which plaintiffs' counsel and the agent acknowledged receiving within the attorney review period. Nonetheless, plaintiffs claimed that the sellers were bound by the contract and had to sell to his clients because the disapproval was not sent in the proscribed manner — by certified mail, telegram, or hand delivery.

Plaintiffs sued, seeking specific performance. Both sides moved for summary judgment. The Chancery Division granted defendants' motion and dismissed the complaint. The Chancery Division held that, while seller did not comply with the method-of-delivery requirements set forth in the contract, this breach was only "minor" because plaintiffs' counsel acknowledged receiving the notice within the attorney review period. Therefore, the Chancery Division held that the "underlying justification for the attorney review clause" — to protect parties against being bound by broker-prepared contracts without the opportunity to review them with their attorneys — was accomplished.

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Extra! Extra!

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

The latest edition of  "Commercial Litigation Briefs" is out. The newsletter is published by my firm and contains short articles on topics and cases of interest to commercial litigators. This month there are two articles — one by me and one by my colleague, John DeSimone. My article discusses a recent decision from the Delaware Supreme Court that required Wal-Mart to produce attorney-client communications to shareholders as they investigated whether to bring a derivative lawsuit against the company. John's article reports on a recent New Jersey Appellate Division decision about debt buyers trying to collect on charged-off credit card accounts they purchased from other debt buyers, which also provides helpful guidance for litigators on the hearsay exception for business records.

Enjoy!

More Courts Reject Eleventh-Hour Attempts To Avoid Foreclosure Based On An Alleged Lack Of Standing

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

 Two more Appellate Division panels have refused to allow defendant's in foreclosure lawsuits to raise standing as an eleventh-hour defense.  As we previously reported — Changing Tide in Forclosure Litigation? Courts Taking Closer Look When Defendants Assert Lack Of Standing At Last Minute — there is now a clear trend against allowing defendants to stay silent in the face of a foreclosure lawsuit only to appear at the last minute, usually on the eve of a sheriff's sale, and seek to vacate final judgment based on an alleged lack of standing to foreclose.  Two recent Appellate Division cases continue to bring this point home. 

In IndyMac Bank FSB v. DeCastro, a residential borrower moved to vacate final judgment and dismiss the complaint 15 months after it was entered, arguing that he was not served with the complaint.  The motion was denied.  Defendant filed a second motion to vacate, arguing, for the first time, that the bank lacked standing to foreclose because it was not assigned the mortgage until after the complaint was filed.  This motion was denied as untimely and defendant appealed.  In an opinion, dated March 13, 2013, the Appellate Division affirmed.  In its decision, among other things, the Appellate Division rejected defendant's standing argument, noting: "[W]e have now made clear that lack of standing is not a meritorious defense to a foreclosure complaint."  Moreover, the Appellate Division held that defendant's standing argument was meritless "particularly given defendant's unexcused, years-long delay in asserting that defense or any other claim."  In arriving at this decision, the Appellate Division relied on many of the cases discussed in our prior post. 

Similarly, in WellsFargo Bank, N.A. v. Lopez, a different Appellate Division panel rejected another residential home owner's last-minute attempt to raise standing as a defense to the foreclosure complaint.  The facts in that case were a bit more egregious because the borrower contributed to the four-year delay between the entry of default and the filing of his motion to vacate by filing numerous bankruptcy petitions and seeking a stay to attempt to short sell the property.  Nonetheless, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's denial of the motion to vacate holding, among other things, that the lack of standing, even if true, was not a meritorious defense to a foreclosure complaint, particularly in the post-judgment context.  Again, the Appellate Division relied primarily on the cases included in our prior post.

When Can Foreclosing Lenders Be Accused Of Acting In Bad Faith?

 by:    Peter J. Gallagher

In a recent decision, the Chancery Division denied a lender’s motion to strike a borrower’s contesting answer in a foreclosure lawsuit, holding that the borrower had adequately pled a claim that the lender acted in bad faith.  While this decision is unique based on the facts of the underlying dispute, it does, by contrast, serve as a reminder that lenders generally cannot be held to have acted in bad faith when they simply attempt to enforce the terms of loan documents as written. 

In Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Schultz, plaintiff obtained a mortgage from World Savings Bank (which later changed its name to Wachovia Mortgage, FSM, which was later acquired by and merged into Wells Fargo) under a “Pick-a-Payment” mortgage program.  Several years later, this program became the subject of a class action lawsuit, the settlement of which provided that Wells Fargo both pay class members, including defendant Schultz, a small sum and also make loan modifications available to them.  It is the second of these requirements that ended up getting Wells Fargo in trouble.  Defendant presented evidence to the court that led Judge Doyne to conclude that she was “getting the run around” from Wells Fargo, including by being told that she failed to submit documents that she certified that she had submitted, and when Wells Fargo eventually confirmed that she had submitted the documents, telling her that the modification program was no longer available.  Judge Doyne observed that defendant may not have a right to be approved for a specific modification, but that once Wells Fargo made one available to her, it was obligated to “act in good faith as to the provision of the modification.”  To be clear, Judge Doyne did not rule that Wells Fargo had acted with bad faith; instead, he simply ruled that defendant had pled enough in connection with her claims related to the modification that her answer could not be stricken. 

While this case presents a situation where a lender is alleged to have acted in bad faith after agreeing to entertain an application for a loan modification, the law in New Jersey is well settled that a lender cannot generally be deemed to have acted in bad faith when it seeks to enforce the terms of a note or mortgage as written.  Stated differently, lenders cannot be barred from enforcing loan and mortgage documents merely because they seek to enforce their express contractual rights.  Indeed, “a creditor's duty to act in good faith does not extend to foregoing its right to accelerate upon default or otherwise compromising its contractual rights in order to aid its debtor.” Glenfed Financial Corp. v. Penick Corp.   For instance, in Creeger Brick & Building Supply, Inc. v. Mid-State Bank & Trust Co., — a decision cited by the Appellate Division with approval in Glenfed — a Pennsylvania appeals court held:

. . . a lending institution does not violate a separate duty of good faith by adhering to its agreement with the borrower or by enforcing its legal and contractual rights as a creditor. The duty of good faith imposed upon contracting parties does not compel a lender to surrender rights which it has been given by statute or by the terms of its contract. Similarly, it cannot be said that a lender has violated a duty of good faith merely because it has negotiated terms of a loan which are favorable to itself. As such, a lender generally is not liable for harm caused to a borrower by refusing to advance additional funds, release collateral, or assist in obtaining additional loans from third persons. A lending institution also is not required to delay attempts to recover from a guarantor after the principal debtor has defaulted.

In other words, if the defendant in Schultz was accusing Wells Fargo of bad faith simply because the lender was seeking to enforce its rights under the plain language of the relevant note and mortgage, the result would likely have been different. 

Changing Tide In Foreclosure Litigation? Courts Taking Closer Look When Defendants Assert Lack Of Standing At Last Minute

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

In a series of recent decisions, New Jersey courts appear to be taking a stance against defendants raising, as a last-minute defense, that a party lacks standing to foreclose.  This is good news for lenders and their assignees, who, prior to these decisions, faced the prospect of proceeding to final judgment of foreclosure, only to have a party appear at the last minute, allege a lack of standing to foreclose, and send the process back to square one. 

The changing body of case law began with the Appellate Division’s opinion in Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas v. Angeles, 428 N.J. Super. 315 (App. Div. 2013).  In that case, defendant failed to defend the action or assert a standing issue until two years after default judgment was entered and more than three years after the complaint was filed.  Id. at 316.  Interestingly, the Appellate Division acknowledged that defendant raised a valid concern about plaintiff’s standing to foreclose, but nonetheless refused to vacate final judgment.  In explaining its decision, the Appellate Division noted:

In foreclosure matters, equity must be applied to plaintiffs as well as defendants. Defendant did not raise the issue of standing until he had the advantage of many years of delay. Some delay stemmed from the New Jersey foreclosure system, other delay was afforded him through the equitable powers of the court, and additional delay resulted from plaintiff's attempt to amicably resolve the matter. Defendant at no time denied his responsibility for the debt incurred nor can he reasonably argue that [Plaintiff] is not the party legitimately in possession of the property. Rather, when all hope of further delay expired, after his home was sold and he was evicted, he made a last-ditch effort to relitigate the case. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that defendant was not equitably entitled to vacate the judgment.

Id. at 320. 

 

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