Last week, I wrote about an exception to the strict liability normally imposed on dog owners under New Jersey's dog bite statute. (A short time before that, I wrote about yet another exception to strict liability under the dog bite statute, so the exceptions are obviously more interesting than the rule.) This post is about a different dog bite case, Ward v. Ochoa, with a similar result even though it was not decided under the dog bite statute. Ward involved a home inspector who was attacked and severely injured while performing a home inspection. She sued the dog owners (who eventually settled) along with the real estate agency and real estate agent who were selling the house. Like the dog groomer in last week's post, however, the home inspector's claims were dismissed.
Add this to the list of things you never want to hear a court say about your performance during a case: "defendants' presentation of evidence certainly gave voice to the song lyric, 'when nothing makes any sense, you have a reason to cry.'" (It is a lyric from a Lucinda Williams song if you were curious.) But this was the Appellate Division's conclusion in Brunswick Bank & Trust v. Heln Management, LLC, a case that was making its second appearance before the Appellate Division (after an earlier remand) and was sent back to the trial court for a third round.
The issue in Brunswick Bank was relatively straightforward. Plaintiff and defendants entered into five loans. The loans were secured by mortgages on several properties owned by defendants. After defendants defaulted on the loans, plaintiff sued and obtained a judgment against defendants. Plaintiff then filed foreclosure actions against defendants, seeking to foreclose on the mortgages it held against defendants' properties. It received final judgments of foreclosure in these cases as well. Some of these properties were then sold, which "provided rolling compensation for [plaintiff] against all defendants' obligations."
At some point during this "rolling" sale of mortgaged properties, defendants moved to stay all pending foreclosure proceedings, arguing that plaintiff was "over-capitalized" – i.e., it was going to collect more than it was entitled to collect under its judgment. Defendants then moved to have the judgment deemed satisfied, arguing that plaintiff had already recovered — through its collection efforts — the full amount of the judgment. The trial court granted the motion but held that two pending foreclosures could proceed. The trial court further acknowledged that it had the power to "prevent a windfall" to plaintiff, but that the record was "too muddled" to decide whether this was the case.
It is a question I have been asked a number of times over the past few years: If a lender refinances an existing mortgage, does the new lender step into the shoes of the old lender in terms of priority? In other words, if you refinance a first mortgage, does it remain a FIRST mortgage or is it a new mortgage that is junior to other mortgages that may have been recorded after the first mortgage? Granted this is not a question as weighty as, say, "what is the meaning of life?" but if you are a lender, it is an important one. I have written about this topic before, but the Appellate Division's recent decision in Ocwen Loan Services, Inc. v. Quinn, added a new wrinkle. In that case, the question was whether a refinanced first mortgage retains its first status over a life estate, as opposed to another mortgage or lien, that was recorded prior to the original mortgage.
In Ocwen, defendants conveyed their residential property to their daughter but retained a life estate in the property. (In other words, the daughter owned the property, but defendants could live there until they died.) One year later, defendants, their daughter, and her husband acquired a loan from plaintiff that was secured by a mortgage on the property. Two years after that, the daughter refinanced the mortgage for a higher amount. The title commitment that plaintiff obtained did not disclose the recorded life estates, so defendants were not required to sign the mortgage. Through the refinancing, the daughter, among other things, paid off the prior mortgage, which defendants had signed.
Two years later, the daughter defaulted on the refinanced mortgage and plaintiff foreclosed. The parties cross-moved for clarification on the status of defendants' life estate. Plaintiff argued that the life estate was subordinate to the refinanced mortgage, meaning defendants could not rely on it to stop the foreclosure. Defendants argued that the foreclosure had to be dismissed because "they did not sign the [refinanced] mortgage nor pledge their life estates in connection with the [ ] loan refinancing."
Lawsuits arising out of foreclosures and mortgage modifications are common. (Even more common than lawsuits about gyms or health clubs if you can believe that.) Nearly every day there is a decision from the Appellate Division arising out of a residential foreclosure. Most of these fall into the same category — borrower defaults and loses home through foreclosure then challenges lender's standing to foreclose after the fact — but some are more interesting. That was the case with GMAC Mortgage, LLC v. Willoughby, a decision released yesterday by the New Jersey Supreme Court involving a mortgage modification agreement entered into to settle a foreclosure lawsuit.
Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about Arias v. Elite Mortgage, a lawsuit over the alleged breach of a mortgage modification agreements. In that case, borrowers entered into a mortgage modification agreement with their lenders that included a Trial Period Plan ("TPP"). As the name suggests, a TPP requires borrowers to make reduced monthly payments in a timely manner for a trial period, after which, if they make the payments, the lender agrees to modify their mortgage. In Arias, the Appellate Division held, as a matter of first impression, that if a borrower makes the trial payments under the TPP, the lender must modify the mortgage, and if it doesn't, the borrower can sue for breach. However, the holding was purely academic because the borrower in that case failed to make one of the trial payments in a timely manner so it could not sue.
In GMAC Mortgage, the New Jersey Supreme Court faced a similar situation with a much less academic result.
Sometimes you read decisions and you don't understand how the court arrived at its conclusion based on the facts of the case. Then other times, the conclusion just makes sense. These are the decisions you read and think to yourself, "of course you can't do that." The Appellate Division's opinion in 5 Perry Street, LLC v. Southwind Properties, LLC, is one of these cases.
In Perry Street, defendants were a limited liability corporation and the sole member of that corporation. The corporate defendant owned property in Cape May that it operated as a bed and breakfast.Two "non-institutional lenders" held mortgages on the property. After they foreclosed and obtained a final judgment of foreclosure, a sheriff's sale was scheduled. The corporate defendant obtained four adjournments of the sheriff's sale and attempted to refinance the property, but was "unable to consummate a transaction" before the sheriff's sale.
Instead, the day before the sheriff's sale, the individual defendant filed for bankruptcy. She then transferred the underlying property from the corporate defendant to herself. The consideration for the transfer was $1 and the "Balance of outstanding mortgages $80,000.00." The $1 consideration was typed into the deed, but the individual defendant hand wrote the part about the outstanding mortgages. She claimed that her intent was to "assume personal liability for the mortgages," but the Appellate Division noted that the balance of the mortgages at the time was almost $250,000, not $80,000, and that other documents she signed reflected that the only consideration was $1. She "filed the deed the next day, an hour and a half before the Sheriff's sale."
Lenders are often faced with a dilemma when dealing with property that is in foreclosure and has been abandoned by the borrower. A lender must, under New Jersey law, maintain the property "to such standard or specification as may be required by state law or municipal ordinance." Also, the lender has an obvious interest in protecting the value of its collateral. But the lender does not want to take "possession" of the property and be deemed a "mortgagee in possession," because that would impose upon the lender the duty of a "provident owner," which includes the duty to manage and preserve the property, and which subjects the lender to liability for damages to the property and damages arising out of torts that occur on the property. Unfortunately, the point at which a lender takes "possession" of property is not entirely clear. I have written about this before, and the Appellate Division's recent opinion in Woodlands Community Association, Inc. v. Mitchell provides some additional guidance, which should be helpful to lenders.
In Woodlands, defendant was the assignee of a note and mortgage related to a unit in plaintiff's condominium development. The unit owner defaulted on the loan and vacated the unit. At the time, the unit owner was not only delinquent on his loan payments, but also owed "substantial sums" to the association for "unpaid monthly fees and other condominium assessments." After the unit owner vacated the unit, defendant changed the locks and winterized the property. (As the Appellate Division noted, "[w]interizing entails draining the pipes, turning off the water and setting the thermostat for heat to protect the pipes.") After the unite owner vacated the unit, plaintiff sued him to recover the delinquent fees. It later amended its complaint to include the lender, "alleging that [[the lender] was responsible for the association fees as it was in possession of the property."
Both parties moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted plaintiff's motion, holding that defendant was a mortgagee in possession and therefore was liable for the maintenance fees. On the key of issue of what it meant to be in "possession" of the unit, the trial court held as follows: "[D]efendant held the keys, and no one else [could] gain possession of the property without [defendant's] consent. This constitutes exclusive control, which indicates the status of mortgagee in possession." Defendant appealed.
If you are like me, nothing piques your interest more than a case about the priority of liens and mortgages. I am joking of course. I am not (quite) that boring. But, there are occasionally cases that come along on seemingly dry issues that are nonetheless interesting. The New Jersey Supreme Court's decision in Rosenthal & Rosenthal, Inc. v. Benun is one of those cases. I wrote about the Appellate Division's decision in Rosenthal here, and now the Supreme Court has issued its own opinion, affirming the Appellate Division's judgment.
In Rosenthal, plaintiff was a factoring company (factoring is the sale of accounts receivable at a discount price). It entered into two factoring agreements with several entities owned by Jack Benun and his family (the "Benun Companies"). Each of the factoring agreements was personally guaranteed by defendant, Vanessa Benun, Jack Benun's daughter, and each of her personal guarantees was secured by a mortgage on property she owned in Ocean Township. These mortgages were recorded in 2000 and 2005 respectively. Each mortgage contained both a "dragnet clause" — a provision stating that if the borrower ever becomes liable to the lender on any other loan, the mortgage will also secure that loan — and an anti-subordination clause.
In 2007, after both of the above mortgages were recorded, Ms. Benun gave the law firm Riker Danzig a mortgage on the same property in Ocean Township that secured her personal guarantees on the two factoring agreements. The purpose of this mortgage was to secure payment of almost $1.7 million owed to Riker Danzig by Mr. Benun at that time. After the mortgage was recorded, plaintiff's counsel sent an email to Riker Danzig acknowledging the Riker Danzig mortgage. More importantly, plaintiff also continued to make disbursements to the Benun Companies under the factoring agreements after the Riker Danzig mortgage was recorded and acknowledged by plaintiff.