When Is Possession Not Really Possession? (And By “Possession” I Mean In The “Mortgagee In Possession” Sense Of The Word)

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

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. 

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On Champerty, Barratry, And “Vexatious Litigants”

     by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

One of my favorite causes of action is "champerty." I know what you are thinking — who has a favorite cause of action? Fair point. Nonetheless, champerty has always been (along with its cousins, barratry and maintenance) one of my favorites because it is a fun word to say and because it sounds so darn legal! You just sound more like a real lawyer when you say someone's conduct was "champertous." Don't believe me? Try it out.

For the uninitiated: "maintenance is helping another prosecute a suit; champerty is maintaining a suit in return for a financial interest in the outcome; and barratry is a continuing practice of maintenance or champerty." In re Primus, 436 U.S. 412, 425 (1978). Alas, although it is one of my favorites, I don't get to use champerty very often because it is not a recognized cause of action in New Jersey. Polo by Shipley v. Gotchel, 225 N.J. Super. 429, 434 (Ch. Div. 1987) ("This Court need not address the doctrines of champerty and maintenance, as they do not presently exist in New Jersey."). In fact, it has never been a recognized cause of action in the Garden State. Terney v. Wilson, 45 N.J.L. 282, 285 (Sup. Ct. 1883) ("Sometimes it has been held that the principle should not be applied to agreements of the character just mentioned because they are champertous, but as the English law against champerty is repudiated in New Jersey . . . .").

 

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Appellate Division to Foreclosing Lenders: “Do Less” Because If You Do More You Might Make Yourself Liable For Damages

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

 

There is a scene in the movie "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" where the main character goes to a surf instructor to teach him how to surf. The lesson is not that helpful because, among other things, the instructor gives the main character advice that is impossible to follow, like: "Don't do anything. Don't try to surf. Don't do it. The less you do the more you do." And, then later: "try less" and "do less."

I was reminded of this decision when I read the Appellate Division's recent opinion in McRoy v. Eskander. In that case, the Appellate Division held that a lender was not a mortgagee in possession and therefore could not be liable for injuries sustained by someone who slipped and fell on the sidewalk in front of the property. The reason the lender could not be deemed a mortgagee in possession was because it had done almost nothing to maintain the property in the 18 months after it obtained a final judgment of foreclosure.

In McRoy, plaintiff slipped and fell on snow and ice in front of a four-unit apartment building that was owned by Defendant Eskander. At the time of plaintiff's fall, however, the building had been vacant for approximately 18 months. Eskander had defaulted on his loan with Bank of America ("BofA"), which led BofA to foreclose on its mortgage on the property. BofA obtained final judgment of foreclosure but had not proceeded to a sheriff's sale at the time of plaintiff's fall. Once final judgment of foreclosure was entered, Eskander stopped maintaining the property. Except for performing yard work once, BofA did not maintain the property either. It did periodically inspect the property to ensure it was vacant and, to protect its collateral, it paid the real estate taxes and a water bill.

 

 

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Does A Condominium Association Have Any Recourse When A Court Denies Its Request For Legal Fees?

Kate Muscalino aims to answer that question in her recent article, "You May Have Recourse When A Court Denies Your Board Attorneys's Fees,"  which begins:

Collections have become an area of increasing concern for condominium associations, as some unit owners struggle to pay their common charges on time and in full. As unit owners' debt continues to rise, associations are left with few options to collect: a lien on the unit and a lawsuit against the individual unit owner.

Many condo associations have been frustrated in their attempts to collect from a unit owner individually, as judges are often sympathetic to delinquent unit owners, offering extensions, scrutinizing certifications of amounts due and reducing or eliminating the association's ability to collect attorneys' fees.        

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When Do Condominium Associations Have Standing To Sue Under The Consumer Fraud Act?

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

In a recent decision, the Appellate Division restated and clarified the rules regarding when a condominium association has standing to sue a developer.  In Belmont Condominium Association v. Geibel, an association sued the sponsor/developer/contractor of the Belmont, a seven-story, thirty-four unit condominium in Hoboken, asserting common law fraud and negligence claims along with statutory claims under both the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”) and The Planned Real Estate Development Full Disclosure Act (“PREDFDA”).  The claims arose out of the allegedly faulty construction of the Belmont, and certain pre-construction statements from the developer, including that it had “overseen the building and renovation of Over 400 Single Family & Condominium Homes.”  (Although largely irrelevant to the issues addressed by the Appellate Division, it turned out that the Belmont was actually the first building that the developer’s owner and general manager had ever constructed.)  As it relates to the faulty construction, the association alleged that the building was “plagued by water leaks” almost immediately after construction was complete.  These leaks impacted both the individual units and the common elements.  After years of repairs that did not correct the problem, the association sued the developer.  The association argued that construction defects were the cause of the water filtration, while the developer blamed the problems on poor and inadequate maintenance.        

Among other things, the developer in Belmont argued that the association lacked standing to bring claims under the CFA.  At the outset, the Appellate Division observed that New Jersey courts take a liberal approach to standing, and  have historically given wide recognition to suits by condominium associations.  It then analyzed the language of the New Jersey Condominium Act (“NJCA”) to determine whether the association had standing.  As it related to claims arising out of damage to the common elements, the Appellate Division held that the association had standing to sue because the NJCA vests condominium associations with the “exclusive right”(emphasis in original) to sue a developer for defects pertaining to the common elements, and generally prohibits individual unit owners from doing so. 

The Appellate Division rejected the developer’s argument that the association lacked standing because it could not demonstrate reliance by the original purchasers on any of the alleged misstatements.  On this point, the Appellate Division noted that reliance is not an element required to sustain a claim under the CFA.  The Appellate Division also rejected the developer’s argument that the association could only recover damages for the unit owners who actually sustained damage as a result of the developer’s alleged misrepresentations.  The Appellate Division held that because the NJCA allows associations to sue for damages to the common areas sustained by “any or all” of the unit owners, it was entitled to recover all of the damages necessary to repair any damages, not a prorated amount based on the number of unit owners who identified damages. 

However, the Appellate Division held that the association lacked standing to sue for damages to the individual units because the NJCA only vests it with authority to sue or be sued in connection with damages to common elements.  In Belmont, the damages associated with individual units all related to the windows, which the Appellate Division held were “personal to the unit owners,” and therefore not part of the Belmont’s common elements.  On this point, the Appellate Division reviewed the definition of common elements contained in both the NJCA and the master deed for the Belmont, neither of which identified windows as common elements.  Once the Appellate Division concluded that the windows were unit elements, not common elements, its decision on standing was a simple one because it had already concluded that an association has standing to sue for damage to common elements, but lacks standing to sue for unit elements.