Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Real Estate & Property Law
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The Claims Court certified a class of landowners who owned property along a railroad corridor that was converted to a recreational trail under the National Trails System Act. Denise and Gordon Woodley, who jointly owned property along the railroad, were members of the class seeking just compensation under the Fifth Amendment. The Woodleys challenged a proposed settlement and fee award and won a remand that entitled them to access to certain documents used in the calculations of class member compensation and attorneys’ fees.After approval of a settlement agreement that required payment of compensation to the class under the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act, 42 U.S.C. 4654(c), the Woodleys successfully sought attorney’s fees for work performed by counsel they jointly hired. Denise separately sought attorney’s fees for work performed by her attorney-spouse, Gordon, explaining that he was one of her lawyers throughout the proceeding; she also sought to recoup certain expenses. The Claims Court denied the motion, reasoning that pro se litigants cannot recover attorney’s fees and expenses and that Gordon, as a co-plaintiff and joint owner of the property at issue, was pro se and not compensable. The Federal Circuit affirmed in part. Denise is not entitled to attorney’s fees for the legal work performed by her attorney-spouse. The court remanded for a determination of the proper reimbursement, if any, of her claimed expenses. View "Haggart v. United States" on Justia Law

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Defendant Mengxi Liu, the successful bidder in a real estate auction conducted by defendant Max Spann Real Estate and Auction Co. (Max Spann), asserted as a defense to the seller’s breach of contract action that the contract she signed to purchase the property was void and unenforceable. In her appeal of the trial court’s judgment finding her in breach of her contract, Liu argued that the agreement was unenforceable because a licensed real estate salesperson employed by Max Spann wrote her name and address as the buyer and purchase price information on blank spaces in a template sales contract following the auction. Liu contended that this activity constituted the unauthorized practice of law because the contract did not provide for the three-day attorney review period as mandated by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division that a residential real estate sale by absolute auction was distinct from a traditional real estate transaction in which a buyer and seller negotiate the contract price and other terms and memorialize their agreement in a contract. In an absolute auction or an auction without reserve, the owner unconditionally offers the property for sale and the highest bid creates a final and enforceable contract at the auction’s conclusion, subject to applicable contract defenses. “Were we to impose the three-day attorney review prescribed in [the controlling case law] on residential real estate sales conducted by absolute auction, we would fundamentally interfere with the method by which buyers and sellers choose to conduct such sales.” The Court found no unauthorized practice of law in this case and held that the contract signed by Liu was valid and enforceable. View "Sullivan v. Max Spann Real Estate & Auction Co." on Justia Law

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Koch Construction, Inc.; Marilyn Koch, Personal Representative of the Estate of Michael P. Koch; and Koch Property Investments, Inc. (collectively “appellants”) appealed the judgment and amended judgment entered in favor of Toman Engineering Company (“Toman”). Michael Koch owned and operated Koch Construction and Koch Property Investments (“KPI”). Toman provided engineering services to Koch Construction on various projects, including designing a stormwater management system for the Koch Meadow Hills residential development project in Dickinson, North Dakota. Michael died in August 2017. The stormwater management system included a detention pond referred to as the Marilyn Way Stormwater Pond, which was the detention pond at issue in this case. In 2016, Janet Prchal, Dean Kubas, and Geraldine Kubas, owners of property near the Koch Meadow Hills development, sued the City of Dickinson and KPI for damages, alleging the development of Koch Meadow Hills caused water to drain and collect on their properties. The Prchal lawsuit was settled in September 2018, and the settlement required modifications to be made to the Marilyn Way Stormwater Pond before June 30, 2019. The reconstruction work on the detention pond occurred during the summer and fall of 2019. Toman served a summons and complaint on Koch Construction and Marilyn Koch, to collect unpaid amounts for engineering services Toman provided to the defendants in 2017. Toman filed the complaint in the district court in June 2019. The appellants argued the district court erred in deciding they committed intentional spoliation of evidence and dismissing their counterclaim as a sanction. After review of the district court record, the North Dakota Supreme Court concluded the district court abused its discretion when it dismissed the appellants’ counterclaim as a sanction for spoliation of evidence. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "Toman Engineering Co. v. Koch Construction, et al." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court vacated in part the judgment of the intermediate court of appeals (ICA) to the extent it affirmed the circuit court's judgment as to the "Reinstated Hawaiian Nation," vacated the circuit court's final judgment as to the Reinstated Hawaiian Nation, and affirmed the circuit court's judgment as to all other defendants, holding that the circuit court erred in part.In 2011, Nelson Armitage and a group of others (collectively individual defendants), and Frederick Torres-Pestana, entered onto and began occupying land in Maui owned by Alexander & Baldwin, LLC (A&B). The individual defendants claimed they were acting on behalf of the organization called the Reinstated Hawaiian Nation. A&B brought suit seeking a writ of ejectment, damages, and injunctions barring the individual defendants and the Reinstated Hawaiian Nation from entering A&B's property. The circuit court granted summary judgment for A&B and entered an injunction. The ICA dismissed the appeal as to the Reinstated Hawaiian Nation and rejected Armitage's appeal individually. The Supreme Court vacated in part, holding (1) the judgment against the Reinstated Hawaiian Nation must be voided due to the public policy behind the prohibition on the unauthorized practice of law; and (2) the judgment against Armitage or any other defendant still stands. View "Alexander & Baldwin, LLC v. Armitage" on Justia Law

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A condominium owner sued her homeowners’ association alleging five causes of action, seeking injunctive and declaratory relief as to rules governing elections, voting, sales, and leasing. One cause of action fell to a demurrer, another to an anti-SLAPP motion to strike. The parties stipulated that three claims were mooted when the association amended its rules. Both sides moved for attorney fees as the prevailing party under the Davis-Sterling Act (Civ. Code 4000); the homeowner also sought fees as the successful party under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5.The court of appeal affirmed the denial of attorney fees to both sides. Artus has not shown any abuse of discretion in the trial court’s ruling that Artus was not a “successful party” and failed to show that her lawsuit resulted in a ‘significant benefit’ to the ‘general public or a large class of persons.’ “Her one real win,” requiring the association to incur greater effort in preparing its notice materials for proposed rules changes, is of questionable significance to most association members and will likely result in higher assessments. The association simply took unilateral action to avoid judicial rulings and ‘kicked the can down the road;’ View "Artus v. Gramercy Towers Condominium Association" on Justia Law

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In this California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) case, the Court of Appeal granted the petition for writ of mandate and directed respondent Los Angeles Superior Court to vacate its order awarding attorney fees to Charter and to conduct a new hearing to reconsider Charter's motion for attorney fees. At issue is whether an employer's arbitration agreement authorizes the recovery of attorney fees for a successful motion to compel arbitration of a FEHA lawsuit even if the plaintiff's opposition to arbitration was not frivolous, unreasonable or groundless.The court concluded that, because a fee-shifting clause directed to a motion to compel arbitration, like a general prevailing party fee provision, risks chilling an employee's access to court in a FEHA case absent Government Code section 12965(b)'s asymmetric standard for an award of fees, a prevailing defendant may recover fees in this situation only if it demonstrates the plaintiff's opposition was groundless. In this case, no such finding was made by the superior court in the underlying action before awarding real party in interest Charter its attorney fees after granting Charter's motion to compel petitioner to arbitrate his FEHA claims. View "Patterson v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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The Sellers bought an Oakland property to “flip.” After Vega renovated the property, they sold it to Vera, providing required disclosures, stating they were not aware of any water intrusion, leaks from the sewer system or any pipes, work, or repairs that had been done without permits or not in compliance with building codes, or any material facts or defects that had not otherwise been disclosed. Vera’s own inspectors revealed several problems. The Sellers agreed to several repairs Escrow closed in December 2011, but the sewer line had not been corrected. In January 2012, water flooded the basement. The Sellers admitted that earlier sewer work had been completed without a permit and that Vega was unlicensed. In 2014, the exterior stairs began collapsing. Three years and three days after the close of escrow, Vera filed suit, alleging negligence, breach of warranty, breach of contract, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation. Based on the three-year limitations period for actions based on fraud or mistake, the court dismissed and, based on a clause in the purchase contract, granted SNL attorney’s fees, including fees related to a cross-complaint against Vera’s broker and real estate agent.The court of appeal affirmed. Vera’s breach of contract claim was based on fraud and the undisputed facts demonstrated Vera’s claims based on fraud accrued more than three years before she filed suit. Vera has not shown the court abused its discretion in awarding fees related to the cross-complaint. View "Vera v. REL-BC, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court sustained Liquor Bike LLC's petition for writ of certiorari and vacated the district court's order disqualifying Liquor Bike's counsel on the ground that counsel's representation of Liquor Bike in this matter was directly adverse to a current client of counsel's law firm in another matter, holding that the district court abused its discretion.The district court disqualified Liquor Bike's counsel, Billy Mallory and Brick Gentry, P.C., in a boundary-dispute litigation, concluding that Mallory's representation of Liquor Bike violated Iowa Rule of Professional Conduct 32:1.7. Liquor Bike filed a petition for a writ of certiorari challenging the district court's disqualification of its counsel. The Supreme Court sustained the petition, holding that the district court did not subject the motion for attorney disqualification to strict scrutiny and, instead, found a concurrent conflict of interest where none existed. View "Liquor Bike, LLC v. Iowa District Court for Polk County" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed suit against Chicago Title and others for damages and to rescind the sale of his two-unit residence in San Francisco. After plaintiff resolved the case with other defendants and rescinded the sale, he sought to recover as damages against defendants the attorney fees he spent in securing and quieting his title due to the rescinded sale, attorney fees he incurred defending against his possible eviction from the property, the rent he paid to live in the property before the sale was rescinded, and rental income he lost for the time he was off title.The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's judgment on the pleadings, concluding that the trial court erred by deciding that it was legally unforeseeable to defendants that plaintiff would suffer loss of damages following the close of escrow by defendants. The court explained that this is not one of those "occasional" cases where foreseeability may be decided by the trial court as a question of law. Rather, as with most issues related to foreseeability, it is a question of fact for a jury. The court also concluded that the trial court erred in denying plaintiff's motion to amend where the evidence did not support a finding that defendants were surprised or would be prejudiced by allowing plaintiff to amend his second amended complaint as requested. Finally, the court noted the continued viability of nonstatutory motions for judgment on the pleadings, like motion in limine No. 10, is unclear. The court merely flagged the issue for future reference and to highlight potential pitfalls these motions often create for trial judges, as happened in this case. View "Tung v. Chicago Title Co." on Justia Law

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After a trial before a three-member land commission, the district court awarded compensation to Landowners after the government took an easement on their land. The district court awarded Landowners $4.4 million, apportioned attorney's fees and litigation costs, and split the cost of the commission.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's award of just compensation and the splitting of the commission costs. The court concluded that the district court was within its discretion to weigh the evidence and to determine that the Landowners had shown a non-speculative demand for industrial and residential development in the reasonably near future. Therefore, the court could not say that the district court clearly erred in calculating its award of just compensation. The court also concluded that the district court has broad discretion in apportioning commission costs, and upheld its decision to do so. However, the court concluded that identifying the "prevailing party" for purposes of the attorney's fee award is a legal question that the court reviewed de novo. The court found that the district court erred in making that determination, concluding that because the government's $937,800 value is closer to the district court's final award of $4.4 million, the government, not the Landowners, is the "prevailing party" in this litigation. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part and reversed in part. View "United States v. 269 Acres Located in Beaufort County" on Justia Law