Frequently we are asked by clients whether they are permitted to do “x” on their property: Move lot lines, build above a certain height, use a certain type of siding or trim or modify building setback lines. What rules govern these concerns?

The answer is: Both governmental restrictions and private contracts or covenants.

Let us explain.

Governmental restrictions

Zoning code, building code, fire code, subdivision regulations, engineer rules, and on and on and on, there a host of governmental regulations that dictate the use of, development of and construction on private property. And for each of these restrictions, there is a procedure for altering or “varying” the strict compliance with the restriction. These might include a board of zoning appeals, a board of building appeals,  or even an administrative appeal in Ohio Common Pleas Court or Kentucky Circuit Court.

So, once you jump through the hoops to get governmental approval, you are good to go, right?  Ummm, wrong.

Private covenants

For most modern subdivisions, commercial and residential, and for older ones going back decades, there are a series of private covenants against the land that many times mirror and then exceed the requirements in the governmental regulations. These covenants are recorded in the land records — in Ohio the County Recorder’s Office and in Kentucky in the County Clerk’s office. These covenants — whether the property owner is actually aware of them or not — are binding on each property owner in the subdivision as if the owner himself signed them. They are, in essence, a contract to which each subdivision property owner has expressly agreed.  These covenants pay be in a textual document (many exceeding 50-100 pages) and they may be on a plat of subdivision as a graphically-drawn easement or restriction or text on the face of a plat.  Each have equal weight under the law. (Consider: did you understand as a property buyer that you were entering into 100-page contract and were bound to each provision thereof?)

Take for example building setbacks.  Zoning might require a minimum front yard of 25′, but the private covenants may require 50′. As to front entry garages, zoning may allow them, but private covenants may prohibit them.

Under private covenants, the “varying” or waiver could require unanimous approval of all lot owners, could require approval of the homeowners association board or an architectural committee thereof. Some covenants can be waived simply by a signature of the developer. The bottom line is that they are a matter of contract.  What the restrictions are and how they are waivered or varied is a question typically answered in the document itself.

Effect of governmental variance on private covenants (and vice versa)

So, as a property owner, once you go through the entire governmental variance process to allow a front entry garage or a smaller front yard setback, does that then solve the covenant problem?  Absolutely not. These two sets of restrictions each stand alone and must be modified or waived independently.

Similarly, if a property owner were to pursue a variance from requirements from a homeowners’ association, would that “fix” the violation of the governmental restriction? Still, no.

Thus, it will many times require two sets of approvals to get around a restriction that is in both the zoning code and the subdivision covenants.

Conclusion

For assistance with a zoning or covenant issue, please contact Jennings Kleeman (513.797.2858), Eli Krafte-Jacobs (513.797.2853) or Isaac Heintz (513.943.6654).

This firm and the firm of Markovits, Stock & DeMarco have undertaken a complex piece of real estate class action litigation against Build Realty, First Title, George Triantafillou and many others involving hundreds of victims. After many years and much discovery and motion work, the Motion for Class Certification has finally been fully briefed for Judge Douglas Cole. Many of our readers are following that litigation and check in for updates.

Attached are the following pleadings relating to that motion:

We would expect (but cannot assure) a decision on this motion sometime before the end of 2021 and then will advise prospective class members thereafter.  In the meantime, if you have questions, please contact attorney Chris Finney at 513.943.6655.

In business and personal commercial dispute resolution, clients come to us who either have been sued by someone and need a defense, or have been wronged by someone and desire to pursue that claim in court. For both, litigation should involve, among other factors, a risk versus reward analysis.

If you pay us “X” in legal fees and “Y” for expenses, will you obtain a better outcome than settling on even unfavorable terms (as a defendant) or walking away from a claim (as a plaintiff)?

Unfortunately, litigation is always a “bad option” for a host of reasons:

  • The simple math of the cost of getting the matter before a Judge for resolution.
  • The unpredictability of result. Even the best cases (from a defense or prosecution standpoint) are never as clear to a judge or jury as they are to you, and in many cases your attorney, who takes the role of being an advocate who believes in your case and in you.
  • When you bring a claim, will the defendant bring a counterclaim that you will need to defend? This is very frequently the path of litigation.
  • Related to the foregoing, rarely are cases as one-sided as the client tells us in the initial meeting. There frequently is one stray witness, one stray e-mail, one stray fact that does not make our client look exactly like Snow White when the case goes to trial.
  • Litigation disrupts personal life and business affairs. It is messy, time-consuming, distracting to family, neighbors, friends, clients and employees, who may need to testify at trial, gather voluminous documents, and be otherwise be distracted from life and business priorities.
  • Litigation has “collateral damage” associated with it: Bad publicity, disruption of partnership affairs, or alienating client and vendor relationships. Years ago, I had a client involved in litigation who was informed after years of study and volunteer activity that he could not serve as a deacon in his church because of his litigation. Another had his name plastered on the front page of the newspaper. A third was told by his bank to do business elsewhere.
  • In the middle of litigation can be business failure, death, divorce, insolvency, transfers of assets, etc.  In other words, just because someone appears to have assets that can be seized when a case is commenced, does not mean the assets will be there to collect after three or five years of fighting.

So, the important question for the client is: Is this fight worth these costs, distractions and risks to you?

I say the words “risk” and “reward” and very frequently, I wonder if clients only hear the word “reward.” I wonder if they really thoroughly assess the costs and risks involved in being in a courtroom.

Often, before a case is initiated, clients tell me it is the “principal” of the case, and more power to anyone in our society who acts out of principal. But just as frequently, after bills mount for three months, six months or a year, they would be happy just to settle for the legal fees they have incurred to that point, taking them back to where they started with our firm.  In the rear view mirror, the principal pales in comparison to the cost.  But the other party has spent the same or more in legal fees to get to that point, and is not interested in spending or conceding more on a settlement.

So, when I say litigation is  a “bad option,” I mean it. But the question is whether it is worse than the other options of defending a frivolous case or walking way from a meritorious case that — for a host of reasons — needs to be pursued.

What is a case really worth? As I recall, now-deceased Federal Judge Arthur Spiegel from Cincinnati encouraged litigants in his courtroom to look at a case this way:

  • As a Plaintiff, if you won, how much really will you collect?
  • And then what is your anticipated percentage chance of winning at trial?
  • If your collectible damages are $400,000 and you have a 75% chance of prevailing (no case is a 100% winner), the case has a settlement value of $300,000.
  • And then off of that comes the legal fees,  time and expense of moving forward with trials and appeals.
  • The same analysis applies to the defense side of a case.

I encourage litigants to make this analysis before they incur $100,000 or more in legal fees and suffer the other adverse consequences of litigation. Unfortunately, rare is the case — exceedingly rare — when both the Plaintiff and the Defendant are both willing to have that discussion before engaging in the mutually assured destruction that litigation almost always becomes.

But from your side, be sure to perform your risk-reward analysis before litigation commences or proceeds too far.

Today, the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors/Dayton Realtors announced that it will be issuing a new form purchase agreement for residential transactions on September 1. The new form has been in the works for more than a year now.

From their release, here are some of the major changes in the new form:

Time is of the Essence:  All dates and time-frames are “of the essence” throughout the contract, with a special provision for the closing date.

 

Earnest Money:  No more separate dates for submitting the earnest money for deposit and notifying the listing agent.  There is one time-frame for doing both (default is 3 days). There is also a provision to address non-real estate brokers holding the earnest money, as the laws pertaining to its handling by real estate brokers does not apply to non-real estate brokers.

 

Inclusions/Exclusions:  The default for appliances, such as refrigerators, ovens, etc. is for all to be included in the sale, unless they are specifically excluded in Section 6b.  Surveillance, monitoring and security system items are also addressed, including cameras and controls.  Doorbells are also specifically listed as being included in the sale.

 

Seller’s Certification:  The Seller’s certification has a new look and a new item pertaining to the Foreign Investments in Real Property Tax Act.

 

There are changes to the HOA and financing sections that clarify seller and buyer responsibilities and timing.

 

A significant change has been made to the Inspection ContingencyThe buyer will no longer be able to “walk away” without providing the seller the opportunity to correct material defects – with few, specifically defined exceptions.  And, the seller is required to respond to the buyer’s request for repairs within the time-frame specified or be deemed to have agreed to make all requested corrections.

This blog will be updated with more details after the form has been released. Contact Jennings Kleeman (513.797.2858) or Chris Finney (513.943.6655) for more details.

Today’s Wall Street Journal includes this probing article on condominium maintenance and governance. Although the article addresses proposed changes to Florida law, the issues are similar in Ohio and Kentucky.

The issue raised by the collapse and the events leading up to it, and issues of condominium finance and governance, are highlighted by the article. These are important issues for condominium owners and buyers to carefully consider.

We are asked to review condominium documents

Frequently, we are asked to review condominium documents for a prospective buyer. The task sounds simple enough, and, of course, our buyer already wants to buy. And not to be a negative Nancy, but does our client really understand what he is getting into?

So, a small diversion on that topic.

We many times after an owner is in a condominium — sometimes years after the closing — receive a call from an owner who is really unhappy with communal ownership that condominiums represent. They don’t like the standard to which the common areas are maintained. They don’t want to follow the rules set by the association. They won’t like the dues assessed. They don’t like the conduct of their neighbors. Buyers should therefore appreciate that condominium ownership — be it high-rise, apartment style, or townhouse style — is fundamentally legally different that single family home ownership.   

Contents of condominium documents

In Ohio, Condominiums are “regulated” under R.C. § 5311, which contains some minimum requirements of condominium declarations. But, mostly, condominium declarations are a voluminous contract by and among the unit owners.  The declaration or covenants typically contain these major categories of contractual agreements:

  • Division of the real property (land and buildings) among:
    • Unit, which is usually the three-dimensional space defined by the interior surfaces of the perimeter walls of the area the owner is buyer.
    • Common areas, which is everything that is not a “unit.” Importantly, for this article, this is the foundation, exterior walls, parking garages and parking lots, roof, windows, exterior doors, patios, hallways, lobbies, etc.  Again, anything that is not a unit itself.
    • Limited common areas, which are portions of the condominium property that are common areas, but are limited in their use to a specific unit owner or fewer than all of the unit owners.
  • Limitations on use of the Common Areas, and in some cases the units themselves. For example, parking three-axle trucks, leaving child toys or erecting a basketball hoop might be prohibited.
  • The creation of the condominium association, which typically owns no property itself but is charged with maintaining the common areas.
  • Assessment of condominium dues in an amount set from time to time by the association whereby, primarily, the association maintains the common areas.
  • The right in the condominium association Board to set reasonable rules.
  • The right of the condominium association Board to place a lien against a unit and foreclose on a unit for unpaid assessments.
  • Attorney fee shifting from association to unit owner. What this shorthand means is that if a unit owner gets into litigation with the association and loses, he must pay the attorneys fees of the association. This is a powerful tool of the association in scrapes with the unit owner.

Notably, one of the things that is not usually in condominium documents is a minimum  required standard of maintenance of common areas. So, if an owner does not like how a parking lot or roof is maintained, the cycle on which garage doors are replaced or that exterior painting is done, the unit owner can either run for the Board himself (and assemble a majority) to make better decisions or he is largely “out of luck” on that issue.

What is a unit owner buying?

So, when a unit owner buys a condominium property, what he gets at the closing is a deed for (a) the unit and (b) a percentage ownership interest in all of the common areas of the development.  This is means if it is a multi-unit development, he owns a percentage interest in every roof, every foundation, every exterior wall, etc. And therefore he has a partial duty to pay to maintain all such areas. Further, that purchase is subject to the contractual agreements set forth in the Declaration.

This is a pretty big gulp with a lot of unknowns when you think about it. In other words, the buyer better read the contract, better like his neighbors, better understand the physical condition of the entire development and better understand the finances of the association (more on that below).

So, how does this intersect with the Miami disaster?

The news articles have hinted at, but have not stated directly, that some owners in the building understood that poor long-term maintenance meant problems for the building, and that over the years some favored higher dues and a better standard of maintenance and others were more frugal and thought the maintenance could wait. This would be typical push and pull between a condominium association and its members.

Well we now know without a doubt which side of that debate was correct — the building needed higher assessments and a much higher standard of maintenance.

Condition of common areas is important

But condominium buyers usually — in my experience — look primarily at the units condition in determining whether to buy, and not the condition of the building or entire condominium complex.  I have even had condominium unit buyers hire inspectors to inspect the unit, and I wonder: Why? The condition of the entirety of the building(s) is just as important.

Condition of association’s finances is important

And offsetting balances set forth in the Association’s reserves are critical for deferred maintenance issues, lest the new owners pay for maintenance costs that should have been set aside by the current and former owners.

What questions should a condo buyer ask?

So, in addition to understanding the condition of the unit being purchased, a buyer should ask two critical questions:

  • If I were buying this entire building as an investment, for example, is it in tip-top shape or are there significant deferred maintenance items? And in the case of the Miami building, are there red flags that would indicate significant structural issues that could cause physical harm or massive special assessments to fix long-lingering problems?
  • Has the association set aside sufficient reserves to address routine and deferred maintenance issues, or have successive Boards left a mess for future owners?

It’s complicated

The long and short of condominium purchaser and condominium ownership is: It’s complicated, and to really know what you are buying or “where things stand” with your condominium, one really needs (a) a full understanding of the condition of the common areas in addition to the condition of the unit, and (b) a full understanding of the association’s finances — especially its reserves for repairs — to really understanding what you are buying and what you own.

Contact Chris Finney (513.943.6655), Eli Krafte-Jacobs (513.797-2853 or Jennings Kleeman (513-797-2858) to discuss condominium purchase issues or owner/association disputes.

Finney Law Firm is pleased to welcome our two summer Law Clerks, both from the University of Cincinnati College of Law: Margo McGehee and Zach LeCompte.

Margo E. McGehee

Margo joins Finney Law Firm as a third-year law student at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, having spent her previous summer clerking for Alight Legal, PLLC in Washington, D.C. Margo spent the past semester interning with Magistrate Judge Litkovitz in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. Margo currently serves on the Executive Board of the University of Cincinnati Law Review and as Senior Articles Editor of the Human Rights Quarterly. Prior to starting law school, Margo obtained her bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from Western Kentucky University in economics and Arabic.

Zachary J. LeCompte

Zach joins Finney Law Firm as a third-year law student at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, having spent his previous summer interning with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio—Civil Division. Zach is also currently in his last semester of coursework in the Master of Business Administration program at the University of Cincinnati, and prior to his legal studies he earned a Bachelor of Science in Sport Leadership and Management from Miami University in 2016. Born and raised in Cincinnati, he is a passionate Bearcats and Reds fan.

Finney Law Firm attorney Casey Jones, who began her legal career as a Finney Law Firm summer Law Clerk, has ably recruited and is overseeing the firm Law Clerk program. For 2022 Law Clerk opportunities, contact Casey Jones (513.943.5673) or Katherine Fox (513.943.6668).

Today’s Canton Repository reports here on our latest lawsuit against the Stark County Board of Elections‘ planned purchase of Dominion Voting Systems voting machines. The contract was procured through illegal closed meetings — in executive sessions called for an improper purpose under Ohio law.

Finney Law Firm has a long history of successfully prosecuting cases involving violations of Ohio’s Open Meetings laws as part of our broad public interest law practice, including the notorious Gang of Five case involving members of Cincinnati City Council.

Contact Chris Finney (513.943.6655) for assistance with your Ohio Open Meetings issues.

There is a significant new development in Ohio property tax challenges directly and narrowly resulting from valuation reduction arising from the COVID-19 pandemic allowing such challenges this year.

As we discussed in a blog entry here, because of the unique timing of real property valuations versus billing, Ohio property owners impacted by COVID-19 rent reductions and closures really could not bring successful COVID-related valuation challenges before Boards of Revision in 2021.

To exacerbate that problem, Hamilton, Clermont, Butler and Montgomery Counties had the first year of the tax triennial in 2020 (for challenges in 2021). Therefore, if a property owner attempted a COVID valuation challenge in 2021 and lost, a property owner would be stuck with a bad (high) valuation for three years (tax years 2020, 2021 and 2022, billed and payable in 2021, 2022 and 2023).

This placed owners of certain properties in significant financial straits: Owners of apartment buildings near a university where student-based occupancy plunged or downtown when nearby office buildings cleared out, owners of large office buildings that could not rent because of COVID-related vacancies, owners of hotels and motels and other properties in the travel and hospitality industry, owners of restaurant properties and owners of malls and retail strip centers.

That all changed two weeks ago when Governor DeWine signed into law S.B. 57 which adds a second challenge period in 2021 narrowly targeted to COVID-related property valuation reduction (i.e., not that of general market conditions).

Here is the quick overview:

  • “Second bite” challenges may be filed with the Auditor only between July 26 and August 25, 2021.
  • “Second bite” challenges must narrowly be tailored to valuation reduction as a result of COVID-19.
  • The target valuation date for “second bite” valuations is October 1, 2020.
  • The “second bite” valuation reduction is retroactive to January 1, 2020 (before the pandemic hit America).
  • The “second bite” valuation reduction will last for the remainder of the triennial (in Hamilton, Clermont, Butler, and Montgomery Counties thru the 2022 tax year, billed and paid in 2023).
  • The bringing, and “win” or “loss,” of a valuation challenge for the “second bite” hearings is in addition to the general challenge filed before March 31, 2021 and does not prejudice non-COVID-related (i.e. general market conditions) challenges in later years.
  • The legal and evidentiary hurdles associated with “second bite” challenges are the same, as we see it, to challenges brought in Ohio, meaning an appraisal (supported by testimony from the appraiser) and presentation by a qualified attorney are strongly recommended.

If you have a “second bite” property that would benefit from a challenge narrowly targeted to COVID-19 economic impact, please quickly contact Chris Finney (513) 943-6655) or Casey Jones (513-943-5673) to allow us to help you secure this tax savings.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Ohio Department of Education’s adoption of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project’s for implementation throughout Ohio’s school systems, we should all agree that an open and robust debate about that policy before public bodies is appropriate and required under the U.S. Constitution. But that’s not how the Ohio Board of Education sees things.

Once they hastily adopted the new policies, they then formally forbade speakers before them from criticizing their decision. The ODE allows public comment on all other topics, but specifically not these two.

So, last week, the Finney Law Firm filed suit against ODE challenging these restrictions on speech during the public comment section of Board meetings. Read that suit here.

The Board did not just quietly and unconstitutionally squelch in a public forum,  but they explained why they were privileged — indeed compelled — to trample on the Constitution in this instance:

  • “[O]ur board president has instituted a policy that prevents people from speaking to our group in reference to any of these issues about critical race theory, etc.…  I’m not sure why we have a filter on what we’re allowed to hear here, but we do.”
  • “I was really glad when [LAURA KOHLER] said we weren’t going to have those speeches anymore”
  • “I would just prefer that we not have a conversation about critical race theory, or 1619….”
  • “I don’t want to sit here again and listen to two months of people – they have their opinions….  This is not what I’m here for”
  • “I’m using race and I don’t feel ashamed about that”
  • That if such public comments or testimony were allowed then the meeting of the OHIO STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION “would not longer be a safe space for me”

I suppose if you are that delicate and thin-skinned, perhaps you should not sign up for the rough and tumble of public office. Just a thought.

Media coverage of this is below:

For inquiries on this story, contact Curt Hartman (513.379.2923) or Chris Finney (513.943.6655).