We all know of creative and incessant attempts to defraud us of our hard-earned money, many (but not all) internet- and email-based.  But nonetheless (i) the efforts of snooker us never stop, and (ii) we must constantly tell others in our family and our organization to be wary.  Eternal vigilance is a business and personal requisite these days.  The criminals are absolutely relentless.

Just this last week, our firm and my family were “almost” taken in by two of these international criminals:

  • Our firm (because we have a great web site and use internet marketing tools) constantly gets “new client inquiries” (usually via our web portal or regular email) from fraudsters asking us “do you review contracts?” or “can you sue someone for us?,” pretty generic and bland (but transparently fraudulent) inquiries.  I generally just “delete,” but one of these made it to one of our newer associates.  It was a client from Dubai who wanted us to assert certain contractual claims against another party.  We did so, and the matter instantly settled with a $385,000 certified check payable to our firm escrow account.  The fraudulent client then wanted us to wire the escrowed monies to him and a third party, both overseas (major red flag there!).  Fortunately, our crack bookkeeping staff saw the certified check was dishonored before we wired out the funds — disaster averted!.  But it was a close call.

[Something to note about these fraudulent inquiries: (i) they never want to communicate via telephone (but rather by email), (ii) the phone number they provide is always bad, and (iii) they always have some bland *@Gmail address.”  I sometimes respond to the email address they provide “please call me,” and they never do.  I call the phone number and it is bad for one reason or another.]

  • Sunday, right before the Superbowl, I stopped to have lunch with my wife.  She related to me that a piece of furniture she had for sale in Facebook Marketplace had sold to a buyer in California.  He was going to send us “certified funds” and then wanted us to pay his moving company to bring the piece to California.  “Wait a minute,” I said.  “why would we pay his mover,” and it vaguely reminded me of a fraud scheme I had heard from a client or read about on the internet.  Sure enough, I Googled “pay the mover” and found out this is a common scam.  You wire or pay funds to a mover, and later the “certified funds” are dishonored.  The victim is “out” the moving fee and the scammer never intended to pay for your furniture!  My wife told the would-be buyer that we would hold the “certified funds” for 10 days before shipping the goods, and he went radio silent immediately.  Fraudster!

Our firms, and our title company in particular, are attacked by fraudsters almost daily.  Fortunately, we are alert to the most common scams, and have avoided them all (we have clients who have not been so lucky).  But these two close calls — at the office and at home – remind us that vigilance is required and gullibility, and trust, in the internet era are simply foolish!

Be cautious with your funds and your property.  There are loads of fraudsters — some anonymous on the internet and some that you think are your friends — who will gladly and shamelessly steal your money and leave you wondering why you fell for their scam!

Be cautious!  Be aware!  Trust very few.

Earnest Money vs. Liquidated Damages

As Chris Finney has addressed extensively in prior blog entries, “a common misunderstanding of parties to a purchase contract is that the escrow money is some sort of measure of or limitation on damages for the buyer’s breach, or, conversely, that the return of the earnest money ‘cures’ the seller’s breach and is the limitation on his damages as well. However, unless the real estate purchase contract specifically calls out either of those limitations, neither of those propositions is true.” In other words, an earnest money deposit is in no way representative of the amount of “damages” caused by a breach of the contract unless the parties to that contract say it is.

Consider the following example: A Buyer contracts to purchase a home for a purchase price of $350,000. Buyer deposits $5,000 in earnest money. Buyer decides to buy a different home instead and breaches the contract to purchase the first home. The Seller of the first home has a tough time selling it after Buyer backs out but, eventually, finds someone else to buy the home. However, the new buyer will only pay $320,000. Seller can typically seek damages from Buyer based on the difference in the purchase price, i.e., $30,000, because that is the amount that places Seller in the position he would have been but for Buyer’s breach. Seller is NOT limited to merely collecting the $5,000 earnest money.

So then what does the phrase “unless the parties to the contract say it is” really mean? How can the parties to a contract predetermine what the damages will be if one of them breaches?

A liquidated damages clause is a contractual vehicle through which the parties can stipulate – in advance – the amount of damages due and owing should one of them breach the contract. It can be a fixed amount or a percentage of the total contract price. Relative to real estate contracts, particularly in the commercial context, parties will sometimes agree, in the purchase contract, that the earnest money will act as liquidated damages in the event of breach. Thus, while liquidated damages are not necessarily equal to the amount of earnest money deposited, they can be if the parties so agree.

Are liquidated damages clauses enforceable?

As the Ohio Supreme Court has long held, “parties are free to enter into contracts that contain provisions which apportion damages in the event of default.Lake Ridge Academy v. Carney, 66 Ohio St. 3d 376, 381 (1993). However, many parties who later breach a contract after having agreed to such a provision unsurprisingly attempt to defeat the same by arguing that the provision to which they agreed is somehow unenforceable – most often, by arguing that the clause operates a “penalty.”

Ohio courts utilize a three-part test to evaluate whether a liquidated damages clause is, indeed, enforceable.

Where the parties have agreed on the amount of damages, ascertained by estimation and adjustment, and have expressed this agreement in clear and unambiguous terms, the amount so fixed should be treated as liquidated damages and not as a penalty, if the damages would be (1) uncertain as to amount and difficult of proof, and if (2) the contract as a whole is not so manifestly unconscionable, unreasonable, and disproportionate in amount as to justify the conclusion that it does not express the true intention of the parties, and if (3) the contract is consistent with the conclusion that it was the intention of the parties that damages in the amount stated should follow the breach thereof.

Samson Sales, Inc. v. Honeywell, Inc., 12 Ohio St. 3d 27, Paragraph 2 of the Syllabus (1984).

Courts routinely uphold these clauses in the real estate context, in large part due to the unpredictability of the market. See, e.g., Cochran v. Schwartz, 120 Ohio App. 3d 59, 62 (2d Dist. 1997); Kurtz v. Western Prop., L.L.C., 2011-Ohio-6726 (10th Dist. 2011); Ottenstein v. Western Reserve Academy, 54 Ohio App. 2d 1, 4 (9th Dist. 1977); Schottenstein v. Devoe, 83 Ohio App. 193, 198 (1st Dist. 1948); Curtin v. Ogborn, 75 Ill. App. 3d 549, 555 (Ill. App. 1979) (outlining a general rule that liquidated damages are appropriate in amount where ten percent or less of the purchase price). This is because “although the contract price is easily ascertainable, the fair market value of real estate fluctuates, in some cases dramatically, and these fluctuations, based upon numerous independent variables, are unpredictable.” Kurtz, at ¶ 30 (relative to the first prong in the Samson test). “Difficulties inherent in assessing the fair market value of property due to the volatility of the real estate market have been the impetus for Ohio courts giving effect to liquidated damages provisions in real estate transactions.” Id., at ¶ 31.

Who does a “liquidated damages” clause benefit?

While it is perhaps easier to envision how liquidated damages provisions tend to benefit the non-breaching party, they can be just as advantageous to a breaching party. For example, consider a situation where Buyer is under contract to purchase a $1 million retail center with a $100,000 liquidated damages clause. Buyer elects not to purchase the property and breaches the contract. A week after Buyer’s breach, there is a down-turn in the real estate market and, now, Seller can only get $800,000 for the property. Rather than potentially being on the hook for the $200,000 difference between the contract price and ultimate sale price, Buyer’s liability is capped at the fixed liquidated damages amount of $100,000 because that is what the parties agreed to in the contract.

Liquated damages clauses can also be mutually advantageous inasmuch as it allows the parties to know what to expect. Circumstances may arise that require a party to choose between breaching the contract or incurring some other loss. In such a situation, the clause helps that party weigh their options and explore all possible outcomes in order to make an informed decision.

Is a liquidated damages clause a good idea?

Like so many legal questions, the answer is unfortunately the rather frustrating “it depends.” Ultimately, whether to include a liquidated damages clause in your contract or whether to agree to such a clause being proposed by the other side, is a decision that should be made on a case-by-case basis after considering all of the potential factors that may come into play.

Our firm has significant experience in dealing with these types of provisions – from drafting, to review, and to enforcement – and we can help you explore how including such a provision in your real estate contract may impact you, as well as answer any other real estate contract questions you may have.

Buying real estate improved by an existing building is in itself a legally intricate undertaking. However, new construction and renovation introduce a whole new level of complexity, difficulty, legal complication and financial risk.

This blog entry explores just one of those categories of added risk in the construction and renovation arena: mechanics liens. This article also is not the definitive, all-encompassing explanation of the Ohio mechanics lien statute (it has a multitude intricacies).  Rather, we provide herein three (or four) simple steps to assure that the extraordinary “muscle” added by mechanics lien claims is not applied against you as a property owner.

General risks of real estate investing

In short, real estate investing is not for amateurs or the faint of heart.  Many of the entries on this blog explore how to avoid pitfalls associated with real property acquisitions involving existing improvements, such as issues relating to matters of title, tax, physical defects in the property and improvements (and seller fraud relating to the same), zoning, land use and other regulatory hurdles,  and seller fraud in financial misrepresentations, just to name a few.

Additional risks inherent in new construction and building renovation

However, taking raw land or a developed lot (the difference being built roadways, utilities, addressing zoning and full subdivision) and building a new structure, or renovating an existing structure, are fraught with a host of added risks: Proper planning and design, zoning and land use restrictions, utility access, building code permitting and inspections, selecting an honest and qualified contractor who has a corral of qualified subcontractors, materialmen and laborers.  The list of added complexities associated with adding improvements to real estate is almost endless.  Properly executing a construction project from beginning to end is difficult.  That difficulty today is enhanced by the lack of availability of skilled labor and subcontractors, increasing pricing and drawing into the field entirely unqualified, untrained and unsupervised laborers.

The special risks associated with mechanics lien

One of the biggest legal challenges is protecting property owners and lenders against mechanics liens from contractors, subcontractors, materialmen and laborers on the project.

What is a mechanics lien?

Mechanics liens (not at all for what we think of as “mechanics” in normal parlance) are purely creatures of statute, meaning they don’t exist as a matter of contract nor are they common law rights.  Rather, R.C. §1311.011 (one- and two-family residential dwellings) (addressed partially in this blog entry)  and R.C §1311.02 (commercial properties) provide statutory lien rights to unpaid contractors, subcontractors, laborers and materialmen.  All of these rights are strictly limited in time, amount and circumstances allowed by statute.

These statutes provide a tremendously powerful tool for these parties to assure payment from the property owner, secured firmly by the equity in the property, so long as their claim is narrowly allowed under the statute, and those rights will not extend beyond the statute. (The effective date of priority of liens as against mortgages and other lien holders is yet another a matter not addressed in this entry.)

These lien rights can transcend the contractual obligations of the property owner, meaning an owner can in fact owe money to someone with whom he has no contract at all (the owner may never have known their name or that they did work on his job, or supplied materials to his job).  An owner can, under some circumstances, owe money to a subcontractor, materialman or laborer even though he already has paid everything he owes to the general contractor (this principle applies to commercial projects only).   These can be jarring revelations to an unsuspecting property owner who has not taken the simple steps in this blog entry to protect himself from mechanics liens.  In other words, unaddressed, this is dangerous territory for a property owner making improvements to his property.

Three simple steps an owner can employ to protect himself from mechanics liens

Again, the Ohio mechanic’s lien statutes are tremendously involved, and this blog entry is not attempting to explore the many intricacies in that statute.  That’s for another day.  Rather, this article offers a few simple steps that a property owner undertaking a construction project can employ to avoid the potential of financially and legally catastrophic consequences from liens sinking a project or ruining the finances of a property owner.

  1. Pay no more to the contractor than the true value of work actually completed as of the draw, and perhaps less.  In some ways, this step is self-explanatory. As a construction project progresses, the owner should take great care to pay the contractor only for the value to the owner and the project of the work finished at the time of payment. In a reverse analysis, the owner should always have enough money left in his construction budget to finish the job if the contractor walks away after the most recent payment.  Now, estimating these two amounts (the value of work completed and remaining cost to complete) is tricky, and the owner should realize that the contractor — knowing the construction costs and business better than him — is in a superior position to estimate this, but relying on the contractor’s “word” is equally risky.  So, this step requires the owner to have a good understanding of the real cost of each stage of the work.  It also requires assuring the work completed at each stage is code compliant, contract compliant, and of good quality and workmanship.  Beyond this step, many owners will require “retainage” of an addition 10-20% from the “actual value of the improvements to date” to assure there is always enough left in the construction budget to complete the project.  This retainage is then paid at the end of the project (usually upon issuance of a certificate of occupancy, “substantial completion” as certified by the architect or some other objective metric).
  2. Affidavits of full payment. As each installment (or “draw”) of the construction budget is paid to the general contractor, the general contractor should provide an affidavit — a sworn statement, the falsity of which is a felony and the basis for a civil fraud claim– of what he is owed, and critically, the names of each subcontractor, materialman, and laborer, and the amounts owed at that stage to each.  In good practice, that “master affidavit” is then also accompanied by further affidavits from each subcontractor, materialman and laborer as to the amounts they are owed at that point in the project.
  3. Joint checks.  Then, the owner should cut joint checks to (a) the contractor and (b) each subcontractor, materialman and laborer, to assure that the amounts they themselves swear are due and owing are in fact paid in full.  These joint checks should track the sworn statements in the various affidavits.

If a property owner on a project follows these three simple steps, the risk of a mechanics lien is limited to (a) those subcontractors, materialmen and laborers not listed on the affidavits (falsely) and (b) only those claims for additional work arising from the most recent payment.

Beyond these three simple steps, a one-to-two family residential property owner is also protected from liens of subcontractors, materialmen, and laborers to the extent that he has paid the general contractor in full, or is limited only to the amounts owed under the master contract to the general contractor.  That statutory principle is more fully explored here.

  • Lien waivers.  A drastic fourth protection that can be employed by a property owner is to allow no contractor, subcontractor, materialman or laborer to step foot on the job or to supply materials to the job unless they have signed in advance a lien waiver, saying (a) in the case of the contractor, they will look only to the contract (and the courts in a typical collection action) to assure payment and (b) in the case of subcontractors, materialman and laborers, saying they will look only to the general contractor for payment, not to the owner and not to a lien against the property.  These lien waivers, heavy-handed and unusual as they may be, are legally effective.

So, there is much much more, legally and business-wise to being successful in the execution of a of residential or commercial construction project, and so much more of a winding path in the Ohio mechanics lien statutes, but these three (or four) simple steps can change the dynamics of a construction project strongly in favor of the property owner.

For assistance with mechanics lien issues or other legal challenges relating to new construction, feel free to contact me at 513.943.6655.

While the real estate market seems to have slowed slightly, our title company, Ivy Pointe Title, continues to close a record-breaking number of transactions. Perhaps due to challenges that buyers are facing in making competitive offers and having those offers accepted, our firm has also noticed an uptick in the number of (actual or attempted) contract terminations prior to closing – this phenomenon, when unjustified under the terms of the contract, is often referred to as an “anticipatory repudiation.”

An anticipatory repudiation is “‘a repudiation of the promisor’s contractual duty before the time fixed for performance has arrived.’” Sunesis Trucking Co. v. Thistledown Racetrack, L.L.C., 2014-Ohio-3333, ¶ 29 (8th Dist. 2014), quoting McDonald v. Bedford Datsun, 59 Ohio App.3d 38, 40, 570 N.E.2d 299 (8th Dist.1989). For example, if you have a contract to sell your property to a buyer, and the buyer backs out three days before the closing for any reason not justified under the terms of the contract – or for no reason at all – an anticipatory repudiation of the contract has likely occurred. It is akin to a breach of the contract; however, because it occurs before “the time fixed for performance” (i.e., the closing), it is considered “anticipatory.”

Remedies

“If an anticipatory breach of contract is found to occur, the injured party has the option of (1) terminating the contract and suing the breaching party immediately, or (2) continuing the contract and suing the breaching party for damages after the time for performance has passed.” Sunesis, at ¶ 33, citing 18 Ohio Jurisprudence 3d Contracts, Section 238 (2011). It is worth noting that the “repudiation” must be unequivocal. If you are unsure whether a party’s statement amounts to a repudiation or whether they intend to still fulfill their obligations under the contract, you should seek “adequate assurances” as to whether they intend to comply.

An anticipatory repudiation may stem from a buyer submitting offers on multiple listings to increase the odds of one of their offers being accepted (certainly plausible in this market) or a seller receiving a higher back-up offer and having remorse over having accepted a previous, lower offer. In either event, the non-repudiating party has a right to enforce the contract or sue for their damages. For instance, in the above hypothetical, the seller could re-list the property and, if the property sells for lower than the contract price with the original buyer, sue for the difference.

Affidavit of Title

An additional mechanism that is often helpful for a buyer (where the seller repudiates) is an affidavit of title. Pursuant to Ohio R.C. 5301.252, a person having an interest in real estate by virtue of a contract may assert his or her interests via an affidavit recorded in the real property records. This effectively encumbers the real estate such that most title companies will not close a transaction on the property while the affidavit is pending. In other words, it prevents the seller from being able to sell the property to someone else where you have a valid and enforceable contract to purchase that same property – it forces them to “deal with” you and your contractual interest in the property. Importantly, the affidavit of title has various technical requirements and, if containing any untrue statements, could serve as the basis for a slander of title claim. Therefore, it is important to consult with an experienced attorney before utilizing this mechanism to make sure that it is properly prepared and recorded.

If you would like to know more about your rights relative to a real estate contract, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to meet with you and explore your options.

 

On September 29, 2021, the First District Court of Appeals issued a decision in CUC Properties, Inc. v. smartLink Ventures, Inc., Case No. C-210003 which will have a far reaching and substantial impact upon cases in the State of Ohio in which default judgment was obtained as a result of service by the US Postal Service during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At issue in CUC Properties v. smartLink was the service of Summons and Complaint by the US Postal Service.  In that action, smartLink disputed that it received service of the Complaint as provided under Civ. R. 4.1 where the USPS noted “Covid 19” or “C19” on the return receipts delivered to smartLink and its registered agent.  As a result of their failure to file an Answer, CUC Properties obtained judgment by default against them.  smartLink appealed, asserting that the notation “Covid 19” or “C19” did not amount to service as provided under the Civil Rules.

The Court agreed, holding that,

The Covid-19 pandemic certainly demanded innovation and flexibility, and courts around the state (and country) admirably exhibited great creativity in keeping the courthouse doors open while also ensuring public safety. The challenging nature of the pandemic aside, we simply cannot dispense with the rules and due process protections. This is particularly so when the record contains no indication that service was otherwise validly achieved. On this record, therefore we hold that a notation of “Covid 19” or “C19”  does not constitute a valid signature under Civ. R. 4.1(A).

This decision, undoubtedly, will have far reaching effects upon the finality of default judgments granted in Ohio courts during the course of the pandemic where the USPS chose to use a notation of “Covid 19” or “C19” in place of having the individual at the address personally sign for the mail from the Court.

 

The Basics

As a basic principle, every citizen in the United States (and even non-citizens) are entitled to due process under the law. In simpler terms, everyone has the right to have their legal disputes treated fairly based on established laws and principles. With certain exceptions, this includes a right to bring an action in court to hold accountable those who have committed a wrong.

So what are those exceptions, and what do they mean?

One of the most notable exceptions to the right of a person to have their matter heard in court is where the parties have agreed to a process known as “arbitration.” Arbitration is “a method of dispute resolution involving one or more neutral third parties who are [usually] agreed to by the disputing parties and whose decision is binding.”  Black’s Law Dictionary 119 (9th ed. 2009). Practically speaking, arbitrators are usually practicing or retired attorneys and/or judges who essentially serve as the trier of fact in an expedited proceeding held in lieu of a court trial. Arbitration can be particularly appealing to large companies that often face high volumes of threatened or actual legal claims for a multitude of reasons – for one, arbitration is generally more expedient and cost effective than in-court litigation. Employers frequently require them as a condition of employment so that various employment claims are handled confidentially.

Why wouldn’t everyone want to participate in arbitration?

Another reason that large companies, such as banks, credit card companies, and other financial institutions, may push arbitration is that it is a significantly more favorable forum for – you guessed it – those companies. Other significant disadvantages for the “Average Joe” consumer in arbitration are: (a) these arbitration clauses often disallow class actions or certain elements of damages, i.e., “punitive” damages, (b) arbitration usually limits the parties’ discovery rights – for example, the consumer may not be able to depose witnesses or seek the production of documents that could help them prove their claims and (c) arbitration is frequently required to be confidential, prohibiting a public discussion of the facts and outcome of the proceeding.

What if I don’t want to be forced into arbitration?

Over the past several decades, the law has been very favorable to companies seeking to force customers/consumers into arbitration. Southland Corp. v. Keating, 465 U.S. 1, 11 (1984) (noting “a national policy favoring arbitration”). However, there has recently been a palpable shift in these principles, especially in Ohio and the Sixth Circuit.

Arbitration Case Law

In March 2021, the Sixth Circuit overturned an Eastern District of Tennessee case wherein the District Court granted a bank’s motion to dismiss litigation filed in court and compel arbitration. See generally, Sevier County Schs. Fed. Credit Union v. Branch Banking & Trust Co., 990 F.3d 470 (6th Cir. 2021). In that case, the bank (after a series of mergers) sent out a new agreement that contained new or updated terms and stated that, by continuing to maintain an account with the bank, the accountholders agreed to those new terms – in other words, continuing to do business with the bank constituted acceptance of the new terms. The new terms included, inter alia, a binding arbitration provision and a waiver of class actions. Id., at 473. The District Court found that, by continuing to do business with the bank, the plaintiffs had accepted such terms and, therefore, must pursue their claims via arbitration. See generally, id. But the Sixth Circuit disagreed. Id.

In rendering its decision, the Sixth Circuit found that determining the existence of a valid arbitration agreement is a question of state-law contract principles. Id., at 475. That is, what are the elements required to create a contract under state law, and were those elements met. Under Tennessee contract law (which is analogous to Ohio contract law), the formation of a contract requires consideration and mutual assent. Id., at 476. Mutual assent can only be found where there is a “meeting of the minds,” meaning “Did both sides assent to be bound by the terms of the contract?” Id. The Sixth Circuit in Sevier County found no mutual assent and, specifically, noted that mere “silence or inaction” is insufficient to bind a party to an arbitration provision. See id., at 477, quoting its prior decision in Lee v. Red Lobster Inns of America, Inc., 92 F. App’x 158, 162 (6th Cir. 2004) (“The flaw in the district court’s analysis is that it places the burden on the [consumers] to . . . object to a company’s unilaterally adopted arbitration policy or risk being found to have agreed to it. This is not how contracts are formed.”).

Ohio courts have begun following suit, even citing directly to Sevier County. On August 5, 2021, the Eighth District Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Gibbs v. Firefighters Community Credit Union, 2021-Ohio-2679, affirming the lower court’s decision denying a defendant’s motion to stay the action pending arbitration. In Gibbs, plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit, and the defendant credit union moved to compel arbitration, arguing that plaintiffs agreed to a change in the terms and conditions of their account agreements, including an “Arbitration and Waiver of Class Action Relief provision,” by failing to opt out. Id. at ¶¶ 2-3. The credit union purportedly sent notice of these changes to account holders via email, and the email stated that an account holder’s continued use of defendant’s banking services indicated assent to the updated terms. Id. at ¶¶ 3-4. The credit union maintained that because plaintiffs never opted out of the provision, it became effective and controlled the matter. Id. at ¶ 3. However, nothing in the content of the email informed the account holders of the Arbitration and Waiver of Class Action Relief provision or the ability to opt out – this information was, instead, included in an attachment to the email.  Id. at ¶ 5.

Like the court in Sevier County, the Eighth District in Gibbs relied on Ohio contract law principles governing the formation of contracts and found that the credit union failed to meet its burden of establishing the existence of an agreement to arbitrate. Id. at ¶¶ 14, 18. The court held that there was no “meeting of the minds” between plaintiff and the credit union as to the arbitration provision because the content of the email notice gave no indication that the changes involved the addition of the arbitration provision. Id. at ¶¶ 16-17. Instead, “[t]he Plaintiffs were thus lulled into not giving a thought to the unilateral addition of the arbitration provision . . .” Id. at ¶ 17, quoting Sevier County, 990 F.3d at 481.

Take Action

If you wish to pursue claims that the other party maintains are subject to an arbitration provision, and you do not wish to participate in arbitration, you may have some options. For instance, if you dispute the existence or validity of an arbitration clause, Ohio statute provides a process by which you can assert such dispute. See R.C. 2711.03(B) (“If the making of the arbitration agreement or the failure to perform it is in issue in a petition filed under division (A) of this section, the court shall proceed summarily to the trial of that issue.”). That is, if you dispute that an arbitration agreement exists, you may be entitled to have a court determine that threshold issue before the underlying claims proceeds.

We Want to Help

We recently had a case where a financial institution argued that our client’s claims, filed in state court, were subject to an arbitration agreement and, therefore, moved the court to dismiss our claims and compel arbitration. We disputed that our client had ever received proper notice of any arbitration agreement, much less agreed to the same, under facts very similar to the Sevier County and Gibbs cases discussed above (ironically, the financial institution had previously cited to the District Court case in Sevier County, yet failed to notify the Court when it was overturned by the Sixth Circuit). We moved for a trial under R.C. 2711.03(B), which was granted. After an unsuccessful interlocutory appeal by the financial institution and nearly eighteen months of litigation and discovery on this limited arbitration issue, the financial institution eventually agreed to withdraw its motion to compel arbitration.

While it is not always an easy road, we are passionate about protecting our clients’ rights, including the right to have their claims heard in the proper forum. Unfortunately, consumers are too often “railroaded” by big companies with deep pockets in the litigation process, and it is our desire to make sure every client has access to the tools necessary to hold these companies accountable for their conduct. As is evident from our recent case and the long and arduous battle it took to keep our client’s claims in state court where they belong, we don’t say this lightly – we live it every day in our practice.

If you are considering bringing a claim or have concerns regarding whether an arbitration agreement may apply, we can help you evaluate those questions and explore your options.

Please contact Casey Jones (513.943.5673) if we can help with your litigation or arbitration dispute.

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.

“A mortgage is a conveyance of property to secure the performance of some obligation, which is designed to come void upon due performance thereof.”[1] The Ohio Revised Code characterizes mortgages as “liens.”[2] Mortgage liens are only applicable to real property, as with the land and the buildings attached to it.

Mortgagors (the party granting the mortgage) tend to grant mortgages to secure payment of money from the mortgagee (the party granting a loan in consideration for the mortgage).[3] The instrument evidencing the debt secured by the mortgage is generally referred to as a “note.” However, mortgagors may grant mortgages to secure the performance of other obligations, like an environmental indemnification.

Notes and mortgages, as contracts, are negotiable by the parties to them. As such, notes and mortgages include all sorts of obligations and remedies. That said, there are three basic remedies that a mortgagee can pursue to enforce the note and mortgage.[4] Mortgages can pursue all three of the following remedies at the same time or separately.[5] However, in doing so, a mortgagee must keep in mind the different statute of limitations periods for each remedy.

(1) An action on the debt secured by the mortgage (the note).

When a mortgagee brings an action on the debt secured by the mortgage, the mortgagee is bringing an action for a personal judgment debt evidenced by the note against the mortgagor (or any other maker of the note, even if they did not sign the mortgage).[6]

In Ohio, written instruments, such as notes, have a six-year statute of limitations, running from the due date(s) or, if applicable, the date the debt is accelerated.[7] When the statute of limitations runs on the note, the mortgagee can still go after the mortgagor with a foreclosure action, as the statute of limitations on the mortgage is longer. The statute of limitations for the foreclosure does not run by virtue of the statute of limitations on the note running.[8]

(2) An action to foreclose on the mortgaged property.

When a mortgagee brings an action to foreclose on the mortgaged property, the mortgagee is attempting to secure the mortgagee’s conditional interest (conditional on mortgagor default) in the property.[9] If the mortgagee succeeds here, the mortgagee will have superior title to the property than that of the mortgagor.[10] The go-to remedy for mortgagees is that of an action to foreclose on the mortgaged property.[11]

In Ohio, foreclosure actions have an eight-year statute of limitations, running from the date that the breach occurred.[12] The statute of limitations for foreclosures was changed from fifteen years to eight years on September 28, 2012.[13] For breaches that occurred before September 28, 2012, the statute of limitations runs at the end of the fifteen-year period from the breach or September 27, 2020, whichever is earlier.[14]

(3) An action of ejectment against the occupier of the mortgaged property.[15]

When a mortgagee brings an action of ejectment against the occupier of the mortgaged property, the mortgagee is attempting to take possession of the property.[16] In doing this, the mortgagee is taking advantage of the mortgagee’s superior title to the property to that of the mortgagor. [17]

In Ohio, ejectment actions have a twenty-one-year statute of limitations, running from the date that the mortgage becomes due.[18]

The aforementioned information regarding the statute of limitations does not apply to the mortgage itself. A mortgage, that is unsatisfied or unreleased of record, remains in effect for twenty-one-years from the date of the mortgage or twenty-one-years from the date of the maturity date (if any), whichever is later.[19] This, however, deals more with the purchasing of encumbered property free from the prior mortgage, and the mortgagee’s ability to enforce a prior mortgage against purchaser.

If you, as a mortgagee, have a mortgagor in default and want to enforce the note, mortgage, or both, call the Finney Law Firm today!

[1] Barnets, Inc. v. Johnson, Case No. CA2004-02-005, 2005 Ohio App. LEXIS 703, *8 (Ohio App. 12th Dist. Feb. 22, 2005), citing Brown v. First Nat. Bank, 44 Ohio St. 269, 274 (1886).

[2] Barnets, at *8.

[3] Barnets. at *9.

[4] Barnets, at *9.

[5] Barnets, at *9.

[6] United States Bank Nat’l Ass’n v. O’Malley, 150 N.E.3d 532 (Ohio App. 8th Dist. Dec. 26, 2019).

[7] ORC Section 1303.16.

[8] O’Malley, at 532.

[9] O’Malley, at 532.

[10] Search Mgmt. L.L.C. v. Fillinger, 2020 Ohio App. LEXIS 1966, *1.

[11] Barnets, at *9.

[12] ORC Section 2305.06.

[13]Ohio Real Property Law and Practice § 19.10 (2020).

[14] Ohio Real Property Law and Practice § 19.10 (2020)

[15] Barnets, at *9.

[16] Fillinger, at *1.

[17] Fillinger, at *1.

[18] Cont’l W. Reserve v. Island Dev. Corp., 1997 Ohio App. LEXIS 962, *1.

[19] ORC Section 5301.30.