Properly drafted written contracts are typically enforceable as against the parties thereto, with few exceptions – fraud being one of them. The manner in which written contracts are treated upon the allegation of fraud is highly dependent on the type of fraud alleged. In short, it is a question of whether the party claiming fraud alleges that they were defrauded as to the terms or nature of the contract or as to the facts and representations underlying the contract.

Void and Voidability

One of the most common scenarios in which this question arises is relative to settlement agreements and/or “releases,” where one party gives some consideration (e.g., money) in exchange for the settlement and release of actual or potential legal claims. The type of fraud being alleged determines whether the contract or agreement is automatically void (void ab initio) or merely voidable. “A release obtained by fraud in the factum is void ab initio, while a release obtained by fraud in the inducement is merely voidable upon proof of fraud.” Haller v. Borror Corp., 50 Ohio St. 3d 10, 13 (1990). “Whether a release was procured through fraud of either type is a question for the trier of fact [such as a jury]. Whether the fraud as alleged is in the factum or in the inducement is an issue of law for the court.” Id., at 14-15.

Fraud in the Factum

“A release is obtained by fraud in the factum where an intentional act or misrepresentation of one party precludes a meeting of the minds concerning the nature or character of the purported agreement.” Id. Imagine a grandchild telling her grandmother that she is signing a letter for school when it is really a change to her estate plan. “Where device, trick, or want of capacity produces ‘no knowledge on the part of the releasor of the nature of the instrument, or no intention on his part to sign a release or such a release as the one executed,’ there has been no meeting of the minds.” Id., quoting Picklesimer v. Baltimore & O. R. Co., 151 Ohio St. 1, 5 (1949).

Fraud in the Inducement

As the title would suggest, “[c]ases of fraud in the inducement. . . are those in which the plaintiff, while admitting that he released his claim for damages and received a consideration therefor, asserts that he was induced to do so by the defendant’s fraud or misrepresentation.” Haller, at 14. In Haller, the alleged fraud involved the financial solvency of a defendant company. In essence, a representative of the company allegedly represented to the plaintiffs that the company would soon be closed and, therefore, if Plaintiffs did not accept the offered settlement, they would likely receive nothing with respect to their claim(s). Id., at 11-12. The plaintiffs apparently later learned that this was not true. The Ohio Supreme Court found these allegations consistent with a claim of fraud in the inducement.

Practical Considerations

“A release of liability procured through fraud in the inducement is voidable only, and can be contested only after a return or tender of consideration.” Haller v. Borror Corp., 50 Ohio St. 3d 10, 14 (1990); see also Berry v. Javitch, Block & Rathbone, L.L.P., 127 Ohio St. 3d 480, 483 (2010) (“[A]n action for fraud in the inducement of a settlement of a tort claim is prohibited unless the plaintiff tenders back the consideration received and rescinds the release.”); Manhattan Life Ins. Co. v. Burke, 69 Ohio St. 294 (1903).

While it may seem obvious, one cannot seek to void a contract while retaining the consideration they received for the same. In Haller, the plaintiffs received $50,000 in exchange for a release of their prior claims. The Court, finding their allegations of fraud to be consistent with fraud in the inducement, held that the plaintiffs were required to tender back the $50,000 to the defendants before they could seek to void the settlement agreement and release. Because they had not done so, the release they signed remained valid and enforceable, and their claims (including those released under the settlement agreement and that of fraud in the inducement) were dismissed. This is consistent with the idea that one cannot “cherry-pick” which parts of a contract to enforce; they cannot denounce their obligations under a contract while retaining the benefits thereof.

When it comes to contract negotiations, these cases demonstrate how important it is to (a) start from a properly drafted contract, and (b) do your due diligence in order to mitigate the risk of later disputes and litigation. Our transactional team is uniquely positioned to help in these negotiations, having significant experience in contract drafting, negotiation, and disputes.

For assistance with contractual matters, contact Casey Jones (513.943.5673 )

Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Wende Cross has certified two classes in White v. Cincinnati, litigation in which both the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law and Finney Law Firm represented payors of the illegal and unconstitutional Cincinnati tax on security alarm systems.  The two distinct classes certified are (a) residential and (b) non-residential payors of the Cincinnati alarms tax.

The City charged residential alarm-system-owners $50 per year to register their systems and commercial owners $100 to register their systems.  Last fall, the 1st District Court of Appeals unanimously ruled the tax illegal under Ohio law and unconstitutional, overruling a trial Court ruling on the same subject.  In March of this year, the Ohio Supreme Court preserved that victory for Cincinnati property owners when it refused to accept discretionary review of the case.

We now proceed to an an Order that will establish the amount and procedures for the restitution of the illegally-collected sums, a fairness hearing, and then distribution of the refunds to payors.  We aim for the conclusion of those steps this calendar year.  The amount of restitution is expected to be more than $3.6 million.

For questions, contact Chris Finney at 513.943.6655.

You may read the order issued April 22 here.

 

 

Listen in as Chris Finney discusses his 8-0 unanimous victory against the Ohio Civil Rights Commission as they attempted to extract money for a tenant in an entirely frivolous case.  The conduct of the Ohio Attorney General’s office and the Ohio Civil Rights Commission was shameful and outrageous in this case.

 

Truth can be stranger than fiction.  And the last few weeks at the Finney Law Firm that has been the case.

Yesterday, Chris Finney, Jessica Gibson and Julie Gugino racked up a unanimous jury verdict (8-0) to defeat a case of claimed retaliation in response to a tenant’s claimed request for a disability accommodation that was met with a non-renewal of a residential lease.  The case was styled Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Abundant Life Faith Fellowship in front of Judge Christian Jenkins in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.  The Civil Rights Commission was also suing the Church’s pastor who had served for 41 years.  In candor, the Civil Rights Commission did a terrible job of vetting its own case with a terrible, dishonest plaintiff and a very sympathetic defendant.  Its attorneys at trial also were not exactly prepared or stellar.

The Civil Rights Commission case was full of demonstrable untruths about a kind-hearted 74-year-old African American minister who had suffered two strokes.  By the testimony of two of her fellow tenants in the building, the complaining tenant had plotted starting fewer than two weeks into her tenancy to drum up a fictitious lawsuit against the landlord as a way to extract money from him — she told this to her fellow tenants.  And for a year, she made his life a living hell, with incessant complaints about inadequate heat and fabrication about needing more light for a vision disability (in fact, her complaints about lighting had been adequately addressed early in her tenancy).  Dozens of complaints were addressed by visits by with servicemen, engineers, and repairmen to cater to her many whims and incessant gripes.  The Cincinnati Health Department came out and confirmed the unit in every room was heated to a comfortable 72°F to 73°F (the tenant lied to the jury — never a good idea — and said the readings were 62°F, 64°F and 66°F).

In the funniest part of the trial, the tenant at first denied and then admitted sending a bizarre text message to the landlord in the depth of winter, after he noticed that the windows of every unit in the building were open, including those of the tenant who constantly complained it was too cold!  Here is the text message, grammatical errors and misspellings included:

Yes, her crazy assertion to the landlord was that he must maintain the heat in the unit at 70°F even if the windows of the unit are left open!

Of course Pastor Brown and the Church had to fund the 4-year defense of the Civil Rights Administrative Complaint and the lawsuit, which he did with aplomb, but at great expense.  For the benefit of all landlords subject to outrageous prosecutions from obstinate public agencies, he saw this case through to its appropriate and proper end.  He refused to be bullied by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, the office of the Ohio Attorney General and Housing Opportunities Made Equal (H.O.M.E.) (which manufactured evidence and knowingly lied to the Civil Rights Commissions in “building their case”).

For more information or to avoid being bullied by these same agencies: (a) DO NOT TALK TO THEM in an investigation EVER and (b) contact Jessica Gibson  (513.943.5677) for assistance with your case.

Do you own land on one of the seven hills of Cincinnati? Has your downhill neighbor started digging on their land? Has such digging threatened to cause or caused your land to slide? If you answered yes to the preceding questions, then you might be entitled to an injunction or damages due to your neighbor removing the “lateral support” to your land.

This blog post will address a (i) background on lateral support; (ii) neighbor’s liability for removing lateral support from a landowner’s land when such land is in its natural or improved state; and (iii) landowner’s recourse when their land is going to start or starts to slide due to their neighbor’s digging.

Background:

The right to lateral support is a landowner’s right to have their land supported laterally by their neighbor’s land. The right varies based on whether the damaged land is natural or improved. Land in its natural state is always entitled to lateral support. However, improved land is not so entitled unless provided by statute or a neighbor negligently removes lateral support. Ohio provides such a statute.

Natural Land:

If a neighbor’s digging causes damage (e.g., sliding) to a landowner’s natural land, then the neighbor is liable for the damages that flow from such digging. There is no need for the landowner to show fault; it is a strict liability standard. To prove strict liability, the landowner must show (i) that their land was injured by the removal of its lateral support, (ii) that the injury resulted from the neighbor’s digging, and (iii) ascertainable damages.

Improved Land:

The Ohio Revised Code, under Sections 723.49 – 723.50, allows a neighbor to excavate down to (i) nine feet below the curb or street grade and (ii) the full depth of the foundation wall of any building on the landowner’s land, without liability. That said, if a neighbor digs to a depth greater than nine feet below the curb of the street, and such digging causes damage to any of a landowner’s buildings, then the neighbor is liable regardless of whether the neighbor is negligent. However, the neighbor’s digging must be the proximate cause of the damage.

Under a negligence standard, a neighbor might also be liable when the neighbor’s digging causes damage to a landowner’s building. The landowner must demonstrate that the neighbor was negligent by showing that the neighbor’s digging (i) removed the lateral support to the landowner’s building, (ii) caused injury thereto, and (iii) caused ascertainable damages.

Note: Concerning negligence, a neighbor has a duty to perform work, even if on their land, in such a manner as not to damage an uphill landowner’s land.

Landowner’s Recourse:

When dealing with the possible removal or the removal of lateral support, a landowner may seek an injunction or sue for damages. A landowner may seek an injunction to ask the court to prevent a neighbor from taking actions that will remove the lateral support to the landowner’s land. Alternatively, a landowner may seek monetary damages after a neighbor damages the landowner’s land. Such damages are based on “the time required to repair and a comparison of the cost to repair to the diminution in the fair market value of the [landowner’s land] before and after the damage.”[1]

Note: If a landowner lives uphill from a neighbor, and the neighbor removes soil downhill from the landowner’s land resulting in damage to the landowner’s land, then the neighbor must make the repairs.

Conclusion:

If (i) you own land on one of the seven hills of Cincinnati; (ii) your downhill neighbor started digging on their land; and (iii) such digging threatened to cause or caused your land to slide, then call the Finney Law Firm today, where an experienced professional can provide insight as to whether you have a claim for an injunction or damages.

[1] 1 Ohio Real Property Law and Practice § 8.07 (2021).

The business buzzword for 2022 is: Inflation.

The inflation rate in 2021 was 7.5%, a rate that the the Federal Reserve says took them completely by surprise.  And 2022?  Many prognosticators (this author included) believe inflation will hit double digits for the first time in more than 30 years.  This comes after rates of inflation consistently at or below 2% for the past decade.  As a result, many marketplace participants simply are not aware of strategies that will enable them to navigate the shoals of an inflationary environment.

This blog entry may pivot between references to rates of inflation and rates of interest for borrowing.  These two concepts, while different, are addressed interchangeably as (a) inflation is a widely accepted indicator of an over-stimulated economy and (b) the predictable response to inflation is raising interest rates charged to banks by the Fed to dampen that economic activity.  In turn, banks will then raise the rates charged to consumer and commercial borrowers.  So, higher inflation inevitably begets higher interest rates.  The Fed has forecasted both (i) the possibility of front-loaded rate increases, meaning sharp rises in the coming months (as opposed to sequential rate hikes being stretched out over months and years) and (ii) as many as seven rate hikes in 2022 alone.  This means interest rates could rise by a full 2% or more from today’s rates before January of 2023.  How high can rates go? In March of 1980 the prime rate of interest peaked at 19.5%.  Imagine the impact of interest rate adjustments on your business model at those exorbitant rates.

Here are a few things to consider to protect yourself in inflationary times:

  1. Utilize commercial rent adjustments to your advantage.  During low inflationary times, landlords and tenants have commonly avoided complex periodic calculations for rent increases based upon Consumer Price Increases (CPI) increases, in favor of either fixed rent rates during the term of a lease or rent increases only pursuant  to a fixed schedule (say, for example 5% increases every 3 years).  As inflation accelerates and persists at high levels, landlords will hope they had full CPI adjustments built into their leases past and will start demanding then in leases in the future.  Conversely, tenants will cherish fixed-rate, longer-term leases that create a benefit to them of inflation (but the rapidly-changing office and retail markets might cause devaluation of spaces that previous saw decades of stability and strength).  As always, we recommend that tenants consider asking for an early termination provision in all commercial leases.
  2. Anticipate and avoid mortgage interest rate surprises. Many residential mortgages and most commercial mortgages have fixed interest rates only for a few years.  As to residential rates, after the period of the fixed rate, frequently rate increases are capped, but will still be painful.  But for commercial borrowers, when the fixed term expires, the rate increase is typically unlimited.  As a result, commercial borrowers locked into mortgages that might not be paid off for a decade or more could have dramatic, uncapped and unanticipated increases in the interest portion of the mortgage payment that continues to escalate each adjustment period.  To mitigate these impacts, consider refinancing into a new fixed-rate term that gives you breathing room before the impact of higher rates hits with full force.  Also, the sale of parts of your portfolio to pay down debt could lift your P&L from the greatest impacts of interest rate hikes.
  3. Be careful of fixed-rate pricing.  Home builders, contractors and manufacturers are experiencing difficulties fulfilling obligations under fixed-price contracts for matters that have a delivery date well into the future, shrinking their profit margins or turning winning contracts into losers.  Our office then is seeing instances of home builders trying to walk away from contracts and contractors seeking to convert fixed-price contracts into cost-plus agreements, shifting material and subcontractor pricing increases to buyers.  If you are that builder or contractor, consider adding an automatic or negotiated inflation adjustment in the contract and as a buyer, you want to lock in that fixed pricing firmly.
  4. Anticipate suppliers walking away from contracts. Similarly, we have seen manufacturers and distributors of certain products avoiding their obligations to supply certain goods or equipment.  As a buyer, do you have your supply contracts documented correctly and have you diversified your supply pipeline to protect yourself if a supplier lets you down?  Is the party with whom you are contracting sufficiently capitalized to stand behind their contractual obligations?
  5. Consider inflation and interest-rate contingencies.  The Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors/Dayton Area Board of Realtors form residential purchase contract allows a buyer to state the specific terms of the mortgage it is seeking as a contingency to ia buyer’s performance under the contract.  If you specify a “fixed rate loan for 80% of the purchase price at a rate below 3.5% per annum fixed for a period of 30 years,” and interest rates rise before the closing, the buyer has a perfect out.  Similarly, buyers and sellers can include in any contract an “out” for high rates of inflation and higher interest rates.
  6. Be wary of options.  Options to renew leases and options to purchase may seem innocuous and predictable in stable times.  But in a dynamic high-interest rate marketplace, an option acquired today to buy a property at a fixed price three, five or ten years into the future (say under a long-term commercial lease) can unexpectedly enrich the option holder.  Options can be a way a way to leverage dramatic profits to the option holder.
  7. Be prepared to offer seller financing.  A close partner to higher interest rates are tighter lending standards.  Fewer and fewer buyers can afford to buy at inflated interest rates, and lenders also frequently tighten their loan eligibility standards.  As a result, a eligible buyers — abundant today — become frighteningly scarce.  In the worst of the inflationary period at the end of 1977 to 1981, sellers had to offer loan assumptions, land contracts, leases with options (or obligations) to purchase (with the warning noted above) and simple notes with accompanying mortgages to get any property sold.
  8. Be prepared to buy at foreclosure sales.  Foreclosure sales, which have virtually disappeared for the past two years, could come roaring back as commercial and residential owners cannot afford their new, higher mortgage payments, and, of course, mortgage foreclosure moratoria have been lifted.
  9. Be prepared to offer seller financing.  A close partner to higher interest rates are frequently tighter lending standards.  Fewer and fewer buyers can afford to buy at inflated interest rates, and lenders also frequently tighten their loan eligibility standards.  As a result, a eligible buyers — abundant today — become frighteningly scarce.  When lending is loose (as today), it seems readily available to anyone.  And when it tightens, it seems to strangle the marketplaces.  In the worst of the inflationary period at the end of 1977 to 1981, sellers had to offer loan assumptions, land contracts, leases with options (or obligations) to purchase and simple notes with accompanying mortgages to get almost any property sold.

We saw with the rapid deterioration of the real estate market from 2006 to 2010 that buyers many times would willfully breach their contractual obligations to buy or rent.  In this process, they would search for a contingency or loophole — any argument whatsoever — to evade their contractual promises.  And in other instances, they would just outright walk away.  Accompanying these contractual breaches were also insolvency and bankruptcy, making collection impractical or impossible.  Similarly, as the real estate marketplace has heated up over the past five years, we have seen sellers work to evade their contractual obligations so they could retain an appreciating investment or simply realize a higher price from a second buyer.

How can you protect yourself in this type of dynamic market to assure performance by a buyer or seller?

  • Consider escrow deposits, guarantees and other security. Sellers can demand higher earnest money deposits, non-refundable deposits and short contingency periods. Buyers can use tools we have written about here and here of Affidavits of Facts Relating to Title and legal actions for specific performance. Further, consider adding personal guarantees to contractual promises from corporate and LLC buyers or sellers.  Additionally, the performance by buyers and sellers can be further secured with mortgages against real property and secured positions in other assets.
  • Add an attorneys fee provision.  Also, consider adding a contract provision shifting the expense of attorneys fees to the breaching party in a contract.  That can sometimes change the calculus of a prospective breaching party.
  • Tighten your contract language. To lock buyers and sellers into real estate and supply contracts and leases, carefully consider ways the other party might find a contingency or loophole in their performance. Contingencies (commonly for inspection or financing) are the tunnel through which most buyers drive to walk away from a contract.  Ohio law provides that a buyer must “reasonably” attempt to fulfill a contract contingency, but many still attempt to use contingencies to artificially and intentionally avoid their legal obligations.  Fraud on the part of a seller (such as an undisclosed material defect discovered before closing) can also arguably be the basis for a buyer not performing.  Conversely, typically there are no contingencies to a seller’s performance under a contract.  But consider everything in the instrument — the date, the property description, the parties’ names, the “acceptance” language and timing, in considering how the other party might try to squirm away from their promises.

As the economy becomes more unpredictable and more dynamic in terms of pricing, supply shortages and interest rates, market participants would be wise to carefully think about the impact of inflation and interest rate hikes on their contractual obligations and market positioning.

 

 

[Editor’s note: We have many clients regularly buying, improving and holding commercial properties within the City limits of Cincinnati, but they are not availing themselves of the simple and valuable property tax abatements available.  Please contact Eli Krafte-Jacobs (513.797.2853) on your next project to attain these generous and significant property tax savings on your City project!]     

_______

The City of Cincinnati, Community Reinvestment Area Commercial Abatement Program provides incentives to build and/or renovate commercial, industrial or mixed-use facilities.  These incentives are manifest as property tax abatements and allow the developer (or future owner/operator) to reduce the operating expenses associated with the property.

  • Significantly, the abatement application must be submitted and approved on commercial projects before the commencement of construction. 

Commercial projects in the City of Cincinnati (you need to take care to understand the geographic City limits of Cincinnati) are eligible for a maximum net tax exemption of up to sixty-seven percent (67%) of the improvement value for up to fifteen years.  In all cases, the developer must also enter into a separate agreement with the relevant school board to pay an amount equal to thirty-three percent (33%) of the improvement value as a Payment-in-Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) to be eligible for the abatement program.  This PILOT cost does not further reduce the potential maximum net tax exemption.

The application review process determines the abatement percentage and the number of years for which it will apply.  As part of the application, the developer must submit a $1,250 fee and describe its own development experience, the specific project and why it deserves a tax exemption, any planned community engagement, and anticipated job creation/retention.  Additionally, the developer must submit the following supplemental information:

  1. A detailed breakdown of all sources and uses of funds for the project;
  2. Supporting documentation for such funds;
  3. A post-construction operating pro forma for the building and cash flow analysis;
  4. The developer’s corporate documents evidencing ownership and authority to sign;
  5. Copy of the title deed;
  6. Copy of the proposed construction plans/renderings;
  7. Estimated pre-construction and post-construction real estate taxes; and
  8. Documents evidencing LEED or Living Building Challenge Certification, if applicable.

In connection with the application, Developers can indicate whether they intend to enter into a Voluntary Tax Incentive Contribution Agreement (VTICA), which factors into determining the percentage and length of time of the abatement.  Under a VTICA, the property owner agrees to pay a portion of the abated tax to the municipality for certain uses including, most prominently, the streetcar [applicable as to downtown projects].  City Council has instructed the Department of Community and Economic Development to consider VTICA contributions of fifteen percent (15%) or more of the abatement amount to be a substantial positive factor in reviewing applications.

Factors in Reviewing Application/Determining Level of Exemption:

  1. Must apply prior to beginning any construction activities[1]
  2. Must use a minimum of $40,000 on renovation/construction1
  3. Must result in net, new job creation1
  4. For residential property, can only receive a Commercial Abatement of five (5) or more units
  5. Historic Properties may be eligible for an additional 10-year extension
  6. Election to enter a VTICA, as mentioned above
  7. New construction vs renovation
  8. LEED-certified or not
  9. Handicap accessibility

For assistance with commercial or residential tax abatements (almost exclusively inside the City of Cincinnati), please contact Eli Krafte-Jacobs [513-797-2853]).

[1] These items are absolute requirements

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.

Make no bones about it: Ohio property taxes are complicated.

And with today’s dramatic upwardly dynamic real estate market, it is more important than ever that buyers and sellers carefully consider the impact of a sales price that exceeds the Auditor’s valuation when writing a purchase contract’s tax proration provision.

Ohio’s complicated property taxation structure

First, taxes in Ohio are billed semi-annually, in roughly January and July of each year.  Those two bills are, respectively, for the first half and second half of the prior calendar year.  So, the January 2022 bill will be for the first half of 2021, and the July bill will be for the second half of 2021.  Thus, when a buyer buys property, the seller owes between seven and thirteen months of taxes in arrears. 

How tax prorations are typically addressed in “form” contracts

Typically, the purchase contract will provide for several things so that the seller credits these accrued but not-yet-due taxes to the buyer:

  • First, there will be a proration of taxes from the seller to the buyer from January 1 of the year of the closing, or July 1 of the year prior to the closing, through the date of closing.
    • (In what I consider to be a weird local custom, in the Dayton marketplace only, a “short proration” is many times utilized for residential and commercial transactions. The “short proration” ignores the first six months of arrearage, and prorates only on the part-half-year immediately prior to the closing. I do not know the logic behind this.)
  • Second, the amount of that proration in a form residential and commercial purchase contact is typically to be “based upon the most recent available tax duplicate.”  Many times the contract (and/or documents signed at the closing) specifies that the tax proration is to be considered “final.”
  • [NOTE: The new Cincinnati Area/Dayton Area Board of Realtors standard form of residential real estate contract issued in the fall of 2021 is emphatic on this topic: Tax prorations are based upon “the most recent available tax rates, assessments and valuations” and “all tax prorations shall be final at Closing.”]

What does “based upon most recent available tax duplicate” mean?

On this, issue of prorating taxes “based upon the most recent available tax duplicate,” consider a few things:

  • In Ohio, the starting point for the Auditor’s value is the actual value, i.e., what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller for the property.  It’s the same number used by buyers, sellers, appraisers and lenders for the property value, i.e., the actual sales price.  There is no other magical number. (Then, we speak in terms of 35% of that value as that is translated in the tax bill, but that number has no practical impact except to confuse people and does not change the analysis set forth in this blog entry.)
  • Secondly, the “most recent available tax duplicate” means the taxes to-be-paid, which is valuation times tax rate on the Auditor’s records as of the date of closing.
  • But both the tax valuation and the tax rate can change — with retroactive effect — all the way through the date the tax bill is issued in January of the following year, meaning well after the closing, or even by August or September of that following year when a tax valuation complaint before the Board of Revision is decided.  Indeed, if a valuation complaint is appealed all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, taxes could be assessed with retroactive effect two, three or more years after a closing date.
  • (We primarily address valuation issues in this blog entry, but if a levy is on the ballot in May or November of any year, that rate increase also dates back to January 1 of that year, so a large tax levy can result in an inequitable tax proration as well.)

A sale price above Auditor’s value may result in a retroactive tax increase    

In today’s dynamic real estate market in which sales prices of certain properties are galloping upward at an astonishing pace, especially for apartment buildings, single family residences, and industrial and warehouse properties, that standard form language could leave an unsuspecting buyer holding the bag.  Here’s why:

  • First, County Auditors update their valuations once every three years, and the cutoff for those updates is around September 30 of that year. So, for a sale in a “triennial year” (six different triennial cycles for Ohio’s 88 counties) prior to September 30 of that year, the Auditor should, on his own, increase the valuation to the sales price retroactive to January 1 of that first year of the triennial (even if the sale is late in that year), but that increase only becomes reflected on the tax records when the valuation comes out with the January bill of the year subsequent to the applicable tax year.
  • But Auditors typically do not adjust values on their own after that date and in the “off” two years between the triennial valuation cycles.  So, Hamilton, Montgomery, Butler and Clermont Counties most recently updated valuations effective January 1, 2020, and those values came out with the January 2021 tax bills.  The Auditor’s of each of those Counties won’t “catch” a sale made after September 30, 2020 until the 2024 tax bills (values effective January 1, 2023).
  • Ohio law says that — with narrow and rare exceptions — the sale price is the correct property valuation. Thus, property owners have a difficult time arguing that the contract sale price is not the actual value of the property.
  • The contract sale price is reported to the Auditor with an “Real Property Conveyance Fee Statement of Value and Receipt” (“Conveyance Fee Statement”) signed by the purchaser at each closing.  It is a felony to falsify one of these forms.

It’s easy to ascertain if the sale price is above the Auditor’s valuation.  Each County publishes their valuations — current as of the date of contract signing — on its web site.

School districts can and do seek retroactive valuation increases

The biggest beneficiary of property taxes in Ohio is the local school board, which typically receives about two-thirds of the total tax bills into their coffers.

As a result, school districts hire attorneys skilled in property valuation matters to scour the Auditor’s records to find recent sales in their district that exceed Auditor’s valuation.  Then, they file Board of Revision complaints to seek an increase in valuation.  Some points on those complaints:

  • Those complaints are filed, as with property owner complaints seeking a reduction, between January 1 and March 31 of each year.
  • Those complaints by law seek a retroactive increase in taxes to January 1 of the prior year.  So, for example, complaints filed in the first quarter of 2022 will apply retroactively to January 1 of 2021, and the increased taxes are a lien on the property as of that prior year (e.g., January 1, 2021).
  • Almost universally, school districts limit their complaints to sales of a certain minimum variance from Auditor’s valuation (say, $50,000 or $100,000) and usually they ignore single family residential properties.
  • The buyer — the new property owner — should receive notice of the complaint, and could appear to oppose the increase.  But the an arm’s length sales price is, by law, the correct valuation and the Conveyance Fee Statement is usually prima facie evidence of both that contract price and the arm’s length nature of the transaction.

These school board complaints, if successful, have two effects: (i) in the tax year of the Complaint, it puts real cash in the pocket of the school district (the tax hike is very roughly about 3.0% of the valuation increase and the school district gets about two thirds of that one-time cash amount), and (ii) thereafter it ever-so-slightly reduces the burden on other property owners to have each property valued at its correct rate.

A post-closing surprise!

This means that buyers can get a surprise of a tax bill far in excess of the prorated taxes (otherwise by law owed by the seller) well after the closing date.  And typically contract language and perhaps papers signed at the closing make this difference unrecoverable by the buyer as against the seller.

How to address this issue in the contract

From a buyer’s perspective, if he wants to recover a proration that will fully compensate him for taxes due (by seller) accruing prior to closing, he must deviate from the typical contract language that a tax proration is to be “based upon the most recent available tax duplicate” to add “but updated to reflect the sale price in this contract” or something to that effect.  A further possibility with an entirely solvent seller whose operation would continue well after the closing would be to call for a re-proration after the actual taxes are known. But it’s far better to adjust at closing so a post-closing claim (or law suit) is not necessary.

If the issue is not addressed in the contract but brought up before or after closing, it may be difficult to argue to the seller that the contract does not reflect the seller’s actual tax liability as of the closing date.

From a seller’s perspective, it is better use the typical default language of “based upon the most recent available tax duplicate.”

Obviously, if the contract price is lower than the Auditor’s valuation, the default language” of “based upon the most recent available tax duplicate” would disadvantage the seller and benefit the buyer.  This frequently was so in the last (and every) real estate recession, and may be true with isolated sales occurring today, or for certain categories of real estate such as restaurants and hospitality, parking garages, and retail. When this happens, a seller may want to ask to prorate based on the actual sale price rather than the “most recent available tax duplicate” information.  In the alternative, the seller could preserve the right to pursue a reduction in valuation post-closing and receive any refund arising from an over-payment or excess proration.

Ohio courts have addressed this precise question: What happens when, after closing, additional taxes are retroactively assessed for periods prior to closing due to an increase in value? Under the default “based upon the most recent available tax duplicate” language, the answer is that typically these additional taxes become the buyer’s responsibility.

In Lone Star Equities, Inc. v. Dimitrouleas, 2d Dist. Montgomery No. 26321, 2015-Ohio-2294, the seller filed a Board of Revision (“BOR”) complaint seeking a reduction in the value of his property and received such reduction. The local school board then appealed that reduction to the Board of Tax Appeals (“BTA”). While the BTA appeal was pending, the seller sold the property to the buyer for significantly more than the value to which the property was reduced at the BOR level and gave the buyer a general warranty deed disclaiming all encumbrances. The BTA hearing was held approximately one year after the closing, and (because he no longer owned the property) the seller did not attend. The buyer was seemingly unaware of the proceeding and, thus, did not attend the BTA hearing either. The BTA ended up increasing the value to what it was before the BOR reduction (i.e., the value sought by the school board). This created a retroactive tax assessment of nearly $34,000 relative to periods prior to the closing. The buyer paid those taxes and then sued the seller for breach of contract, breach of warranty, and fraud to recoup the same.

The applicable tax provision in the Lone Star case read as follows:

  1. Taxes: All installments of real estate taxes, and any other assessments against the Property, that are due and owing prior to Closing shall be paid by Seller regardless if the tenant reimburses Seller for same. The taxes and any other assessments assessed for the current year shall be prorated between Seller and Purchaser on a calendar year basis as of the closing date.”

(Emphasis added). There was no language to indicate what would happen should a tax be retroactively assessed for periods prior to closing, but the buyer argued that the seller should be responsible for the taxes under the above contract language, and that he knew of the pending BTA matter and knew that the tax proration on the HUD-1 settlement statement wasn’t final and fraudulently misrepresented the same.

As to the breach of contract claim, courts have long held that any contract claims will “merge” with the deed upon closing. “The doctrine of ‘merger by deed’ holds that whenever a deed is delivered and accepted ‘without qualification’ pursuant to a sales contract for real property, the contract becomes merged into the deed and no cause of action upon said prior agreement exists. The purchaser is limited to the express covenants of the deed only.” Id., at ¶ 29, citing 80 Ohio Jurisprudence 3d (1988) 91, 93, Real Property Sales and Exchanges, Sections 58-59; Brumbaugh v. Chapman (1887), 45 Ohio St. 368, 13 N.E. 584; Fuller v. Drenberg (1965), 3 Ohio St.2d 109, 32 O.O.2d 91, 209 N.E.2d 417, paragraph one of the syllabus. Cf. Dillahunty v. Keystone Sav. Ass’n. (1973), 36 Ohio App. 2d 135, 65 O.O.2d 157, 303 N.E.2d 750.

In other words, after closing occurs, the parties no longer have viable claims arising out of the contract – they only have claims arising out of the deed. This largely shifts the burden to the parties, making it incumbent upon them to do their due diligence in making sure all of the respective contractual obligations have been met prior to closing. For example, if a contract addendum calls for the seller to make certain repairs prior to closing, but the seller fails to fulfill this obligation and the closing occurs anyway, the buyer cannot later sue the seller for breach of contract in failing to make the repairs. This is because the contract “merged” with the deed, and the deed did not call for any repairs. The court in Lone Star applied this doctrine of merger by deed to rule in favor of the seller as to the buyer’s breach of contract claim.

Perhaps two of the most common exceptions to the doctrine of merger by deed are (a) explicit contractual language dictating a specific contractual term shall “survive the closing” and/or “survive delivery of the deed” (this defies the doctrine’s “acceptance, without qualification, of the deed” requirement), and (b) fraud. In the Lone Star case, there was no contractual language indicating that the tax provision would survive closing and/or delivery of the deed. Likewise, the court found no fraud on the part of the seller.

One of the required elements to prove a fraud claim is “justifiable reliance.” See Lone Star, at ¶ 59, citing Volbers-Klarich v. Middletown Mgmt., 125 Ohio St.3d 494, 2010-Ohio-2057, 929 N.E.2d 434, ¶ 27; Burr v. Board of County Comm’rs, 23 Ohio St. 3d 69, 73, 23 Ohio B. 200, 491 N.E.2d 1101 (1986). A party cannot justifiably rely on any representation when he or she is on notice to the contrary. Because BOR and BTA proceedings are matters of public record, the buyer was put on constructive notice of the school district’s efforts to have the property’s taxable value increased, even if the seller had a duty to and failed to disclose these proceedings (which was not specifically addressed). Lone Star, at ¶ 65. Because neither of these exceptions applied, the contract merged with the deed at closing, and the buyer could not prevail on its breach of contract claim or its fraud claim.

Finally, the court addressed whether the retroactive tax assessment constituted an encumbrance insofar as it applied relative to periods prior to closing. Answering that question in the negative, the court found that “the tax lien does not attach and become an encumbrance on property until the time that a final determination of valuation is made, and the current property owner, not the former owner, will be responsible for the taxes that have attached.” (i.e., the “‘relation back’ concept in R.C. 5715.19(D) does not mean that the taxes would have attached as a lien prior to the closing.”). Id., at ¶ 53-55. Because the tax assessment did not constitute an encumbrance until after the closing when the BTA made its final determination as to the value of the property, it was not an encumbrance as of the date of closing and, thus, there was no breach of the general warranty deed covenants.

The Lone Star case is a cautionary example of what can happen should the buyer fail to do its diligence in checking for tax appeals and/or insist upon the language discussed in this entry to protect him or her in the event of a post-closing tax assessment. As a firm, we regularly represent both property owners and school districts in BOR and BTA proceedings, and we also have several seasoned real estate attorneys who can help you explore the tax implications of a transaction or post-closing tax assessment.

Conclusion

For help with your commercial or residential real estate contracting matter, including the intricacies of Ohio and Kentucky tax prorations, contact Isaac T. Heintz (513.943.6654), Eli N. Krafte-Jacobs (513.797.2853), or Casey Jones (513.943.5673) of our real estate group.