It’s old news, as the law was enacted in 2000, but we are asked this from time to time: Are electronic signatures just as enforceable as physical or “inked” signatures?

Yes.  The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN) passed in 2000 specifically proves that a contract or signature “may not be denied legal effect, validity, or enforceability solely because it is in electronic form.”

SignatureMany of those engaging in commerce of all sorts are commonly using electronic signatures today, including on real estate contracts and other documents.  Documents that require an “acknowledgement” or “notary seal” still must be signed in-person, but otherwise, the act makes the e-signature just as effective.

Because of proof of signature, there may still be instances in which we want personal signatures, but for many of not most commercial arrangements, e-signatures suffice.


In 2008 two firefighters perished while answering an emergency call to a house fire in Colerain Township.

Investigators determined the source of the fire was a fan used in a basement orchid cultivation room. In another part of the basement was a marijuana cultivation room. The family of one of the firefighters brought a wrongful death suit against the homeowner alleging that the orchids were being used as a subterfuge to camouflage the illegal marijuana operation. The suit also included claims against the manufacturers of the radio and other equipment used by the firefighters.

In Ohio, property owners are generally immune from liability for such suits. The “Firefighter’s Rule” is a judicial rule that provides a general immunity to property owners from liability to injuries or death to firefighters incurred in the call of duty.

Imagine if a property owner was afraid to call 911 to report a fire for fear of being sued if the firefighters were injured. As a society, we want to encourage people to report fires and utilize our emergency services to combat fire. Indeed, we spend a great deal of money to provide those services and make sure that firefighters are prepared to fight fires. We teach our children to dial 911.

Firefighting is a dangerous job; that danger is accounted for via financial compensation and benefits, as well as life insurance for the firefighter’s family.

The Firefighter’s Rule provides four exceptions to the broad immunity for property owners: (1) where the injury resulted from the owner’s willful or wanton misconduct or affirmative negligent act; (2) where the injury is a result of a hidden trap on the premises; (3) where the injury resulted from the owner’s violation of a duty imposed by law enacted for the benefit of firefighters; or (4) where the owner knew of the firefighter’s presence on the premises but failed to warn the firefighter of a known, hidden danger on the premises. Hack v. Gillespie, 74 Ohio St.3d 362, 365, 658 N.E.2d 1046, 1049 (Ohio, 1996) quoting Scheurer v. Trustees of Open Bible Church (1963), 175 Ohio St. 163, 23 O.O.2d 453, 192 N.E.2d 38.

In this case, the firefighter’s family alleged that the marijuana growing constituted willful or wanton misconduct, but failed to establish (a) that cultivating marijuana is per se willful or wanton conduct or (b) that the marijuana cultivation caused the firefighter’s death.

In reviewing the facts of the case and the above exceptions to the Firefighter’s Rule, the trial court found that none of the exceptions applied and granted summary judgment to the homeowners.

While the trial court’s decision may seem like harsh justice, the Firefighter’s Rule represents a public policy choice that recognizes that Firefighters have dangerous jobs, and as such, the cost of that risk is spread across the entire community and in effect “prepaid” in the form of salaries and benefits, rather than assessed against individual property owners via lawsuits after the fact.

The case is currently before the Hamilton County Court of Appeals, Case No. C 1400274.



It is a fundamental principle of eminent domain law that the entity taking the property must pay the property owner the sum of (i) the value of the property taken plus (ii) the diminished value to the remainder left to the property owner.

Somehow the City of Westerville not only misunderstood that law in the taking of land in that burb, but they also failed to understand the “damage” done to the remainder arising from the easement rights left to the property owner.  The result: a Jury awarded the landowner $182,000 for the land taken and $1.14 million for damages to his residue.  That’s a pretty hefty miscalculation by the City’s attorneys.

We litigated a similar claim against the City of Springboro years ago.  There, the Ohio Supreme Court thoroughly misunderstood the real property rights at issue.  We had to proceed in to Federal Court to vindicate the rights of our client, but did so successfully.

Back to the Westerville case: Read a good story in today’s Columbus Dispatch about the taking here; you can read the decision here.

The residential landlord-tenant relationship is among the most regulated areas of commerce in Ohio. From remedies for breach by both parties to statutory provisions for making rent payments into an escrow account, it is crucial for both residential landlords and tenants to understand the legal implications of each phase of the landlord-tenant relationship.

The attorneys of Finney Law Firm have represented both landlords and tenants in disputes under Ohio’s Landlord Tenant Law (O.R.C. § 5321).

RentalWhile there is a common belief that the Landlord Tenant Law tilts in favor of the tenant and against the landlord, to the extent that this is true, the “tilt” reflects a policy choice that recognizes the unequal bargaining power that generally exists between landlords and tenants.

Recently, we represented a tenant who was having difficulty recovering his security deposit. Ohio law requires the landlord return the deposit (or an itemized list of deductions for damages made by the tenant or use for payment of rent) within thirty days of the termination of the leasehold. If the landlord fails to refund the security deposit (or provide the itemized list) within the thirty-day period, the tenant is entitled to double damages and reasonable attorney fees.

However, before the tenant can recover he must have provided the landlord with a forwarding address. Additionally, tenants should consider whether they caused damages to the home beyond “normal wear and tear.” If you left holes in the walls, damaged the appliances, or have unpaid rent, the security deposit may not be enough to cover those damages – leaving you exposed to a claim by the landlord for those repairs.

In our case, our client had fully complied with his lease, had proof of payment for every month of his tenancy (four years!), and proof that he had provided a forwarding address.

The security deposit in this case was $725.00. Perhaps a small amount to some; but for our client, a new homeowner, every dollar counts. Utilizing Ohio’s landlord tenant law, we were able to secure a judgment of $1,450.00 for our client. The only question left for the judge was the amount of attorney fees to award. We negotiated a full settlement for $4,500.00. Meaning the landlord’s failure to comply with the statute cost him an additional $3,775 (plus his own attorney fees) and our client was made whole without incurring any legal expenses.

Not every case is as straightforward as this client’s. Whether you are a landlord or a tenant, Finney Law Firm can help you understand your responsibilities and secure your rights under Ohio’s Landlord Tenant Law. Read about potential landlord liability for the safety of tenants’ guests here.

In the past decade, businesses, particularly restaurant chains have been utilizing real estate sale-leasebacks as a financing tool. The sale-leaseback typically involves an above market purchase price followed by an above market lease; providing current cash to the seller/lessee and an income stream for the buyer/lessor. Federal tax law encourages this system with favorable tax treatment.

However, this system tends to clash with Ohio’s property valuation scheme mandating that an arm’s-length purchase price was the “market value” for property tax purposes. Thus, much of the federal tax benefit of the sale-leaseback was eaten up by the increased property taxes.

Two recent changes to Ohio law recognize the nature of sale-leasebacks; allowing businesses the carrot of the federal tax advantages without the stick associated with Ohio’s prior tax law.

First, the auditor is now required to determine the value of real property “as if unencumbered,” meaning that the value of the leaseback portion of the sale-leaseback is to be disregarded in determining the value of the real estate (i.e., to the extent the price paid is elevated by consideration of the income stream).

Second, purchase price is no longer dispositive of market value, underscoring the necessity of recognizing the hybrid nature of the sale-leaseback and allowing a proper allocation between the financing tool and the real estate purchase.

Finney Law Firm’s property valuation team is versed in these changes, assisting our clients achieve fair values for properties before local Boards of Revision.


It’s fun to turn a losing case into a winner.

The Ohio Real Estate Recovery Fund (O.R.C. Section 4735.12) has the potential of taking a case that can’t be “won,” because the client can’t collect against the defendant, into a “winner” by accessing this special professional indemnity pool.

A plaintiff client who has a claim against an Ohio real estate agent who is insolvent — uncollectable — would typically just “walk away.”  “You can’t get blood from a turnip,” they say.  “Throwing good money after bad.”

But these are not necessarily losing claims.

In the limited instance in which the claim is (i) against an Ohio real estate salesperson or broker, (ii) “on the grounds of conduct that is in violation of” the real estate brokerage laws of the state, and (iii) for an act that “is associated with” Ohio real estate brokerage activities, a plaintiff can recover from the state of Ohio up to $40,000 per licensee (not per claim) any unpaid judgment “that represents the actual and direct loss sustained by the applicant.”

The statute is highly technical to invoke, and the Ohio Division of Real Estate that administers the fund and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office that defends against claims from the fund guard the funds zealously, meaning you have to carefully jump through a lot of hoops to access these funds.

Attorneys in our firm have successfully made a claim for funds from the Ohio real estate recovery fund.

There are separate and similar recovery funds for losses arising from the misdeeds of:

  • Ohio appraisers in the scope of their licensed activities (O.R.C. Section 4763.16).  Claims from that fund are limited to $10,000 per judgment.
  • Ohio auctioneers in the scope of their licensed activities (O.R.C. Section 4707.25).  Claims from that fund are limited to $50,000 per judgment.

Allow us to “make a difference” for you by pursuing claims against a statutory recovery fund of Ohio licensees.

The Finney Law Firm has been retained by leading real estate attorneys and property owners in Hamilton County to defend our system of “Land Registration” that is being threatened by some of our elected officials.  Read about that process and political battle here (in an unfortunately-slanted piece).

There are two ways in Ohio to hold title to real property — “regular” land title and the Torrens system of registered land.

Under the regular system, evidence of title is placed of record by means of recording of deeds, mortgages, easements, liens and such in the real property records.  Under the Torrens land registration system, title is evidenced by the notations on a single “Registered Land Certificate.”

In Hamilton County, more than anywhere else in the State, we have registered land — and lots of it.  About 20% of all parcels, about 52,000 in total, were voluntarily placed into the system by the owners bringing suit years ago to “register” their title.  Thereafter, all changes to title have to be handled in a careful, methodical system that assures that claims against title and transfers of title are registered on the certificate.  If someone wants to opt out of the system, there is a simple and inexpensive process that can be followed.

Until recently, the only way to de-register land en-masse and without regard to the preference of the owners of the land was to send a certified letter to each property owner, and then, following some significant legal formalities, have a vote of the County Commission to abolish the registration in that County.  Recently, the Ohio legislature dispatched with the mailed notice required to property owners.

Now, under that new abbreviated system, Hamilton County Commissioners are considering a vote to abolish all registered land in the County.  If two Commissioners vote to approve the change, the additional protections that the owners of 52,000 parcels of land in the County have paid for will disappear.

Our firm has been retained to (i) work to defeat such policy change, and (ii) if it is enacted, to bring suit on behalf of affected property owners to overturn such decision.

We are honored to have been selected to help “make a difference” for our clients in this important battle.