The term “hostile work environment“ is thrown around a lot these days. It is not just a phrase used by employment lawyers and judges. It has become a part of the lexicon of the general public. In the same context, one often hears references to a “toxic work environment,“ or to “bullying“ in the workplace.

A lot of folks are under the assumption – not an unreasonable one – that it is illegal for employers to create a “hostile work environment“ for one or more employees, or to allow such an environment to exist in the workplace, or to not eliminate such an environment once an employee complains about it.

It surprises a lot of people to find out that a hostile or toxic work environment is not always illegal, or something with which the law concerns itself. In fact, a work environment can be very “hostile“ or “toxic“ without being against the law. Furthermore, whether or not a hostile work environment is illegal does not depend on exactly how hostile the work environment is. It is not that “mildly“ hostile environments are not illegal, but “severely“ hostile environments are.

As far as the law is concerned, the determination of whether or not a hostile or toxic work environment is illegal depends upon the motivation for the hostility or toxicity. If the employer or supervisor creating the unpleasant environment is motivated by factors like an employee’s race, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, or disability, it may very well be unlawful, and grounds for a lawsuit.

If, however, the hostility comes from another source – such as a personality conflict or personal disagreement – the resulting work environment, no matter how toxic or unfair it may be, it’s not legally significant.

This can seem very unfair, but the law sometimes tells an employee who is being subjected to a hostile or toxic work environment, “Hey, you don’t have to keep working there. You can always go find another job.“

A smart employer, of course, is always going to want to create a good working environment for its employees, for a wide variety of reasons. So regardless of the legalities, addressing issues of hostility or toxicity in the workplace is always a good idea.

If you are an employer or employee confronted with issues relating to a hostile or toxic work environment, it would be wise to get advice from a qualified employment lawyer.

The purchaser of an apartment building Clermont County and his counsel are learning the lessons of real property taxes — and the ways to handle tax prorations —  the hard way.  Because neither the seller nor his attorney thought through the transaction carefully, the purchaser (a) lost $682,000 in tax proration negotiations and (b) has suffered what appears to be an entirely unnecessary increase in the same amount in his annual real estate taxes, essentially forever.

How can outcomes between savvy and clumsy real estate transactional work vary so dramatically?

Underlying facts

On December 28, 2021, RS Fairways, LLC closed on the purchase of Fairways at Royal Oaks, an apartment complex in Pierce Township on Clermont County for $32,600,000.  The Auditor’s valuation at the time of the sale was $6,622,000.  The difference between the sale price and the Auditor’s valuation was $25,977,700, a whopping 500% increase.

Following the sale, our former Associate, Brian Shrive — who now heads the civil division of the Clermont County Prosecutor’s office — on behalf of the Prosecutor, saw the conveyance fee form filed with the deed reporting the whopping sale price-compared-to-Auditor’s-valuation and filed \a Board of Revision Complaint to increase the valuation — retroactively to January 1, 2021 — to the sales price.

Almost inexorably, the Board of Revision would have so increased the value, so the owner, the Prosecutor and the School Board later entered into a Stipulation as to the new valuation at $32,600,000.

Tax proration language

As we have written about here (just one month before this buyer closed; he should have read our blog!), standard tax proration language in use in the Cincinnati area calls for a tax proration to be based upon the most recent available tax duplicate.  Since the Auditor and School Board will not know about the sale until after the deed is recorded, current taxes can’t possibly be based upon the sale price.  Here, the Auditor obviously had a grossly outdated and inaccurate valuation.

In other words, standard and customary contract language in use in greater Cincinnati simply does not adequately protect the purchaser in a situation where it is paying much higher than the Auditor’s present valuation.

The Contract in question provided:

If the 2021 tax bill is not available as of the Closing Date, then the proration described in clause (b) above shall be based on the 2020 tax bill for the property.

Why do we prorate taxes in Ohio?  Taxes in Ohio are paid “six months in arrears at the end of the period.”  What does that mean?

It means that the first half 2021 tax bill is issued in January of 2022 and the second half 2021 tax bill is issued in July of 2022.  Therefore as of the date of closing (here, the end of December 2021), the seller owned the property for all of 2021, but hadn’t paid the taxes for 2021.  Therefore, at closing (under local contract form and custom) the seller prorates to the buyer the taxes for the period it had owned the property, but at existing tax and valuation rates.

The dual problems are: (i) if there is a change in the tax rate for 2021 (such as with the passage of a school or other levy), the proration will be wrong as to the 2021 rate and (b) if there is a change in the tax valuation in the normal triennial cycle, the valuation (and thus the taxes) will change, and, here’s the kicker, (c) well after the closing, a school board or the County Prosecutor have the right to ask the Board of Revision to retroactively, back to the beginning of the prior tax year, change the valuation to a reported sales price.

And, as Casey Jones of our office blogged here, a recent arm’s length sale is uncontestably the valuation for tax purposes.

Thus, under the law, a purchaser is liable for taxes calculated at the tax amount for the taxes for the periods from the date prior to the sale (based upon the next tax bill to be issued) and into the future.  And this new tax rate calculates in “unknowns” at the time of the closing, which are a change in rate and a change in valuation.  Both of these can be both assessed, and as to the valuation, can be contested and litigated, well after the sale, but the retroactive liability for those taxes falls on the new property owner.

“Forever” increase in taxes

The tax proration flub — a $682,000 mistake — was bad enough, but worse is that the reported sale will result in a new baseline valuation for future taxes of $32,600,000 for a property that previously was valued and taxed at just $6.2 million.  Every three years the County will start with the $32 million number and make (likely) increases from there, so this owner will have $700,000 in higher taxes (than likely he anticipated) forever.

Could the massive increase have been prevented?

Two fairly sophisticated legal techniques could have been employed by this purchaser to avoid these massive “surprise” tax bills.  One would have spared them the cost of the under-proration, and the second could have resulted in a permanent savings — tens of millions to the purchaser’s bottom line.  They employed neither.

First, when a purchaser pays an amount significantly above Auditor’s valuation for property (this is a simple task of comparing the sale price to Auditor’s valuation [a quick on-line check]) before the contract is negotiated and signed, a purchaser will want the tax proration language to include a re-proration after the final taxes for the year prorated are known.  [By the way, when we get into an environment of declining values, the inverse rules as to tax proration can apply — the purchaser will have an advantage in the proration process — an over-proration —  if the contract language is not modified.]

Second, a technique is available in Ohio (but not Kentucky) to have the seller first transfer the property into an LLC that he owns exclusively (by deed, but with an “exempt conveyance fee form,” so that no sales price is reported) and then, at the closing between seller and purchaser, the seller transfers his interest in the LLC to the purchaser — and thus there is no recorded deed.  These transfers are referred to as “drop and swaps” or “entity transfers.”  In this situation — with some possible exceptions, the Auditor and school board are not put on notice of the sale or the sale price, and thus the increase in value could slip by unnoticed.

Here, the purchaser employed neither technique resulting in a bad proration and “forever” tax liability.

Ensuing litigation

Despite terrible tax proration language that we see as “fatal” to the purchaser’s claims (see above, they agreed to base the proration on the 2020 tax bill, period), the purchaser has sued the seller for a re-proration based upon the post-closing tax “surprise.”  Good luck with that.  See the Complaint here.

Conclusion

Smart advance legal planning by a purchaser or seller can dramatically change the outcome as to taxes in a real estate transaction.  Contact Isaac T. Heintz (513.943.6654) or Eli Krafte-Jacobs (513-797-2853) for assistance on your real estate transactions to avoid these disastrous outcomes.

As we previously wrote about, here, Finney Law Firm was honored to serve as co-counsel to Tea Party groups throughout the nation in what we believe was the only certified class action ever against the Internal Revenue Service for its targeted discrimination against the plaintiffs resulting in protracted delays in processing and granting tax exemption status due to their political viewpoints. The targeting was led by Obama administration IRS official Lois Lerner and her chief deputy at the IRS, Holly Paz.

After years of pitched legal battles, that litigation ended with a dramatic settlement in which the IRS paid damages to Tea Party groups, the IRS paid the Tea Parties’ attorneys fees, and then-US Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a personal apology on behalf of the United States of America that included this unequivocal statement about the IRS intentional wrongdoing: “this abuse of power will not be tolerated.”

In that litigation, plaintiffs succeeded in obtaining the depositions of Lerner and Paz, but the transcripts of the depositions — finally revealing their own testimony about the origins and implementation of the outrageous policies and practices — have remain sealed under a temporary emergency Order by Judge Michael Barrett. (Even US House and Senate Committees investigating the wrongdoing were stymied in getting that testimony when Lerner and Paz each invoked their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.)  That Order bottling up the deposition transcripts was never made final, and thus it could not be appealed.  Thus, to this day — more than three years later — the deposition transcripts remain hidden from public scrutiny.

As a result, this week, Plaintiff’s counsel filed a Motion for Writ of Mandamus before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals seeking to have the depositions unsealed.  You may read the Motion here.

As we wrote here, in November the Ohio First District Court of Appeals in White v. Cincinnati unanimously ruled in favor of clients of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law and Finney Law Firm in a challenge to the City of Cincinnati’s alarm tax scheme. The City of Cincinnati asked the Ohio Supreme Court to review that decision, a discretionary call by Court.  Historically, Ohio’s top Court accepts only about 5% of such cases for consideration.

Today, the Ohio Supreme Court declined to accept for review the First District decision.  Since that was the last stop on the railroad for the City, the inevitable next legal steps are injunction against further collection of the tax, class certification and an order of restitution before Common Pleas Court Judge Wende Cross.

Amazingly, even after the First District ruled that the tax was illegal, through today the City of Cincinnati insisted on continued collection of the tax. So, an injunction by the trial court now will be necessary.

If you are a Cincinnati alarm fee payor, you should be expecting a refund once the amount has been calculated and the procedural hurdles cleared, perhaps later this year.  If the City continues to attempt to extract alarm charges from you, respectfully decline and send them this blog entry!

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.

 

 

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.

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.

For most contracts, an agreement is an agreement: If the parties agreed, orally, on paper, or even just electronically, in an email, text message, or through social media, generally, the agreement can be legally binding.

However, agreements relating to the purchase, sale and leasing of real estate can have special requirements for their enforceability. Here, we explore the Ohio Statute of Frauds (O.R.C § 1335.05), which requires certain agreements (i) be in writing and (ii) signed by “the party to be charged therewith,” i.e., the buyer, seller, landlord or tenant. And for real estate instruments, the Ohio Statute of Frauds has those requirements for contracts for the purchase and sale of real estate and for leases (residential or commercial) extending beyond one year. Many people are familiar with the requirement of the Ohio Statute of Frauds as it relates to real estate.

Less familiar to laymen and even real estate professionals is Ohio’s Statute of Conveyances, which requires deeds, mortgages, land installment contracts and leases with a term in excess of three years to be “acknowledged” before a notary public (i.e., “notarized”).  This derives from O.R.C. § 5301.01, which requires these instruments to be notarized and O.R.C. § 5301.08, which then excepts from that requirement leases for less than three years.

 But what does the Statute of Conveyances mean? Is it that, if you have a signed lease, residential or commercial, that is not notarized, and (i) a tenant has moved in, (ii) a landlord or tenant has made expensive improvements to a premises, or (iii) a tenant has made a long-term commitment to having its operations at a specific location, the other party can simply terminate the lease due to it not being notarized?  Despite this seeming like a harsh outcome, the answer is yes, to a degree.

To bypass such harsh outcome, the Courts have carved out equitable exceptions to the Statute of Conveyances. This blog entry explores the enforceability of non-notarized leases in excess of three years in Ohio under the Statute of Conveyances on the one hand and those common law exceptions on the other.

Enforceability of non-notarized leases in excess of three years in Ohio

Where parties execute a lease without notarizing it, the lease is considered defectively executed. A defectively executed lease is invalid and does not create the exact lease sought to be created. That said, the terms of the defectively executed lease are controlling once the tenant moves in and starts paying rent under said lease, except for duration. The duration is determined by the provision for the payment of rent. For example, a lease with monthly rent payments results in a month-to-month lease, while a lease with annual rent payments results in a year-to-year lease.

Where parties do sign and notarize a lease as required by the Statute of Conveyances, and such lease contains an option to renew, the act of accepting an option to renew does not require a second formal execution.  However, where there is not an option to renew, a grant of an additional term is an independent and separate transaction requiring its own compliance with the Statute of Conveyances.

Common law exceptions

The applicable law in a defectively executed lease case depends on the type of the relief pursued. If the party suing seeks to recover damages for breach of the lease, then the applicable route is that of the equitable doctrine of Partial Performance. If the party suing seeks to have the defective lease treated as a contract to make a lease, then the applicable route is that of the equitable doctrine of Specific Performance.

(A) Partial Performance:

A defectively executed lease can be validated through Partial Performance. Partial Performance is based in fairness and is utilized where it would be unfair to permit the Statute of Conveyances to invalidate the defectively executed lease. Partial Performance validates a defectively executed lease where the following four factors are present: (i) unequivocal acts by the party relying on the agreement; (ii) the acts are exclusively referable to the agreement; (iii) the acts change the party’s position to his detriment; and (iv) the acts make it impossible to place the parties in “statu quo”. The party wishing to benefit from Partial Performance must show that the facts of their particular matter meeting the aforementioned four factors are, more likely than not, true.

Generally, the facts of the cases, where the courts allow Partial Performance to validate defectively executed leases from the Statute of Conveyances, include: (i) expending sums of money, (ii) extending credit, (iii) making improvements, and (iv) following what the parties called for in the defectively executed lease. That said, it is important to note that moving in and paying rent is not sufficient to relieve the parties from the Statue of Conveyances.

(B) Specific Performance

Courts may allow for Specific Performance of defectively executed leases where no adequate remedies at law exist. Whether courts will allow for Specific Performance of defectively executed leases is within each respective court’s discretion. As such, Specific Performance is not guaranteed.

Where parties seek to enforce defectively executed leases through, and courts allow for, Specific Performance, the Statute of Conveyances does not impede such enforcing parties’ right to recovery. This is because defectively executed leases are enforceable, as a matter of fairness, as contracts to make a lease between the parties who intended to be bound by them. Courts may order Specific Performance of such contracts.

Conclusion

So, if you are a party to a defectively executed lease, and you are concerned with its enforceability, it is prudent to take some time to call the Finney Law Firm. We can help determine whether your lease is compliant with the Statute of Conveyances, and what you might be able to do if it is not.

Two years ago, Finney Law Firm was proud to represent African American Realtor Jerry Isham and his African American home buyer, Tony Edwards, who were accosted by seven Cincinnati Police officers, guns drawn, then handcuffed for nearly five minutes, and forcibly searched, simply for the “crime” of showing a home listed for sale (and really it was no more complicated than that).  The City of Cincinnati settled the civil claim 16 hours and 30 minutes after the suit was filed by Finney Law Firm attorneys.

Then, in August of this year, the Isham story appeared to repeat itself in Grand Rapids, Michigan with the arrest of African American Realtor Eric Brown of Keller Williams and his buyer, Roy Thorne, who were arrested simply for viewing a home listed for sale. Read about that here.

On November 13, the National Association of Realtors will feature Isham and Brown in a symposium entitled “Race & Real Estate” at its annual Realtors  Conference & Expo in San Diego, California to shine a spotlight on the extra challenges faced by African Americans in the real estate industry.

Our firm was proud to represent Jerry Isham, a top real estate professional in Cincinnati and the owner of Movement Realty, who did not deserve this shabby treatment by Cincinnati Police, in this matter.  We are pleased that his case has been given this important platform for further exploration of racism in the real estate industry.

Isham is the former President of both the Ohio and Cincinnati Realtists Associations and is currently the Region VIII Vice President of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers.

Our Public Interest Law team at Finney Law Firm, including Chris Finney and Curt Hartman, pursued the public records (mostly dash cam and body cam videos) of the incident, and filed this case in federal court on behalf of Isham and Edwards.

If you are attending the National Association of Realtors’ Convention & Expo, we encourage you to attend this important session.

  • For more background on the Isham story and the work of the Finney Law Firm’s Public Interest Law team, read here and watch here. The story captivated Cincinnati television viewers and was the topic of radio talk shows for weeks.  Watch here, here, here, and here and read here and here.  It even made news internationally.  Read here. Veteran Cincinnati reporter Jennifer Edwards Baker of WXIX, Channel 19, initially broke the story. The Youtube video linked to this story analyzing in detail the Isham/Edwards arrest has had more than 5.6 million views, so the story has since captivated the nation.

 

 

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

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

Let us explain.

Governmental restrictions

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

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

Private covenants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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