Articles Posted in Cooperative and Condominium

OwnershipLast week’s blog post discussed legal issues relating to a foreclosure as it applies to cooperative apartments in New York State.  To summarize, because cooperatives are considered shares in a corporation, and not real property, different legal procedures are necessary when an owner of a co-op defaults on her share loan or maintenance payments.

This blog post relates what happens when two or more co-owners of a property are unable to agree on the disposition of a jointly-owned cooperative, or “co-op” apartment.  A recent article in the New York Post describes a situation where a Manhattan woman purchased a co-op apartment on the Upper East Side with her fiancé in 2005, shortly after they got engaged.

Unfortunately, in 2007 the couple became estranged and the engagement was called off.  One of the parties occupied the apartment, and the other moved out.  The parties agreed that the woman who was actually living at the apartment would pay her ex-fiance 50% of the value of the apartment.  However, in the 11 years subsequent, she has failed to do so, continues to live at the apartment, refusing to give access to her ex-fiance.  What is the legal remedy for this situation?

building-300x225Many of our prior blog posts have discussed foreclosures of real property.  But what happens when the owner of a cooperative or “co-op” apartment cannot pay his share loan or maintenance?  Although the term “foreclosure” generally applies to the taking of real property by a lienholder, a co-op owner does not own real property, but owns shares in the cooperative corporation which have been allocated to his apartment within a larger building.

A co-op owner is issued a share certificate, which states how many shares he owns, as well as listing the name of the co-op corporation, the address, and the specific apartment number. He is also issued a proprietary lease by the co-op, which allows occupancy of a particular unit and states the terms and conditions of his share ownership.  When taking out a share loan to purchase the co-op, the buyer/owner must pledge his shares as collateral for the loan.  The actual share certificate and proprietary lease must be physically delivered to the lender (or its legal representative) at the closing, to be held as collateral until the loan is paid in full.

However, there may be situations where an owner cannot make his share loan payments, and the lender seeks take permanent possession of the collateral, which is the share certificate.  In New York, this is known as non-judicial foreclosure.  This means that an action is not brought in Supreme Court, where real property foreclosure actions are generally commenced.  Instead, the foreclosing lender must bring a proceeding outside of the Court system.  This is usually done by sending default and termination notices to the borrower.  If the borrower does not cure the default within a given amount of time, then the lender can notice a public sale of the shares pursuant to New York’s Uniform Commercial Code, Article 9.  This law sets forth the terms and conditions under which a non-judicial sale of the shares can be held.  Assuming that notice has been properly given, there may be an auction sale of the shares, in which any party can submit a bid.  The high bidder, which is usually the lender, then takes possession of the shares in question.  It should be noted that the co-op board must approve any actual occupant of the apartment, even if the apartment is owned by another party subsequent to the auction sale.

know-the-rules-300x167Our firm is called upon to both defend and prosecute mortgage foreclosure actions.  One of the first questions that should to be asked is who holds the mortgage loan, meaning the party who is entitled to bring the action.  In most cases, it is an “institutional lender,” such as a bank or a credit union.  However, there may be situations where the lender, or the note holder, is not an institutional lender.  This can occur in several ways.  Often, the institutional lender sells the mortgage and note to a third party.  This purchaser can be a company or a private individual.  The third party takes an assignment of the note and mortgage, and “steps into the shoes” of the institutional lender.  They pay a fixed amount to the original lender, and hope to make a profit by foreclosing the property and selling it for a greater sum than they paid for the loan.

There can also be situations where the loan originator is a private individual.  This can occur when a family member loans another family member funds to purchase a house or apartment, and takes back a note and mortgage, to be repaid over time.  Another possibility is that the seller of the property loans the funds to the buyer, and a purchase money mortgage is used to secure the debt of the buyer.

A person who may be in foreclosure may now ask, what’s the difference whether the holder of a mortgage and note is an institutional lender or a private individual?  Our experience has shown that the identity of the lender can make for quite a variation in the litigation and resolution of a foreclosure case.

lowSome of our clients have recently inquired as to whether their cooperative board may have been declined their proposed sale because the proposed purchase price is too low.  As we have indicated in previous posts , cooperative boards can decline a purchase for any or no reason so long as such reason does not discriminate against protected classes.  Once a seller hears that their well-qualified purchaser has been declined, sometimes they suspect that it is because they accepted a price that was too low.  Should a cooperative board be willing to disclose this possibility, there are steps that the seller can take to keep the deal alive.

Let’s explore the rationale for a cooperative board declining a sale because the price is too low.  The board is likely concerned that a sale price significantly lower than others in the building may adversely affect valuations of other apartments, so that all units for sale in the future may be potentially valued at a lower price as a result.  The board, as a fiduciary for all shareholders, wishes to maintain elevated apartment prices for the benefit of all shareholders.  As such, declining a purchase because the price is too low is perfectly legal.

However, the seller may be willing to accept what appears to be a low price for the following reasons.  Perhaps he is in financial distress, owes maintenance arrears and cannot cover the past due charges without selling the unit.  In this case, it is better for the cooperative as a whole if this person sells so that a financially secure buyer owns the unit instead and is current in her maintenance payments.  Also, the shareholder may be getting divorced or has been relocated in his job, making it necessary to sell.

landlord-tenant-disputes-300x194A recent article in the New York Times discusses a large-scale study of evictions in the United States.  More than 83 million records were studied, and the impact on the our society as a whole was further examined.  Our law firm is a rarity in that we represent both landlords as well as tenants in eviction matters (of course, not in the same case!).  Most private law firms specialize in representing only landlords.  As a result, their clients tend to be owners of large properties, or corporations who own many buildings.  They do their work in bulk, often bringing many cases at once, and seeking to resolve them during court appearances en masse with the tenants who appear.

Tenants seeking proper legal representation may have fewer options.  They will have to seek out private law firms, such as ours, which represents both landlords and tenants.  As the New York Times article discusses, many tenants do not have the means to obtain legal representation in eviction cases.  They are faced with the prospect of a Court appearance where the landlord is often represented by experienced counsel who knows all the aspects of the legal system.

As a result of this imbalance, many Courts attempt to assist the tenants during their appearances.  Of course, legally, Judges must be neutral in their application of justice.  They may advise unrepresented tenants to obtain legal counsel and allow the appearance to be adjourned in order for the tenant to retain an attorney.  They may also ask the tenants whether they understand the legal proceedings, and review with the parties the details of any settlement agreement entered into between themselves and counsel for the landlord.  Our experience has been that the Judges, especially those in Westchester County, have on the whole been fair and impartial to both sides in these cases.

forecloseOur firm is often retained to defend property owners whose home is in foreclosure.  Most often, the entity bringing the foreclosure proceeding is a major lending institution, such as a national bank or credit union.  However, there are two sides to every story.  Some of our clients are individuals who have loaned money and taken back a note and mortgage on another’s real property.  The borrower has defaulted on his payments, and the lender does not know what to do.  This blog post will discuss how an individual lender can proceed with their own foreclosure action.

Our recommendation is to hire experienced counselForeclosure is a very complicated and detailed procedure under New York law.  If the action is not brought correctly, it may be dismissed by the Court.  Moreover, even if no opposition to the action is received, it may later be overturned, or a title company may refuse to insure the title of the property after the foreclosure process is complete, because of possible procedural irregularities in the foreclosure proceeding.

The first step in commencing a foreclosure proceeding would be for counsel to thoroughly review the note and mortgage documents.  These are the documents signed by the borrower, and are important to ascertain the legal requirements for a specific foreclosure.  For example, the note may call for monthly payments in a certain amount on certain dates.  If these payments are not received, it would constitute a default under the note.

cooprejectConsider the following scenario.  A shareholder in a cooperative  has been trying to sell her apartment because circumstances have resulted in her opportunity to buy a house in a sunny location out of town.  Her buyer is a young professional gentleman who wants to own, rather than rent, and build equity to trade up to another home in the future.  Their real estate agents make the deal.  All parties look forward to closing.  Of course, such a transaction requires approval not only of the lender making the purchase loan but of the cooperative board.  Once the buyer obtained his loan commitment, after having submitted numerous financial documents and information, he finds out that either the board will not even interview him or has declined to approve the purchase after the interview was held.

It has been longstanding practice in New York that a board does not have to disclose the reasons why it is declining an applicant.  The board is governed by the “business judgment rule” , allowing it broad latitude for its decisions, assuming that most decisions are made for the benefit of the cooperative as a whole.  The board’s decision is only subject to being overturned if the parties can prove that the decision was made for an illegal reason, such as discrimination.  Let’s say that the proposed buyer is a homosexual, which became obvious by information contained on the board application as to affiliations or as discussed in the interview.  Should that have been the reason why the declination was issued and the applicant was able to prove same, the decision could be overturned and subject the board to potential damages because homosexuals are a legally protected group.

It has recently been proposed in the Westchester County Legislature that cooperative boards should be legally required to disclose their reasons for rejection.  Those advocating for the rule suggest that it will prevent discrimination and is helpful to “protected classes”.  This author feels that the law already protects applicants against boards that discriminate.  However, the proposed law would be helpful for other reasons.  It contains specific timeframes for the review of applications.  Should a board decide not to interview during the summer so that its members can travel, the law would prevent a three month delay in the review of an application.  Our readers should be aware that if a person’s loan is declined, reasons will be stated in a letter, allowing the applicant to improve his submission in the future.  However, without any stated reason for a board declination, the seller and the real estate listing broker will have no information as to the type of buyer sought by the board.  What if the board now prefers that applicants earn more than $100,000 annually, but it has not communicated this information to shareholders?  With free disclosure of information, the broker will know how important it is to verify income and will not suggest a buyer who cannot meet the criteria.

divorce-300x225
Our firm is frequently engaged to handle disputes over property ownership.  In many cases, a partition action is necessary.  This post will explain the essential components of such an action.  The first and most important element is that the dispute be over real property.  Although there can be disputes over personal property, such as possessions and vehicles, a partition action can only concern real property.  Including other types of property in a partition action should be avoided, as it is not covered by the statute in question, and leads to issues not readily resolvable in such an action.

The real property in question must be located in New York State, and also should be owned jointly by the parties.  There are several types of joint ownership in New York.  Married couples often own property as joint tenants with right of survivorship.  This means that if one of the joint owners passes away, their ownership interest immediately passes to the surviving spouse.  However, it is fairly uncommon for a spouse to bring a partition action against the other spouse.  The reason for this is that such disputes between spouses are almost always part of a divorce action, where other assets and liabilities are at issue.  Therefore, the resolution of the dispute is heard in the Matrimonial Part of the Supreme Court, rather than in a partition action.  The Matrimonial Part will usually resolve the dispute over the real property (as well as any other jointly owned property) as part of the divorce case.  In certain rare cases, the real property in dispute is not resolved in the divorce action, and then, a separate partition action may be necessary.

In these times, it is becoming more common for couples (whether single sex or heterosexual) to remain unmarried, but still purchase real property together.  As married couples may split, so may unmarried couples.  However, the legal ramifications of such a split may differ for unmarried couples.  Because they are not married, no divorce action can be brought in the Supreme Court Matrimonial Part to resolve all property issues.  Therefore, a partition action would be necessary to resolve the issues regarding real property jointly owned by the couple.  Such an action would be brought by one of the owners, in order to have the property sold by the Court, if the parties cannot agree between themselves how to dispose of the real estate.

tax
Our readers  may be aware that there is a movement to pass sweeping Federal tax reforms. Some analysts have suggested that such proposed legislation may not be favorable to highly taxed areas such as New York and that home ownership may be discouraged as a result.  The proposed legislation in its current form may limit Federal deductions for real estate taxes to $10,000 per year.  Many properties in the areas served by our practice have yearly real estate tax obligations in excess of this amount.

There is a possibility that the legislation will not pass in its current form.  Also, homeowners always have the ability to contest their real estate taxes and potentially obtain a reduction.  The proposed purchaser may consider a house with taxes lower than or closer to $10,000 per year.  Over the course of decades of homeownership, laws affecting deductions of real estate taxes may change.  As a result, the decision to own a home should not be dictated merely by whether real estate taxes above $10,000 may be deducted.

Owning a single family home has the following additional benefits.  A sense of permanence from creating family memories over many years can only really take place in a house.  Building personal equity can only occur when real estate is owned.  If a person rents an apartment, he will merely pay rent every month and not have any resulting value to trade in.  However, if a house is purchased, the value is likely to increase, leading to a profit when the property is eventually sold.  Such profit can be converted to another property or investment in the future.

lock-300x300In the course of an ordinary real estate transaction, our firm orders a title report on the property being sold.  Contained in the title report is a judgment and lien search, which shows any outstanding judgments against the seller and liens against the property.  Why is this important?  In New York State, a money judgment, when filed in the Supreme Court of a county in which a debtor owns real property, become a lien on property for a period of ten (10) years.  Furthermore, a judgment creditor may file a motion at the end of the ten year period to extend the lien for an additional ten years.  After twenty years, the judgment is no longer a lien on the property.

Therefore, when a seller of real property has a recorded judgment less than ten years old, it becomes an issue which must be cleared prior to closing.  The reason for this is that the contract most likely provides that the property will be conveyed free of judgments and liens, and, in addition, a mortgage lender will not approve a loan to close without resolution of an outstanding judgment or lien.  If the judgment remains as a lien on the property, the new owner may find himself subject to a foreclosure proceeding against his newly-purchased property, even though the judgment was not incurred by him.

Since most standard Contracts of Sale in New York contain a clause that the property must be conveyed free of all outstanding liens and judgments, it is the seller’s responsibility to ensure that there are no judgments against the property.  Failure to do so would give the potential buyer grounds to have the contract cancelled and receive a refund of their downpayment.  Obviously a seller does not want that to happen.  What does a seller do when there are outstanding judgments of record?