COVID-19 Update: How we are serving and protecting our clients.

Articles Posted in Real Estate Litigation

eviction-300x165A prior blog post discussed the effects of the coronavirus situation on real estate in New York.  Since that post, things have certainly escalated quickly.  Most of the economy, not just in New York, but throughout our entire country and the rest of the world, has shut down, as governments have ordered people to stay isolated, observe “social distancing”, and avoid large crowds.  Most people are working from home or are out of work because their place of business has been ordered closed until the crisis passes.

The New York Times recently posted an article which discusses the effect of the current situation on landlords and tenantsOur firm is rare in that it represents both landlords and tenants.  We will discuss the effects from a landlord’s perspective. The New York State government has ordered a three-month moratorium on evictions.  In addition, the local courts which would have handled such eviction cases are also closed until further notice.  This means that all pending eviction matters have been adjourned.  For example, an eviction petition could have been served on a tenant prior to the Court shutdown, but with a return date after the shutdown.  The Courts will have to reschedule these cases when they reopen.  This will inevitably lead to a backlog of cases, especially in the busier New York City Courts.  Westchester town courts, with their smaller caseloads, are likely to be less affected when they reopen but will still experience a backlog.

Since the Courts are closed and there is a New York State moratorium, no new cases can be started.  An eviction Petition is generally commenced by filing it with the Court clerk in the local Court in which the property is located.  The clerk will assign a Court date and stamp the Notice of Petition and Petition as filed.  It will then be formally served on the tenant by a licensed process server.  Because the Courts are currently closed, it is not possible for a new action to be commenced.  Without court clerks and regularly scheduled hearings, no new eviction cases can be brought until the Courts reopen.  Of course, once the Courts do reopen, expect a large number of new cases to be filed because of the growing backlog and situations that have arisen due to a tenant’s inability to pay.

foreA recent decision in a case in upstate New York discusses issues relating to the denial of an application for a foreclosure judgment.  In a foreclosure case, the plaintiff, who is usually a bank or other lending institution, must apply to the Court for a judgment.  Often, after the case has first been referred to the settlement conference part, and then, in Westchester County, assigned to the Mandatory Appearance Part, the plaintiff will move for summary judgment.

In a summary judgment action, the moving party argues to the Court that there are no issues of fact which would require a trial.  This may occur in several situations.  The first is when the defendant fails to file an Answer to the foreclosure Complaint.  If the defendant’s time to answer has expired, then the plaintiff may move for a judgment of foreclosure and sale on default.  However, the plaintiff must show to the Court that it has met the elements of proof to obtain a foreclosure judgment.

The first element is to show to the Court that they are the proper party and the holder of the mortgage and note in question.  This is usually done by having an officer of the lender submit an Affidavit in Support of the motion showing that the mortgage is being held by the plaintiff.  In support of the Affidavit, complete copies of the Mortgage and Note should be annexed as exhibits.  In addition, if the loan has been assigned to a different lender than the one listed on the Mortgage and Note, complete copies of the assignment documents should also be annexed as exhibits.

court-300x128New York State has passed several laws that protect homeowners who may be subject to a foreclosure action.  One of these laws requires that a settlement conference be held for a homeowner when his primary residence is in foreclosure, due to his failure to pay their mortgage, taxes, or other amounts due to the lender.

Prior blog posts have discussed what may occur at a foreclosure settlement conference.  We recommend engaging experienced counsel to appear at the foreclosure settlement conference.  At this conference, attempts will be made, with the Court’s assistance, to resolve this matter, often through a modification of the existing mortgage.

However, there may be cases in which the parties are unable to reach a resolution in the settlement part.  There may be several conferences held, but, for various reasons, the parties are unable to reach a resolution.  What happens at that point?  The first step is that the Court will generally release the case from the settlement part.  Under the law, when the case is in the settlement part, all litigation, including motions, are “stayed” by the Court, which means that no litigation can occur in the action until the case is released by the settlement part.  Depending on the overall circumstances of the case, the settlement part may order that the stay on litigation be extended for a period of time after the case is released, generally 30, 45, or 60 days.  This may give the party being foreclosed additional time to negotiate a resolution, or, if there is sufficient equity, to sell the property and use the proceeds to pay off any amounts due, thus ending the foreclosure suit.

theftA recent New York Times article discusses why black homeowners in Brooklyn are being victimized by fraud in the transfer of the ownership of their properties without their consent.  Of course, deed theft is not limited to any particular part of New York, or any color.  Homeowners of all races should beware of predatory individuals and companies who may seek to defraud them when they may be in financial distress.  This blog post will discuss this issues a homeowner must be aware of in such situations.

The most common scenario is when a homeowner is facing foreclosure.  A foreclosure may occur when a mortgage is unpaid, or when property taxes are not paid. In such cases, the homeowner is entitled to at least ninety day’s notice prior to a foreclosure action being filed with the Court and an action is commenced in the Supreme Court located in the county in which the property is located.

The commencement of a foreclosure lawsuit give the potential predator an opportunity to pounce.  Because such lawsuits are public records, any individual or company can look up in the Courthouse or on e-courts and see the location of properties which are in foreclosure, and the name of the individual homeowner in each foreclosure case.  After the information is harvested, the company may then contact the homeowner with a “rescue scheme,” in which they claim they will “save the property” from foreclosure.  They may advance a small sum of money, with the promise of more advances, if the homeowner will execute certain documents.  The documents, rather than being innocuous, may allow the schemer to transfer the property from the homeowner to the “rescue company.”  After the property has been transferred, the company may then quickly “flip” it to an unwitting buyer, while the original homeowner has been deceived into signing away their property.

church-300x224A recent New York Supreme Court decision relates to the intersection of two major practice areas of our firm, foreclosure and Religious Corporation law.  The case involved a mortgage loan taken out by Grace Christian Church, located in Brooklyn, New York.  According to the Court, the Church mortgaged its property to the plaintiff, John T. Walsh Enterprises, LLC, in exchange for a loan of $350,000.00.  When it failed to make payments under the terms of the note, the plaintiff brought a foreclosure action against the Church property.

This case is an excellent example of the interaction between these two areas of law. The reason for this is that, under New York’s Religious Corporation Law, a religious corporation cannot sell, mortgage, or lease its property for a term exceeding five years without the consent of the New York Attorney General.  Prior blog posts have discussed the legal procedures necessary for a religious institution to obtain such consent.  Recent changes in the law have made it possible to obtain such permission directly from the office of the Attorney General, without the necessity of a Court proceeding. However, if the Attorney General’s Office does not give initial consent, the religious institution then has the option of bringing an action in Supreme Court to obtain such consent.  Such action must be served upon the Attorney General’s Office, and, if the Court subsequently approves the transaction, whether it be a sale, lease, or mortgage, then the religious institution may proceed with its real estate transaction.

In the Grace Christian Church case, although the Church’s Board of Directors approved the loan transaction, they did not seek approval of the New York Attorney General, as the law requires.  In addition, the loan terms were significantly altered at the loan closing, without the consent of the Church’s Board of Directors.  A title search performed by an experienced title company would have shown that the property was owned by a religious corporation, and would have required such consent by both the Board of Directors as well as the Attorney General as a condition of closing the loan.

foreclosure-300x170A recent article in the New York Law Journal discussed the possibility of public foreclosure defense services being in jeopardy due to government funding cuts.  What does this mean for the homeowner whose home may be in danger of being foreclosed?

Homeowners who are having problems paying their existing mortgages may be in danger of having a foreclosure action brought against them.  New York State currently provides public services to assist such parties.  These agencies may provide legal advice on avoiding foreclosure, help with loan modifications and refinancing, and other financial services related to mortgages.  Generally, these services may be provided free of charge by non-profit agencies, such as Legal Services of the Hudson Valley.

However, many of these agencies are overwhelmed by the demand for their services.  As stated in the article, state budget cuts may result in these agencies being unable to provide assistance for all homeowners who may be at risk of foreclosure.  What should these homeowners do in this situation?  We would recommend hiring a private attorney with experience in defending foreclosure lawsuits.  Prior blog posts have shown the various ways in which an experienced attorney can defend a foreclosure case in litigation.  Even delaying a foreclosure action can buy a homeowner valuable time in which to negotiate a loan modification, obtain a refinance commitment, or even sell the property and pay off the mortgage, if there is sufficient equity.

wall-300x118
Our readers who follow the news are aware that the Federal government has been partially shut down for several weeks.  President Trump has taken the position that he will not agree to re-open the government unless a wall is erected along our southern border.  The Democratic leadership has responded that it will absolutely not agree that a wall is to be installed.  It is not the goal of this author to side with either of these positions.  Rather, we find it striking that neither side is negotiating effectively.  By stating an absolute, such as there must or must not be a wall, both sides are preventing a satisfactory resolution; which requires agreeing to terms that inherently will be neither of these positions.  Presenting an “all or nothing approach” is not how matters are successfully concluded.  This post will address one of the tools that experienced attorneys have at their disposal- strong negotiating skills.  We will explore how these skills are utilized in various legal matters.

Negotiation strategies can take the following course in real estate transactions.  We recommend that parties to a proposed deal let their attorneys “do the talking” and thereby prevent themselves from showing emotion or desperation to sign the contract.  Otherwise, such a party is vulnerable to agreeing to issues in the contract that may not be beneficial and result in regret.  For instance, a seller who needs to sell for financial reasons or who may be facing foreclosure, without other viable offers, may agree to excessive demands from the buyer like making repairs, credits for inspection issues, etc.  On the flip side, a buyer “in love” with a particular house that has multiple offers in a strong Spring market may agree to risky decisions such as waiving the mortgage contingency, allowing violations to remain and the like.  The more prudent negotiation move is to allow only a qualified attorney to be aware of these factors, not display feelings and allow the attorney to be the only one to negotiate on a party’s behalf.

Commercial lease negotiations  contain their own strategy.  A tenant may want to be in a particular location and find it necessary to tolerate the unreasonable expectations of a landlord.  For instance, a landlord may wrongfully impose snow removal obligations on the tenant.  The tenant’s attorney can get more leverage in this negotiation if the tenant is willing to walk away and find another location instead.  Such flexibility may help to achieve better results for the client.  Perhaps the landlord has an opportunity to rent to a “big box” nationally known tenant.  In such a case, the tenant will require that its form of lease be signed and will not be amenable to many landlord requirements.  Locating another tenant who is willing to accept landlord demands could be best in some situations.

convent-300x223Recently in the news is a decision in a lawsuit regarding the potential eviction of a defrocked nun in a Russian Orthodox convent located in Nanuet, New York.  This case is an interesting intersection of two areas of the law that our firm practices; namely, how the decisions of a religious organization can affect the disposition of real property, as well as the residents of said real property.

Prior blog posts have discussed how religious corporations must obtain approval from the New York State Attorney General in order to sell, lease, or mortgage real estate owned by the religious organization.  This often causes disputes where there are different factions within the religious organization, and these factions cannot agree on whether to sell real estate in order to relocate the place of worship.  As prior posts have discussed, courts are reluctant to intervene in disputes which are solely the result of disputes over religious doctrine.  However, disputes over control of a religious organization which can be resolved on the basis of neutral principles, that is, without second-guessing decisions made solely on the basis of theological grounds, may be resolved by the court.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution generally forbids government involvement in religious disputes.  This principle also applies to the Courts, which are, in essence, instruments of the government, whether state or federal.  The lawsuit under discussion involves attempts to allow an ejectment action against a nun who was defrocked by her parent religious organization, the Russian Orthodox Convent Novo-Diveevo.  Our blog has previously discussed evictions against certain “non-traditional” tenants, such as licensees and invitees, who usually do not have written leases, but reside at certain properties.  The usual course of action in such matters is to serve a Notice to Quit, giving the tenant (often referred to as a licensee or invitee, depending on the specific situation) thirty days in which to vacate the premises.  If they do not vacate, the owner of the property can then either bring a petition for eviction in the local landlord-tenant court, or, in cases involving more complex issues, a civil action for ejectment in the Supreme Court in which the property is located.

auction-300x200Our firm receives many inquiries from parties who intend to bid at a foreclosure sale.  Foreclosure sales most often occur when a party is unable to pay a mortgage encumbering a property, and a foreclosure judgment is obtained by the lender.  What happens next?  A foreclosure sale, or auction, is scheduled by the lender.  This must be properly noticed by having all parties served with the Notice of Sale, as well as having the Notice published in a general circulation publication, which the Court will order, such as the Journal News in Westchester.

Once all notices have been given, the sale is usually held in the lobby of the Courthouse of the Supreme Court in the County in which the foreclosed property is located.  Most courthouses in New York State set aside a specific area or room in their building to hold such auctions, which are open to all members of the public.  Prior to the auction date, it is wise for potential bidders to have experienced counsel review the terms of sale.

The sale is then conducted by the Referee for the foreclosed property.  The Referee is an individual, usually an attorney, who has been appointed by the Court to conduct the auction and transfer the property after a judgment of foreclosure has been obtained by the lender, who is the plaintiff in the foreclosure lawsuit.  The Referee’s role is to prepare all documents, conduct the auction sale, and then prepare the property transfer documents and convey all funds to the lender after the auction.

auctionSeveral of our prior blog posts have dealt with defending foreclosure actions for real property.  However, in New York State, and especially in New York City, many apartments are held as shares in a cooperative corporation, also known as “coops”.  Rather than owning real property, coop owners own shares in a corporation which have been allocated to their apartment within a particular building.  As a result, legally, owners of a coop apartment do not own real property, but instead, they own shares.

This legal distinction makes a difference when an owner defaults on his share loan.  Because coops are not real property, they fall into a category called “non-judicial foreclosures.”  This means that unlike a foreclosure against real property, foreclosure actions against coop shares are not brought by commencing a lawsuit in the Supreme Court, or in any Court.  Instead, the foreclosing lender will issue a series of legal default notices, and, if the default is not cured, it will then hold a public auction of the coop shares belonging to the defaulting shareholder.

Because lenders hold the shares in escrow when they make a loan against the apartment, they have the ability to auction these shares when the shareholder defaults in his loan obligation.  The original share certificate is kept by the lender and not returned to the shareholder until the loan is paid in full.