December 2012 Archives

Property Inspection Part II-from a Haunted House to the Bat Cave

December 26, 2012

After writing about the "haunted house" case recently, I came across another case that addressed the same concepts, and also in an unusual setting. The haunted house court had decided that because the buyer could not have anticipated that the house under contract was haunted, and was therefore not expected to inspect the property for ghosts, and because the sellers had knowledge of the haunting, the buyer could cancel the purchase contract.

This case, Jablonski v Rapalje, involves sellers that may have hid from a buyer the fact that the house in question was bat infested. While some of the facts should have lead the buyer to pay more attention and realize that something was amiss (discussed below), the particulars of what the buyer should have questioned and investigated divided the court. The majority decided that the sellers may have concealed the bats from the buyer, so that the buyer was allowed to cancel the sales contract.

A fair reading of these cases highlight courts trying to find a way to grant recision. To do so, the courts had to first find the sellers' concealment. This case focused on whether the sellers actively concealed the bat infestation, while the haunted house court focused on whether the buyer had an obligation to search for ghosts once the seller publicized the haunting but did not inform the buyer. Each court then turned to a detailed explanation of why the buyers were not obligated to inspect for that concealed issue, so that the contracts could be rescinded.

The outcome in this case triggered a strong dissent, addressing the alleged concealment by the seller, and whether or not the buyer should have, with reasonable effort and investigation, discovered the bat problem that the majority found to have been concealed by the seller.

Although in the minority, the dissent's objections seem to make sense. The dissent argued that the buyer knew or should have known that something was amiss yet failed to investigate. The buyer had ample opportunity to inspect, was aware that the exterior of the property was stained, that the attic smelled strongly of urine and moth balls, and saw electric extension cords (presumably for lighting) running to the attic (which may have been used to force the bats to leave temporarily). The buyer even knew of the removal of "bird feces" (later determined to have been bat guano), all of which should have been sufficient to raise suspicions and cause the buyer to investigate further. Instead, the buyer took the word of the seller that nothing was amiss and left it at that. Given these facts, held the dissent, the buyer had no claim against the seller.

Ghosts and bats aside, don't be fooled. Claims that a seller hid some defect from a prospective buyer are often rejected by the courts. The concept of "buyer beware" is alive and well in New York State. Before one buys a property of any kind, a careful physical inspection and review of title cannot be ignored. Any defect or objection will not be sustained if that defect or objection was in any way known to the public or with reasonable diligence able to have been discovered by a prospective buyer.

Because the facts often dictate the outcome, investigating who knew what and when is critical. The Firm has been involved in concealment cases in New York City and can discuss any issues relevant to your situation.

An Unqualified Offer to Pay a Reward Cannot Be Later Qualified or Negotiated

December 17, 2012

A musician's laptop, loaded with valuable proprietary information, was stolen while he was on tour in Germany. A reward was offered, initially set at $20,000, but later raised to $1 million. The plaintiff found the laptop and returned it, but the reward was not paid because the hard drive had allegedly been returned with corrupted information. The musician had the hard drive examined and wiped when the data could not be recovered.

The musician argued that he intended the reward to be for the return of his data and information, not just the physical laptop. He also argued that the reward was akin to an advertisement, but not a firm offer to pay anything.

The court in Augstein v. Leslie addressed the second argument first, and rejected it. A reward, wrote the court, was intended to "induce performance" by the "'offeree [for] a specific action.'" The news reports of the theft and subsequent reward "would lead a reasonable person to believe that [the musician] was making an offer." Notwithstanding the size and significance of the amount, the reward was a promise to pay if a service was provided. Because that was the case here, the plaintiff could collect the reward.

The court then determined that the data had been on the hard drive when it was returned, and no matter its value or condition at that time, especially because it was the musician that had the hard drive wiped, the plaintiff had complied with his obligations to reap the reward.

Sophisticated Party Again Fails to Do its Own Investigation

December 11, 2012

The last time we wrote on this topic, a group of plaintiffs' had their $900 million claim thrown out by a judge, essentially because the plaintiffs had stuck their head in the sand and did not investigate red flags evident in a transaction. In Pappas v. Tzolis, it was a paltry claim of just a few million that was tossed, but the underlying facts and legal principals were the same. Interestingly, it was again the selling party, the one which many believe to have less risk than the buyer, that came up holding the very short end of the stick.

The facts here are as follows: Pappas and Tzolis (and one other) formed a LLC to lease property. Tzolis personally provided the lease deposit of almost $1.2 million and was permitted to sublet the property. The parties also agreed that they had other business and could compete with the LLC or other members without notice. Trouble surfaced when Tzolis subleased the property to a company he controlled for $20,000 above the LLC's monthly payment. Unhappy with that, Pappas claimed that Tzolis prevented the LLC from leasing it directly for a higher rent, and that Tzolis was generally frustrating the lease interest of the LLC. Shortly thereafter, Tzolis bought out the other members, including Pappas. At the closing, Pappas signed a document attesting to the facts that prior to his sale of his membership interest, he had done his own due diligence using his own lawyers, and was not relying on any representation made by Tzolis or upon their relationship as co-members of the LLC. After the transaction closed, Tzolis assigned the lease interest from his entity to a third-party for $17.5 million.

Pappas sued Tzolis claiming that Tzolis had lined up this sublease before the membership interest were transferred, in violation of his fiduciary obligations to him as a member of the LLC. Had he known, argued Pappas, he would not have agreed to sell for the price that he did. The lower court threw out the case, but parts of it, including the fiduciary claim, were reinstated by the Appellate Division. The Court of Appeals, reversed the Appellate Division and threw out the case.

The court, citing to the Centro Empresarial case discussed here earlier, reiterated the rule for raising a claim of fiduciary violations in this setting. Where sophisticated parties enter into negotiations already not trusting each other or embroiled in a dispute, so that each has good reason to know that they are each acting in their own best interest, and even signing a release or waiver, they cannot come back to complain about those transactions based on the purported trust the aggrieved party had in the other.

Here, the court held that Pappas's reliance on Tzolis was unreasonable and the documents he signed controlled. His claim of fraud, that Tzolis told them he had no lessee lined up, was not only waived when Pappas signed the release and waiver, but incredible given their relationship. Pappas's remaining claims were undermined, wrote the court, because Tzolis had a right to control the leasehold and should not have been trusted by Pappas given the history and relationship among the parties.

The Silber Law Firm, LLC has successfully litigated these types of cases, and the focus on the language of the documents, in the specific context and setting in which they are executed, cannot be overstated. There are ways to minimize the risk to the parties engaged in this kind of transaction, but a hefty dose of skepticism combined with realistic due diligence is required. Sometimes the services of a forensic accountant is also something to consider, as the entity's books often tell a story that is inconsistent with what one party is being told. If you are facing a situation described in these cases, feel free to give us a call.