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29.4 Cases

Denial of Mortgagee’s Right to Foreclose; Erroneous Filings; Lost Instruments

Paul H. Cherry v. Chase Manhattan Mortgage Group

190 F.Supp.2d 1330 (Fed. Dist. Ct. FL 2002)

Background

[Paul Cherry filed a complaint suing Chase for Fair Debt Collection Practices Act violations and slander of credit.]…Chase counter-claimed for foreclosure and reestablishment of the lost note.…

…Chase held a mortgage on Cherry’s home to which Cherry made timely payments until August 2000. Cherry stopped making payments on the mortgage after he received a letter from Chase acknowledging his satisfaction of the mortgage. Cherry notified Chase of the error through a customer service representative. Cherry, however, received a check dated August 15, 2000, as an escrow refund on the mortgage. Chase subsequently recorded a Satisfaction of Mortgage into the Pinellas County public records on October 19, 2000. On November 14, 2000, Chase sent Cherry a “Loan Reactivation” letter with a new loan number upon which to make the payments. During this time, Cherry was placing his mortgage payments into a bank account, which subsequently were put into an escrow account maintained by his attorney. These payments were not, and have not, been tendered to Chase. As a result of the failure to tender, Chase sent Cherry an acceleration warning on November 17, 2000, and again on March 16, 2001. Chase notified the credit bureaus as to Cherry’s default status and moved for foreclosure. In a letter addressed to Cherry’s attorney, dated April 24, 2001, Chase’s attorney advised Cherry to make the mortgage payments to Chase. Chase recorded a “vacatur, revocation, and cancellation of satisfaction of mortgage” (vacatur) [vacatur: an announcement filed in court that something is cancelled or set aside; an annulment] in the Pinellas County public records on May 3, 2001. Chase signed the vacatur on March 21, 2001, and had it notarized on March 27, 2001. Chase has also been unable to locate the original note, dated October 15, 1997, and deems it to be lost.…

Foreclosure

Chase accelerated Cherry’s mortgage debt after determining he was in a default status under the mortgage provisions. Chase claims that the right to foreclose under the note and mortgage is “absolute,” [Citation], and that this Court should enforce the security interest in the mortgage though Chase made an administrative error in entering a Satisfaction of Mortgage into the public records.…

Mortgage

…Chase relies on the Florida Supreme Court decision in United Service Corp. v. Vi-An Const. Corp., [Citation] (Fla.1955), which held that a Satisfaction of Mortgage “made through a mistake may be canceled” and a mortgage reestablished as long as no other innocent third parties have “acquired an interest in the property.” Generally the court looks to the rights of any innocent third parties, and if none exist, equity will grant relief to a mortgagee who has mistakenly satisfied a mortgage before fully paid. [Citation]. Both parties agree that the mortgage was released before the debt was fully paid. Neither party has presented any facts to this Court that implies the possibility nor existence of a third party interest. Although Cherry argues under Biggs v. Smith, 184 So. 106, 107 (1938), that a recorded satisfaction of mortgage is “prima facie evidence of extinguishment of a mortgage lien,” Biggs does not apply this standard to mortgage rights affected by a mistake in the satisfaction.

Therefore, on these facts, this Court acknowledges that a vacatur is a proper remedy for Chase to correct its unilateral mistake since “equity will grant relief to those who have through mistake released a mortgage.” [Citation.] Accordingly, this Court holds that an equity action is required to make a vacatur enforceable unless the parties consent to the vacatur or a similar remedy during the mortgage negotiation.…

Tender

Cherry has not made a mortgage payment to Chase since August 2000, but claims to have made these payments into an escrow account, which he claims were paid to the escrow account because Chase recorded a satisfaction of his mortgage and, therefore, no mortgage existed. Cherry also claims that representatives of Chase rejected his initial attempts to make payments because of a lack of a valid loan number. Chase, however, correctly argues that payments made to an escrow account are not a proper tender of payment. Matthews v. Lindsay, [Citation] (1884) (requiring tender to be made to the court). Nor did Cherry make the required mortgage payments to the court as provided by [relevant court rules], allowing for a “deposit with the court all or any part of such sum or thing, whether that party claims all or any part of the sum or thing.” Further, Chase also correctly argues that Cherry’s failure to tender the payments from the escrow account or make deposits with the court is more than just a “technical breach” of the mortgage and note. [Citation.]

Chase may, therefore, recover the entire amount of the mortgage indebtedness, unless the court finds a “limited circumstance” upon which the request may be denied. [Citation.] Although not presented by Chase in its discussion of this case, the Court may refuse foreclosure, notwithstanding that the defendant established a foreclosure action, if the acceleration was unconscionable and the “result would be inequitable and unjust.” This Court will analyze the inequitable result test and the limited circumstances by which the court may deny foreclosure.

First, this Court does not find the mortgage acceleration unconscionable by assuming arguendo [for the purposes of argument] that the mortgage was valid during the period that the Satisfaction of Mortgage was entered into the public records. Chase did not send the first acceleration warning until November 14, 2000, the fourth month of non-payment, followed by the second acceleration letter on March 16, 2001, the eighth month of non-payment. Although Cherry could have argued that a foreclosure action was an “inequitable” and “unjust” result after the Satisfaction of Mortgage was entered on his behalf, the result does not rise to an unconscionable level since Cherry could have properly tendered the mortgage payments to the court.

Second, the following “limited circumstances” will justify a court’s denial of foreclosure: 1) waiver of right to accelerate; 2) mortgagee estopped from asserting foreclosure because mortgagor reasonably assumed the mortgagee would not foreclose; 3) mortgagee failed to perform a condition precedent for acceleration; 4) payment made after default but prior to receiving intent to foreclose; or, 5) where there was intent to make to make timely payment, and it was attempted, or steps taken to accomplish it, but nevertheless the payment was not made due to a misunderstanding or excusable neglect, coupled with some conduct of the mortgagee which in a measure contributed to the failure to pay when due or within the grace period. [Citations.]

Chase fails to address this fifth circumstance in its motion, an apparent obfuscation of the case law before the court. This Court acknowledges that Cherry’s facts do not satisfy the first four limited circumstances. Chase at no time advised Cherry that the acceleration right was being waived; nor is Chase estopped from asserting foreclosure on the mortgage because of the administrative error, and Cherry has not relied on this error to his detriment; and since Chase sent the acceleration letter to Cherry and a request for payment to his attorney, there can be no argument that Cherry believed Chase would not foreclose. Chase has performed all conditions precedent required by the mortgage provisions prior to notice of the acceleration; sending acceleration warnings on November 17, 2000, and March 16, 2001. Cherry also has no argument for lack of notice of intent to accelerate after default since he has not tendered a payment since July 2000, thus placing him in default of the mortgage provisions, and he admits receiving the acceleration notices.

This Court finds, however, that this claim fails squarely into the final limited circumstance regarding intent to make timely payments. Significant factual issues exist as to the intent of Cherry to make or attempt to make timely mortgage payments to Chase. Cherry claims that he attempted to make the payments, but was told by a representative of Chase that there was no mortgage loan number upon which to apply the payments. As a result, the mortgage payments were placed into an account and later into his counsel’s trust account as a mortgage escrow. Although these payments should have, at a minimum, been placed with the court to ensure tender during the resolution of the mortgage dispute, Cherry did take steps to accomplish timely mortgage payments. Although Cherry, through excusable neglect or a misunderstanding as to what his rights were after the Satisfaction of Mortgage was entered, failed to tender the payments, Chase is also not without fault; its conduct in entering a Satisfaction of Mortgage into the Pinellas County public records directly contributed to Cherry’s failure to tender timely payments. Cherry’s attempt at making the mortgage payments, coupled with Chase’s improper satisfaction of mortgage fits squarely within the limited circumstance created to justify a court’s denial of a foreclosure. Equity here requires a balancing between Chase’s right to the security interest encumbered by the mortgage and Cherry’s attempts to make timely payments. As such, these limited circumstances exist to ensure that a foreclosure remains an action in equity. In applying this analysis, this Court finds that equity requires that Chase’s request for foreclosure be denied at this juncture.…

Reestablishment of the Lost Note and Mortgage

Chase also requests, as part of the foreclosure counterclaim, the reestablishment of the note initially associated with the mortgage, as it is unable to produce the original note and provide by affidavit evidence of its loss. Chase has complied with the [necessary statutory] requirements[.]…This Court holds the note to be reestablished and that Chase has the lawful right to enforce the note upon the issuance of this order.

This Court also agrees that Chase may reestablish the mortgage through a vacatur, revocation, and cancellation of satisfaction of mortgage. [Citation] (allowing the Equity Court to reestablish a mortgage that was improperly canceled due to a mistake). However, this Court will deem the vacatur effective as of the date of this order. This Court leaves the status of the vacatur during the disputed period, and specifically since May 3, 2001, to be resolved in subsequent proceedings.…Accordingly, it is:

ORDERED that [Chase cannot foreclose and] the request to reestablish the note and mortgage is hereby granted and effective as of the date of this order. Cherry will tender all previously escrowed mortgage payments to the Court, unless the parties agree otherwise, within ten days of this order and shall henceforth, tender future monthly payments to Chase as set out in the reestablished note and mortgage.

Case Questions

  1. When Chase figured out that it had issued a Satisfaction of Mortgage erroneously, what did it file to rectify the error?
  2. Cherry had not made any mortgage payments between the time Chase sent the erroneous Satisfaction of Mortgage notice to him and the time of the court’s decision in this case. The court listed five circumstances in which a mortgagee (Chase here) might be denied the right to foreclose on a delinquent account: which one applied here? The court said Chase had engaged in “an apparent obfuscation of the case law before the court”? What obfuscation did it engage in?
  3. What did Cherry do with the mortgage payments after Chase erroneously told him the mortgage was satisfied? What did the court say he should have done with the payments?

Mechanic’s Lien Filed against Landlord for Payment of Tenant’s Improvements

F & D Elec. Contractors, Inc. v. Powder Coaters, Inc.

567 S.E.2d 842 (S.C. 2002)

Factual/ Procedural Background

BG Holding f/k/a Colite Industries, Inc. (“BG Holding”) is a one-third owner of about thirty acres of real estate in West Columbia, South Carolina. A warehouse facility is located on the property. In September 1996, Powder Coaters, Inc. (“Powder Coaters”) agreed to lease a portion of the warehouse to operate its business. Powder Coaters was engaged in the business of electrostatically painting machinery parts and equipment and then placing them in an oven to cure. A signed lease was executed between Powder Coaters and BG Holding. Prior to signing the lease, Powder Coaters negotiated the terms with Mark Taylor, (“Taylor”) who was the property manager for the warehouse facility and an agent of BG Holding.

The warehouse facility did not have a sufficient power supply to support Powder Coaters’ machinery. Therefore, Powder Coaters contracted with F & D Electrical (“F & D”) to perform electrical work which included installing two eight foot strip light fixtures and a two hundred amp load center. Powder Coaters never paid F & D for the services. Powder Coaters was also unable to pay rent to BG Holding and was evicted in February 1997. Powder Coaters is no longer a viable company.

In January 1997, F & D filed a Notice and Certificate of Mechanic’s Lien and Affidavit of Mechanic’s Lien. In February 1997, F & D filed this action against BG Holding foreclosing on its mechanic’s lien pursuant to S.C. [statute].…

A jury trial was held on September 2nd and 3rd, 1998. At the close of F & D’s evidence, and at the close of all evidence, BG Holding made motions for directed verdicts, which were denied. The jury returned a verdict for F & D in the amount of $8,264.00. The court also awarded F & D attorneys’ fees and cost in the amount of $8,264.00, for a total award of $16,528.00.

BG Holding appealed. The Court of Appeals, in a two to one decision, reversed the trial court, holding a directed verdict should have been granted to BG Holding on the grounds BG Holding did not consent to the electrical upgrade, as is required by the Mechanic’s Lien Statute. This Court granted F & D’s petition for certiorari, and the issue before this Court is:

Did the trial court err in denying BG Holding’s motion for directed verdict because the record was devoid of any evidence of owner’s consent to materialman’s performance of work on its property as required by [the S.C. statute]?

Law/Analysis

F & D argues the majority of the Court of Appeals erred in holding the facts of the case failed to establish that BG Holding consented to the work performed by F & D, as is required by the [South Carolina] Mechanic’s Lien Statute. We agree.…

South Carolina’s Mechanic’s Lien Statute provides:

A person to whom a debt is due for labor performed or furnished or for materials furnished and actually used in the erection, alteration, or repair of a building…by virtue of an agreement with, or by consent of, the owner of the building or structure, or a person having authority from, or rightfully acting for, the owner in procuring or furnishing the labor or materials shall have a lien upon the building or structure and upon the interest of the owner of the building or structure …to secure the payment of the debt due. [emphasis added.]

Both parties in this case concede there was no express “agreement” between F & D and BG Holding. Therefore, the issue in this appeal turns on the meaning of the word “consent” in the statute, as applied in the landlord-tenant context. This is a novel issue in South Carolina.

This Court must decide who must give the consent, who must receive consent, and what type of consent (general, specific, oral, written) must be given in order to satisfy the statute. Finally, the Court must decide whether the evidence in this case shows BG Holding gave the requisite consent.

A. Who Must Receive the Consent.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion in this case contemplates the consent must be between the materialman (lien claimant) and the landlord (owner). “It is only logical…that consent under [the relevant section] must…be between the owner and the entity seeking the lien…” [Citation from Court of Appeals]. As stated previously, applying the Mechanic’s Lien Statute in the landlord-tenant context presents a novel issue. We find the consent required by the statute does not have to be between the landlord/owner and the materialman, as the Court of Appeals’ opinion indicates. A determination that the required consent must come from the owner to the materialman means the materialman can only succeed if he can prove an agreement with the owner. Such an interpretation would render meaningless the language of the statute that provides: “…by virtue of an agreement with, or by consent of the owner.…"

Therefore, it is sufficient for the landlord/owner or his agent to give consent to his tenant. The landlord/owner should be able to delegate to his tenant the responsibility for making the requested improvements. The landlord/owner may not want to have direct involvement with the materialman or sub-contractors, but instead may wish to allow the tenant to handle any improvements or upgrades himself. In addition, the landlord/owner may be located far away and may own many properties, making it impractical for him to have direct involvement with the materialman. We find the landlord/owner or his agent is free to enter into a lease or agreement with a tenant which allows the tenant to direct the modifications to the property which have been specifically consented to by the landlord/owner or his agent.

We hold a landlord/owner or his agent can give his consent to the lessee/tenant, as well as directly to the lien claimant, to make modifications to the leased premises.

B. What Kind of Consent Is Necessary.

This Court has already clearly held the consent required by [the relevant section] is “something more than a mere acquiescence in a state of things already in existence. It implies an agreement to that which, but for the consent, could not exist, and which the party consenting has a right to forbid.” [Citations.] However, our Mechanics Lien Statute has never been applied in the landlord-tenant context where a third party is involved.

Other jurisdictions have addressed this issue. The Court of Appeals cited [a Connecticut case, 1987] in support of its holding. We agree with the Court of Appeals that the Connecticut court’s reasoning is persuasive, especially since Connecticut has a similar mechanics lien statute.…

The Connecticut courts have stated “the consent required from the owner or one acting under the owner’s authority is more than the mere granting of permission for work to be conducted on one’s property; or the mere knowledge that work was being performed on one’s land.” Furthermore, although the Connecticut courts have stated the statute does not require an express contract, the courts have required “consent that indicates an agreement that the owner of…the land shall be, or may be, liable for the materials or labor.”…

The reasoning of [Connecticut and other states that have decided this issue] is persuasive. F & D’s brief appears to argue that mere knowledge by the landowner that the work needed to be done, coupled with the landlord’s general “permission” to perform the work, is enough to establish consent under the statute. Under this interpretation, a landlord who knew a tenant needed to improve, upgrade, or add to the leased premises would be liable to any contractor and/or subcontractor who performed work on his land. Under F & D’s interpretation the landlord would not be required to know the scope, cost, etc. of the work, but would only need to give the tenant general permission to perform upgrades or improvements.

Clearly, if the landlord/owner or his agent gives consent directly to the materialman, a lien can be established. Consent can also be given to the tenant, but the consent needs to be specific. The landlord/owner or his agent must know the scope of the project (for instance, as the lease provided in the instant case, the landlord could approve written plans submitted by the tenant). The consent needs to be more than “mere knowledge” that the tenant will perform work on the property. There must be some kind of express or implied agreement that the landlord may be held liable for the work or material. The landlord/owner or his agent may delegate the project or work to his tenant, but there must be an express or implied agreement about the specific work to be done. A general provision in a lease which allows tenant to make repairs or improvements is not enough.

C. Evidence There Was No Consent

  • The record is clear that no contract, express or implied, existed between BG Holding and F & G. BG Holding had no knowledge F & G would be performing the work.
  • F & G’s supervisor, David Weatherington, and Ray Dutton, the owner of F & D, both testified they never had a conversation with anyone from BG Holding. In fact, until Powder Coaters failed to pay under the contract, F & D did not know BG Holding was the owner of the building.
  • Mark Taylor, BG Holding’s agent, testified he never authorized any work by F & D, nor did he see any work being performed by them on the site.
  • The lease specifically provided that all work on the property was to be approved in writing by BG Holding.
  • David Weatherington of F & D testified he was looking to Powder Coaters, not BG Holding, for payment.
  • Powder Coaters acknowledged it was not authorized to bind BG Holding to pay for the modifications.
  • The lease states, “[i]f the Lessee should make any [alterations, modification, additions, or installations], the Lessee hereby agrees to indemnify, defend, and save harmless the Lessor from any liability…”

D. Evidence There Was Consent

  • Bruce Houston, owner of Powder Coaters testified that during the lease negotiations, he informed Mark Taylor, BG Holding’s property manager and agent, that electrical and gas upgrading would be necessary for Powder Coaters to perform their work.
  • Houston testified Mark Taylor was present at the warehouse while F & D performed their work. [However, Taylor testified he did not see F & D performing any work on the premises.]
  • Houston testified he would not have entered into the lease if he was not authorized to upgrade the electrical since the existing power source was insufficient to run the machinery needed for Powder Coaters to operate.
  • Houston testified Mark Taylor, BG Holding’s agent, showed him the power source for the building so Taylor could understand the extent of the work that was going to be required.
  • Houston testified Paragraph 5 of the addendum to the lease was specifically negotiated. He testified the following language granted him the authority to perform the electrical upfit, so that he was not required to submit the plans to BG Holding as required by a provision in the lease: “Lessor shall allow Lessee to put Office Trailer in Building. All Utilities necessary to handle Lessee’s equipment shall be paid for by the Lessee including, but not limited to electricity, water, sewer, and gas.” (We note that BG Holding denies this interpretation, but insists it just requires the Lessee to pay for all utility bills.)
  • Powder Coaters no longer occupies the property, and BG Holding possibly benefits from the work done.

In the instant case, there is some evidence of consent. However, it does not rise to the level required under the statute.…

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to F & D, whether BG Holding gave their consent is a close question. However, we agree with the Court of Appeals, that F & D has not presented enough evidence to show: (1) BG Holding gave anything more than general consent to make improvements (as the lease could be interpreted to allow); or (2) BG Holding had anything more that “mere knowledge” that the work was to be done. Powder Coaters asserted the lease’s addendum evidenced BG Holding’s consent to perform the modifications; however, there is no evidence BG Holding expressly or implicitly agreed that it might be liable for the work. In fact, the lease between Powder Coaters and BG Holding expressly provided Powder Coaters was responsible for any alterations made to the property. Even Powder Coaters acknowledged it was not authorized to bind BG Holding.…Therefore, it is impossible to see how the very general provision requiring Powder Coaters to pay for water, sewer, and gas can be interpreted to authorize Powder Coaters to perform an electrical upgrade. Furthermore, we agree with the Court of Appeals that the mere presence of BG Holding’s agent at the work site is not enough to establish consent.

Conclusion

We hold consent, as required by the Mechanic’s Lien Statute, is something more than mere knowledge work will be or could be done on the property. The landlord/owner must do more than grant the tenant general permission to make repairs or improvements to the leased premises. The landlord/owner or his agent must give either his tenant or the materialman express or implied consent acknowledging he may be held liable for the work.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion is affirmed as modified.

Case Questions

  1. Why did the lienor want to go after the landlord instead of the tenant?
  2. Did the landlord here know that there were electrical upgrades needed by the tenant?
  3. What kind of knowledge or acceptance did the court determine the landlord-owner needed to have or give before a material man could have a lien on the real estate?
  4. What remedy has F & D (the material man) now?

Deeds of Trust; Duties of Trustee

Alpha Imperial Building, LLC v. Schnitzer Family Investment, LLC, II (SFI).

2005 WL 715940, (Wash. Ct. App. 2005)

Applewick, J.

Alpha Imperial LLC challenges the validity of a non-judicial foreclosure sale on multiple grounds. Alpha was the holder of a third deed of trust on the building sold, and contests the location of the sale and the adequacy of the sale price. Alpha also claims that the trustee had a duty to re-open the sale, had a duty to the junior lienholder, chilled the bidding, and had a conflict of interest. We find that the location of the sale was proper, the price was adequate, bidding was not chilled, and that the trustee had no duty to re-open the sale, [and] no duty to the junior lienholder.…We affirm.

Facts

Mayur Sheth and another individual formed Alpha Imperial Building, LLC in 1998 for the purpose of investing in commercial real estate. In February 2000 Alpha sold the property at 1406 Fourth Avenue in Seattle (the Property) to Pioneer Northwest, LLC (Pioneer). Pioneer financed this purchase with two loans from [defendant Schnitzer Family Investment, LLC, II (SFI)]. Pioneer also took a third loan from Alpha at the time of the sale for $1.3 million. This loan from Alpha was junior to the two [other] loans[.]

Pioneer defaulted and filed for bankruptcy in 2002.…In October 2002 defendant Blackstone Corporation, an entity created to act as a non-judicial foreclosure trustee, issued a Trustee’s Notice of Sale. Blackstone is wholly owned by defendant Witherspoon, Kelley, Davenport & Toole (Witherspoon). Defendant Michael Currin, a shareholder at Witherspoon, was to conduct the sale on January 10, 2003. Currin and Witherspoon represented SFI and 4th Avenue LLC. Sheth received a copy of the Notice of Sale through his attorney.

On January 10, 2003, Sheth and his son Abhi arrived at the Third Avenue entrance to the King County courthouse between 9:30 and 9:45 a.m. They waited for about ten minutes. They noticed two signs posted above the Third Avenue entrance. One sign said that construction work was occurring at the courthouse and ‘all property auctions by the legal and banking communities will be moved to the 4th Avenue entrance of the King County Administration Building.’ The other sign indicated that the Third Avenue entrance would remain open during construction. Sheth and Abhi asked a courthouse employee about the sign, and were told that all sales were conducted at the Administration Building.

Sheth and Abhi then walked to the Administration Building, and asked around about the sale of the Property. [He was told Michael Currin, one of the shareholders of Blackstone—the trustee—was holding the sale, and was advised] to call Currin’s office in Spokane. Sheth did so, and was told that the sale was at the Third Avenue entrance. Sheth and Abhi went back to the Third Avenue entrance.

In the meantime, Currin had arrived at the Third Avenue entrance between 9:35 and 9:40 a.m. The head of SFI, Danny Schnitzer (Schnitzer), and his son were also present. Currin was surprised to notice that no other foreclosure sales were taking place, but did not ask at the information desk about it. Currin did not see the signs directing auctions to occur at the Administration Building. Currin conducted the auction, Schnitzer made the only bid, for $2.1 million, and the sale was complete. At this time, the debt owed on the first two deeds of trust totaled approximately $4.1 million. Currin then left the courthouse, but when he received a call from his assistant telling him about Sheth, he arranged to meet Sheth back at the Third Avenue entrance. When they met, Sheth told Currin that the sales were conducted at the Administration Building. Currin responded that the sale had already been conducted, and he was not required to go to the Administration Building. Currin told Sheth that the notice indicated the sale was to be at the Third Avenue entrance, and that the sale had been held at the correct location. Sheth did not ask to re-open the bidding.…

Sheth filed the current lawsuit, with Alpha as the sole plaintiff, on February 14, 2003. The lawsuit asked for declaratory relief, restitution, and other damages. The trial court granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion on August 8, 2003. Alpha appeals.

Location of the Sale

Alpha argues that the sale was improper because it was at the Third Avenue entrance, not the Administration Building. Alpha points to a letter from a King County employee stating that auctions are held at the Administration Building. The letter also stated that personnel were instructed to direct bidders and trustees to that location if asked. In addition, Alpha argues that the Third Avenue entrance was not a ‘public’ place, as required by [the statute], since auction sales were forbidden there. We disagree. Alpha has not shown that the Third Avenue entrance was an improper location. The evidence shows that the county had changed its policy as to where auctions would be held and had posted signs to that effect. However, the county did not exclude people from the Third Avenue entrance or prevent auctions from being held there. Street, who frequented sales, stated that auctions were being held in both locations. The sale was held where the Notice of Sale indicated it would be. In addition, Alpha has not introduced any evidence to show that the Third Avenue entrance was not a public place at the time of the sale. The public was free to come and go at that location, and the area was ‘open and available for all to use.’ Alpha relies on Morton v. Resolution Trust (S.D. Miss. 1995) to support its contention that the venue of the sale was improper. [But] Morton is not on point.

Duty to Re-Open Sale

Alpha argues that Currin should have re-opened the sale. However, it is undisputed that Sheth did not request that Currin re-open it. The evidence indicates that Currin may have known about Sheth’s interest in bidding prior to the day of the sale, due to a conversation with Sheth’s attorney about Sheth’s desire to protect his interest in the Property. But, this knowledge did not create in Currin any affirmative duty to offer to re-open the sale.

In addition, Alpha cites no Washington authority to support the contention that Currin would have been obligated to re-open the sale if Sheth had asked him to. The decision to continue a sale appears to be fully within the discretion of the trustee: “[t]he trustee may for any cause the trustee deems advantageous, continue the sale.” [Citation.] Alpha’s citation to Peterson v. Kansas City Life Ins. Co., Missouri (1936) to support its contention that Currin should have re-opened the sale is unavailing. In Peterson, the Notice of Sale indicated that the sale would be held at the ‘front’ door of the courthouse. But, the courthouse had four doors, and the customary door for sales was the east door. The sheriff, acting as the trustee, conducted the sale at the east door, and then re-opened the sale at the south door, as there had been some sales at the south door. Alpha contends this shows that Currin should have re-opened the sale when learning of the Administration Building location, akin to what the sheriff did in Peterson. However, Peterson does not indicate that the sheriff had an affirmative duty to re-sell the property at the south door. This case is not on point.

Chilled Bidding

Alpha contends that Currin chilled the bidding on the Property by telling bidders that he expected a full credit sale price and by holding the sale at the courthouse. Chilled bidding can be grounds for setting aside a sale. Country Express Stores, Inc. v. Sims, [Washington Court of Appeals] (1997). The Country Express court explained the two types of chilled bidding:

The first is intentional, occurring where there is collusion for the purpose of holding down the bids. The second consists of inadvertent and unintentional acts by the trustee that have the effect of suppressing the bidding. To establish chilled bidding, the challenger must establish the bidding was actually suppressed, which can sometimes be shown by an inadequate sale price.

We hold that there was no chilling. Alpha has not shown that Currin engaged in intentional chilling. There is no evidence that Currin knew about the signs indicating auctions were occurring at the Administration Building when he prepared the Notice of Sale, such that he intentionally held the sale at a location from which he knew bidders would be absent. Additionally, Currin’s statement to [an interested person who might bid on the property] that a full credit sale price was expected and that the opening bid would be $4.1 million did not constitute intentional chilling. SFI was owed $4.1 million on the Property. SFI could thus bid up to that amount at no cost to itself, as the proceeds would go back to SFI. Currin confirmed that SFI was prepared to make a full-credit bid. [It is common for trustees to] disclose the full-credit bid amount to potential third party bidders, and for investors to lose interest when they learn of the amount of indebtedness on property. It was therefore not a misrepresentation for Currin to state $4.1 million as the opening bid, due to the indebtedness on the Property. Currin’s statements had no chilling effect—they merely informed [interested persons] of the minimum amount necessary to prevail against SFI. Thus, Currin did not intentionally chill the bidding by giving Street that information.

Alpha also argues that the chilled bidding could have been unintended by Currin.… [But the evidence is that] Currin’s actions did not intentionally or unintentionally chill the bidding, and the sale will not be set aside.

Adequacy of the Sale Price

Alpha claims that the sale price was ‘greatly inadequate’ and that the sale should thus be set aside. Alpha submitted evidence that the property had an ‘as is’ value of $4.35 million in December 2002, and an estimated 2004 value of $5.2 million. The debt owed to SFI on the property was $4.1 million. SFI bought the property for $2.1 million. These facts do not suggest that the sale must be set aside.

Washington case law suggests that the price the property is sold for must be ‘grossly inadequate’ for a trustee’s sale to be set aside on those grounds alone. In Cox [Citation, 1985], the property was worth between $200,000 and $300,000, and was sold to the beneficiary for $11,873. The Court held that amount to be grossly inadequate In Steward [Citation, 1988] the property had been purchased for approximately $64,000, and then was sold to a third party at a foreclosure sale for $4,870. This court held that $4,870 was not grossly inadequate. In Miebach [Citation] (1984), the Court noted that a sale for less than two percent of the property’s fair market value was grossly inadequate. The Court in Miebach also noted prior cases where the sale had been voided due to grossly inadequate purchase price; the properties in those cases had been sold for less than four percent of the value and less than three percent of the value. In addition, the Restatement indicates that gross inadequacy only exists when the sale price is less than 20 percent of the fair market value—without other defects, sale prices over 20 percent will not be set aside. [Citation.] The Property was sold for between 40 and 48 percent of its value. These facts do not support a grossly inadequate purchase price.

Alpha cites Miebach for the proposition that ‘where the inadequacy of price is great the sale will be set aside with slight indications of fraud or unfairness,’ arguing that such indications existed here. However, the cases cited by the Court in Miebach to support this proposition involved properties sold for less than three and four percent of their value. Alpha has not demonstrated the slightest indication of fraud, nor shown that a property that sold for 40 to 48 percent of its value sold for a greatly inadequate price.

Duty to a Junior Lienholder

Alpha claims that Currin owed a duty to Alpha, the junior lienholder. Alpha cites no case law for this proposition, and, indeed, there is none—Division Two specifically declined to decide this issue in Country Express [Citation]. Alpha acknowledges the lack of language in RCW 61.24 (the deed of trust statute) regarding fiduciary duties of trustees to junior lienholders. But Alpha argues that since RCW 61.24 requires that the trustee follow certain procedures in conducting the sale, and allows for sales to be restrained by anyone with an interest, a substantive duty from the trustee to a junior lienholder can be inferred.

Alpha’s arguments are unavailing. The procedural requirements in RCW 61.24 do not create implied substantive duties. The structure of the deed of trust sale illustrates that no duty is owed to the junior lienholder. The trustee and the junior lienholder have no relationship with each other. The sale is pursuant to a contract between the grantor, the beneficiary and the trustee. The junior lienholder is not a party to that contract. The case law indicates only that the trustee owes a fiduciary duty to the debtor and beneficiary: “a trustee of a deed of trust is a fiduciary for both the mortgagee and mortgagor and must act impartially between them.” Cox [Citation]. The fact that a sale in accordance with that contract can extinguish the junior lienholder’s interest further shows that the grantor’s and beneficiary’s interest in the deed of trust being foreclosed is adverse to the junior lienholder. We conclude the trustee, while having duties as fiduciary for the grantor and beneficiary, does not have duties to another whose interest is adverse to the grantor or beneficiary. Thus, Alpha’s claim of a special duty to a junior lienholder fails.…

Attorney Fees

…Defendants claim they are entitled to attorney fees for opposing a frivolous claim, pursuant to [the Washington statute]. An appeal is frivolous ‘if there are no debatable issues upon which reasonable minds might differ and it is so totally devoid of merit that there was no reasonable possibility of reversal.’ [Citation] Alpha has presented several issues not so clearly resolved by case law as to be frivolous, although Alpha’s arguments ultimately fail. Thus, Respondents’ request for attorney fees under [state law] is denied.

Affirmed.

Case Questions

  1. Why did the plaintiff (Alpha) think the sale should have been set aside because of the location problems?
  2. Why did the court decide the trustee had no duty to reopen bidding?
  3. What is meant by “chilling bidding”? What argument did the plaintiff make to support its contention that bidding was chilled?
  4. The court notes precedent to the effect that a “grossly inadequate” bid price has some definition. What is the definition? What percentage of the real estate’s value in this case was the winning bid?
  5. A trustee is one who owes a fiduciary duty of the utmost loyalty and good faith to another, the beneficiary. Who was the beneficiary here? What duty is owed to the junior lienholder (Alpha here)—any duty?
  6. Why did the defendants not get the attorneys’ fee award they wanted?