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Matt Drewes Quoted in Recent Article at HOALeader.com: Does Your Architectural Committee Have the Right or Responsibility to Enforce Local Laws?

6 Jun

Matt Drewes recently contributed quotes for the following articles published at www.hoaleader.com, a national web-based publication focused on homeowners association and condominium board members and association management professionals:

  • Does Your HOA’s ARC Have to Enforce Local Laws? Discussion Forum Follow-up; published April, 2013 at HOALeader.com
    • Publisher: Plain-English Media, LLC (quoting Matthew A. Drewes); Read it now.

Matt is a Shareholder with Thomsen Nybeck.  He is the head of the firm’s eight-member Community Association Representation Group and the firm’s Creditors’ Remedies Group, and practices in the areas of business and real estate litigation and transactions, employment law, construction litigation, community association law, debtor/creditor law and insurance. He has been included in the annual list of Minnesota’s Rising Stars for several years, and has been quoted in the Minneapolis StarTribune, Minnesota Lawyer, Habitat Magazine, and on various websites including Yahoo!Finance.com, Bankrate.com, MSN.com, and elsewhere on issues involving construction litigation, community associations and real property issues. He can be reached at mdrewes@tn-law.com or by phone at 952.835.7000.

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RESALE DISCLOSURE CERTIFICATES

20 Feb

Sellers of condominiums and townhomes are required byMinnesotalaw to provide to buyers a resale disclosure certificate.  However, many lenders who are selling property they acquired from foreclosure believe they are exempt from obligations that exist under state statutes.  In many cases, these lenders are from out-of-state and do not believe specific state disclosure requirements apply to them.  This has become even more pronounced with the recent explosion of properties owned by lenders and HUD.  Despite the arguments by the lender, the obligations under the condominium act apply equally to them.  Lenders and HUD are not exempt from providing purchasers of homes in common interest communities the resale disclosure certificate. 

 In situations of a resale of a home in a CIC (common interest community) which would include most condominiums and townhomes, the owner is required to make a request on the community association or its property management company for the resale disclosure certificate, and the owner is required to provide the resale disclosure certificate to the buyer prior to closing.  The contents of the resale disclosure certificate are found in the Minnesota Common Interest Ownership Act (MCIOA).  The association may charge a “reasonable fee” for preparing the certificate and providing any association documents related to that disclosure.  Those association documents include the Declaration, the Articles of Incorporation, the By-Laws, the Rules and Regulations (if any), any Amendments to those documents, and certain financial documents of the association. 

 There is not an exemption under the statute for a lender or HUD to this requirement.  A frequent argument by lender is they are selling the property “as is”, and, therefore, are not making a disclosure.  However, an “as is” sale is not exempt to the obligation to provide a resale disclosure certificate.   

The lender’s refusal to provide the certificate becomes a problem for the listing agent.  If the owner/lender is refusing to provide or pay for the preparation of a resale disclosure certificate, the listing agent needs to make sure that all potential buyers and their agents are aware of the fact that a certificate will not be forthcoming.  Buyer’s agents involved in these transactions, if not having received a resale disclosure certificate, should immediately inquire of the listing agent.  To the extent that the certificate is not provided, the buyer’s agent needs to make clear to the buyer that they will not be receiving a certificate. 

Potential buyers may not know what a resale disclosure certificate is and all the information that is contained in that form.  It is critical that the agent inform the buyer of what is in the form and what information they will not be getting.  If the buyer still wishes to proceed forward, they must understand they are doing so without critical information which would assist them in making decisions to purchase the property.  This information may include information about assessments owed on the property, litigation that the association may be a party to, defects that may exist with the property, and rental or pet restrictions.  These are important facts that the buyer should know prior to making decisions to purchase.

The statute does provide that the purchaser may rescind the transaction to the extent that they do not receive the resale disclosure certificate and the association documents before closing.  However, once the transaction closes, the purchaser will not be able to seek rescission because of the absence of the certificate.  However, to the extent that the buyer was unaware of the existence of the certificate, they are not without remedy.  They can pursue the real estate agents and the seller for not providing the certificate to the extent that the information, if included in the certificate, would have advised the buyer of potential issues with the association which are leading to monetary damages to this new buyer.  In other words, if the buyer closes and discovers that there is a large assessment or that he cannot use the unit in the manner in which he intended, he may have suffered damage for which he can seek recovery.  To the extent that the certificate was not provided by the seller and neither the listing agent nor buyer’s agent advised the buyer of the absence of this form, that buyer may have a cause of action against the real estate agents for negligence and potentially against the seller for violation of the statute and non-disclosure of material fact.

 Therefore, it is critical for real estate agents, whether they are the listing agent or the buyer’s agent, to emphasize the need for the resale disclosure certificate even with a reluctant seller.  These documents are important to the buyer but they also provide a certain level of protection to the real estate agents because they are an additional disclosure of material facts which could affect the buyer’s use or enjoyment of the property.

David McGee’s practice is based in the litigation section at Thomsen & Nybeck, P.A.  Dave brings his 20 plus years of experience representing Community Associations in construction defects and insurance disputes.  Dave has recovered millions for Associations in disputes with developers, contractors and insurance companies, and heads up the firm’s “Property Insurance Claims” Group.  Dave has been named a “Top Lawyer” by Minnesota Law & Politics and Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine for a number of years.  Dave has represented clients in numerous appellate cases including Chapman Place Ass’n, Inc. v. Prokasky, 507 N.W.2d 858 (Minn. Ct. App. 1993); Ly v. Nystrom, 615 N.W.2d 302 (Minn. 2000); and Peggy Rose Revocable Trust v. Eppich, 640 N.W.2d 601 (Minn. 2002).  Dave represents clients in arbitrations, mediations, court actions, trials, and appellate work.  Dave is a frequent lecturer and has written numerous articles in the area of Insurance, Construction, and Real Estate Law.  He is also a qualified neutral under Rule 114 of the Minnesota General Rules of Practice (mediation and arbitration).

GETTING PAID AT CLOSING WITHOUT A RESALE DISCLOSURE CERTIFICATE

16 Feb

            While MCIOA provides for a perfected and secured lien without the necessity of filing a physical lien statement with the county recorder or registrar of titles, and even provides for the six-month “super lien” following foreclosure of a first mortgage, the statute also provides for priority of a first mortgage over the Association’s lien. So, if a property is sold without a Resale Disclosure Certificate being requested, and a new first mortgage is recorded against the property, the new mortgage will have priority over the Association’s lien whether said lien was for amounts due for several years or, just the MCIOA-super lien amounts.

            Our office is seeing a significant increase in re-sales without Resale Disclosure Certificates being requested from the Association. Several months later a new owner is startled to find out there is an unpaid lien against the property. However, if a new first mortgage has been recorded, and, the first mortgage equals or exceeds the value of the property, the value of that Association lien is significantly diminished, if not worthless as a collection tool.

            To avoid this result, file a physical lien statement with the appropriate county index. I have yet to meet a lender who funds a loan without requiring the release of a filed lien statement against the property (not extinguished through mortgage foreclosure). 

            Thomsen & Nybeck can assist you in this regard and strongly advises spending the money to secure an Association in light of the growing trend to re-sell property without obtaining or providing a Resale Disclosure Certificate, especially re-sales by foreclosing mortgage and/or HUD. 

          Entry byGretchen Schellhas.  Gretchen is a shareholder at Thomsen & Nybeck, P.A. and Chief Executive Officer of the firm.  She practices primarily in the areas of real estate, collections, community association law and family law.

Minnesota Court of Appeals Sides with Homeowners Associations Terminating Contracts

2 Feb

In a decision rendered January 30, 2012, the Minnesota Court of Appeals examined Minn. Stat. § 515.B.3-105(a)(iii) of the Minnesota Common Interest Ownership Act (MCIOA).  This statute allows certain contracts to be terminated by the association without penalty, including contracts to which a declarant (the developer) bound the association.  The intent of the statute is to avoid a situation where a unit owner-controlled association becomes subject to unfavorable contracts that were entered into during the time that the declarant controlled the association, but which the unit owners hadn’t agreed to as they weren’t yet in control of the association.  In the case that the court examined, an association was obligated on a service contract that the declarant (the developer) of the association had entered into prior to homeowner control.  The association asserted its right to cancel the service contract under the statute.  The company providing those services objected arguing that the association could not terminate the contract because the declarant wasn’t still a party at the time the association sought termination.  The Court of Appeals, however, sided with the association finding that it was sufficient that the declarant at one point had been a party to the contract during the period of declarant control and then had the association assume that obligation.  The name of the court case is Energy Center, LLC v. The Falls and Pinnacle Owners’ Association, number 27-CV-09-26427 (Minn.Ct. Ap. Jan. 30, 2012); the decision is an unpublished decision from the court.

This blog entry is written by Chris Renz, a shareholder at Thomsen Nybeck. Chris practices in the litigation area of the firm with primary focus on real estate litigation, employment litigation, townhome and condominium law, and criminal law, particularly as the prosecutor for the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

Attorney’s Fees Arrangements In Construction Defect Litigation

3 Jan

Aside from taxes and death, paying the attorney may be the most disliked activity an Association Board undertakes.  But, like seeing a doctor to treat an ailment, attorneys are necessary in many cases for an Association to meet its goals of recovering money in construction defect cases.  How the Association pays the attorney in construction defect cases (this would also include cases against remodeling contractors) can be broken down into three general types of fee arrangements. 

The first and the most longstanding arrangement is the hourly fee arrangement.  In this arrangement, the Association is billed typically on a monthly basis for the actual hours spent by the attorney (including costs advanced by the attorney) in pursuit of the matter.  The Association pays as it goes, and when a recovery is made, the Association receives 100 percent of the recovery (assuming they paid their bills).

The second arrangement, which is suddenly popular, is the contingency fee arrangement.  The attorney is paid a percentage of any recovery that is made in the litigation.  Therefore, a 33 percent contingency fee arrangement means that the attorney is paid one-third (1/3) of any money that is recovered in the litigation and the Association receives two-thirds (2/3) of the money (minus any costs advanced by the law firm in the case).

The last arrangement is the flat fee arrangement.  This is not as popular as the previous two and sometimes is mixed with an hourly fee arrangement.  For example, the attorney may charge a flat fee to take the matter up to mediation and charge an hourly rate going through to trial.

The question most Associations have is which fee arrangement is the best?  As is expected when a lawyer is writing an article, the answer is “it depends.”  There are two primary goals the Association Board should seek to achieve in any fee arrangement.  First, to recover as much money as the Association needs to repair the conditions that exist at the Association after considering all the risks.  Second, that the Board be cognizant of its fiduciary obligations to the members to protect the Association’s finances and to keep as much money for the Association while advancing the first goal.

The contingency fee arrangement sounds attractive to some Boards because there is no monetary payment made as the litigation proceeds.  However, with contingency fee arrangements, the percentage amount paid to the attorney at the conclusion of the case may be much greater than the Association would have spent if it would have paid the attorney on an hourly basis.  For example, let’s assume that the Association has a $600,000 roof defect claim (cost of repair based on expert’s estimate) and has entered into a 33 percent contingency fee arrangement with a law firm.  Let’s assume further that the Association engages in mediation and based upon an evaluation of the risks and benefits and proceeding forward decides to resolve the matter for a $450,000 settlement at the mediation.  In this example, the law firm receives $150,000 in fees plus reimbursement for any costs that they advanced in the litigation (expert fees, filing fees, depositions, etc.).  For this example, let’s say that amount is $10,000.  This leaves the Association with $290,000 ($450,000 – $150,000 – $10,000 = $290,000) to fund a $600,000 repair.

The chief complaint with contingency fee arrangements is that the percentage taken by the law firm (one-third in my example) may not be based or related to actual time spent by the law firm for the work on the matter.  The law firm gets a windfall (they recover more money than they would have had the Association paid on an hourly basis).  This money is, therefore, not available for the Association to fully fund the repair.

The chief benefits of the contingency fee arrangement are the Association does not need to pay money on a monthly basis and if the Association’s claims get dismissed, the Association is not out any money in attorney’s fees (except the Association would still be liable for those costs advanced by the law firm).  In theory these benefits appear sound and advantageous to the Association. However, the Association needs to consider that most attorneys that are proceeding on a contingency fee basis have evaluated the case and generally do not take cases where the risk of getting nothing is present 

The concerns with the hourly fee arrangement are fairly obvious.  The Association may put money into a litigation and not recover enough to merit proceeding with the litigation (the money spent on the litigation surpasses the amount being recovered), or if the Association’s case is dismissed by the Court, the Association will have spent money on attorney’s fees which are not recoverable and a significant loss to the Association.  However, if the case is evaluated correctly and the risk of a zero recovery is not present the hourly fee arrangement is far more likely to net the Association more money as there is no windfall to the law firm. The law firm is compensated for the work they actually did.  This typically leaves the Association with more money to use towards the repairs.

This same concern with contingency fee arrangements can be seen in the flat fee arrangement.  There is one thing that can be said of lawyers, they do not suffer from a lack of concern for money.  The flat fee arrangement usually has a built in cushion for the attorney so they are not left working for free.  The flat fee arrangement, however, does help the Board in its budgeting so the Association knows exactly how much it is going to spend on the litigation. But like the contingency fee, the Association potentially pays the law firm more money then they actually earned.

As can be seen, there are benefits and risks to any fee arrangement.  It is critical that the Board consider all options and work with the lawyers to arrive at a fee arrangement which satisfies the two primary goals of recovering and keeping the most money to repair the conditions.

This post was authored by David J. McGee. David McGee’s practice is based in the litigation section at Thomsen & Nybeck, P.A.  Dave brings his 20 plus years of experience representing Community Associations in construction defects and insurance disputes.  Dave has recovered millions for Associations in disputes with developers, contractors and insurance companies, and heads up the firm’s “Property Insurance Claims” Group.  Dave has been named a “Top Lawyer” by Minnesota Law & Politics and Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine for a number of years.  Dave has represented clients in numerous appellate cases including Chapman Place Ass’n, Inc. v. Prokasky, 507 N.W.2d 858 (Minn. Ct. App. 1993); Ly v. Nystrom, 615 N.W.2d 302 (Minn. 2000); and Peggy Rose Revocable Trust v. Eppich, 640 N.W.2d 601 (Minn. 2002).  Dave represents clients in arbitrations, mediations, court actions, trials, and appellate work.  Dave is a frequent lecturer and has written numerous articles in the area of Insurance, Construction, and Real Estate Law.  He is also a qualified neutral under Rule 114 of the Minnesota General Rules of Practice (mediation and arbitration).

Ice Dams: Answers to Five Frequently Asked Questions

20 Dec

Ice dams are all too common during Minnesota winters. They may happen for a number of reasons, and there are debates about whether they should happen at all. When they occur, arguments frequently arise about how to take care of the problem. In common interest communities this also leads to disputes about who is responsible to perform the repair work and, more importantly, who should have to pay for it. Sadly, winter again is approaching, and for many, ice dams will follow. This article will review the causes of ice damming, the various parties who may have responsibility to pay for repairing the damage, and who might have the responsibility to correct the problem.

What Are Ice Dams?

Ice dams are characterized by a buildup of ice at the edge of a roof. They occur when snow accumulates on a roof and the surface of the roof is heated sufficiently to melt the snow, while the eaves (the portions of the roof more exposed to the elements) remain below freezing due to cooler outside temperatures. Icicles may form as a result of ice dams, but the presence of icicles does not necessarily signal the presence of ice dams. That said, it’s better to be safe than sorry, and if you’re in doubt you should react as though you have ice dams until you receive a credible confirmation that ice dams are not present.

What Causes Ice Dams and How Do They Cause Damage?

Sunny winter days, which are common in Minnesota, frequently contribute to ice dams. What many people don’t realize is that one or more other factors usually cause the ice dam. Some builders or their representatives will contribute to the confusion about the nature or cause of ice dams by attempting to excuse their presence. They may assure homeowners that ice dams are normal and unpreventable, or that the problem is caused by the homeowner’s or the association’s failure to maintain its roofs properly, or instead that the problem has arisen due to abnormal or extreme weather conditions that could not have been foreseen. In fact, ice dams should not occur and in most cases are preventable, though fault and financial responsibility may present some thorny issues.

The two most common causes for ice dams are found inside the structure. The first cause is “bypass air” from the dwelling that enters the attic, and the other is inadequate ventilation inside the attic space. In some ways the direction a building faces may contribute to the problem, as can certain architectural styles or features, but at least one of the two issues listed above are usually involved when an ice dam forms.

The term “bypass air” refers to warm air from the dwelling that finds its way into the attic and, during the winter, can start to warm the underside of the roof. This warm air may actually leak through light fixtures or other openings between the dwelling and the attic, or it can result from insufficient insulation in the attic, allowing ambient heat from the unit to rise into the attic. It is also possible that air ducts or other ventilation systems may leak or radiate heat into the attic. Service providers exist who can perform a “blower door” test that determines whether there is excessive air escaping from the living area into the attic space of a structure. Some even work through government-subsidized programs to make their services more affordable.

A ventilation issue arises when air flow in the attic itself is inadequate. Roofing systems are designed with vents near the peak and vents in the soffits. The soffit is the horizontal surface, usually made of painted metal, that you see when you look up at the underside of the eave of your roof. These vents exist to permit air to rise up through the soffit, flow along the underside of the roof deck, and escape out the vents near the roof peak. When this air flow occurs uninterrupted, the surface of the roof is more likely to say a relatively uniform temperature from top to bottom, limiting if not eliminating the temperature variations that can cause the upper areas of the roof to be warm while the lower areas of the roof remain cold (the cause of ice dams). If insulation blocks this ventilation because it is filled or packed against the underside of the roof, inconsistent roof temperatures characterized by warm upper roofs and cold lower roofs (the cause of ice dams) can result. Ironically, insulation intended to limit the amount of bypass air in the attic can cause ice dams by blocking needed ventilation.

Of course, water leaks need not occur just because there are ice dams. Proper roofing techniques can help protect against water damage even where ice dams might form. This primarily means proper installation of an “ice/water shield” a sufficient distance up the roof, and also protecting the bottom edge of the roof, where it meets the fascia. Ice/water shield can protect the roof edge, but some contractors will install a metal “drip edge” at this location to protect against voids between the roof deck and fascia where water can enter. Gaps or openings that allow water to enter when it backs up under the shingles should not exist at or near roof edges. Consider also that just because you haven’t seen water inside your home does not mean that water has not entered the structure. Water reaching the inside of a building violates building code and constitutes a major structural defect whether it enters the dwelling space or not.

How Should You Respond if You See Ice Dams?

If you see ice dams on your home or in your community, ensure the association’s board of directors and the property manager, if any, know about the ice dams and any resulting leaks. Provide the notice in writing as quickly as possible. The association and any affected unit owners should then cooperate for the purpose of making an inspection of the roof and attic —and the unit, if necessary— to investigate the cause of the ice dams and any damage arising from them.

If your community is less than 10 years old when you first notice the ice dams (or if the ice dams occur within 10 years of a renovation to the building) you should also provide written notice to the developer, builder or contractor, as applicable. Do this immediately. Failure to provide timely notice is just one of a number of pitfalls that await you if you hope to recover from those who might be responsible for any defects causing your ice dams. Keep in mind also that, to avoid an argument of spoliation (or destruction of evidence), you should be prepared to allow the builder or contractor to investigate the cause and effect of your ice dam problem. It would be wise to seek the assistance of an attorney familiar with these issues before potentially taking an action that compromises your ability to obtain a repair or recovery for your problem.

Whose Job Is it to Fix This?
Deciding who will be responsible to take steps to stop an ice damming problem becomes a challenging question. Conditions inside the structure usually cause the ice dams, but inside the structure does not necessarily mean inside an owner’s unit. The party responsible to perform the work may depend on the type of association involved (condominium or townhome). Moreover, both interior and exterior conditions may contribute to cause damage, and repairs may be necessary in both locations to prevent further problems.

A. Exterior.
The short term solution might be the easiest to identify. The association usually has the responsibility to maintain common elements and building exteriors. Frequently, this means the association should remove snow and ice from the roofs until a more permanent solution can be implemented. While it is a temporary solution to remove snow from the roof or to melt a channel in an ice dam, this should not be a permanent solution. Raking, shoveling, or even sweeping snow off of roofs, and especially efforts to chip ice away, are likely to damage the roof and should not be necessary if the roof system is performing properly. Moreover, depending upon the severity of the winter, clearing snow and ice from your roofs can quickly sap an association’s resources.

The association should examine the roof and fascia where an ice dam has formed to determine whether roofing materials were properly installed. If corrections are necessary to the shingles, underlayment, ice/water shield, or if a drip edge must be installed, the association should take steps to address these areas.

B. Interior.
A unit owner’s responsibility for making interior repairs or alterations to eliminate ice dams may depend on the type of community involved. In a condominium, unless the declaration states otherwise, the common elements include all portions of the association not contained within the unfinished interior surface of the owners’ units. This means the attics usually are part of the common elements. As such, the association will in most cases have the responsibility to maintain not only the roofs of a condominium, but also the attics. The association should, in such cases, evaluate and address any bypass air or ventilation issues.

In a townhome association, the attics usually are part of the unit. This means if a unit owner observes that he or she has ice dams, that owner may need to conduct his or her own investigation into any possible internal issues that are causing ice dams. If multiple owners have the same problems, however, it may be best to pursue the investigation and any alterations jointly, or with the association managing the process. This will maximize efficiency and perhaps lower the overall cost of the work. In addition, the association may have an interest in doing this work or ensuring that the alterations are consistent throughout all units because the building exterior will be affected if the ice dams return.

Who Gets the Bill?
Ice dams may generate several costs. First, there is the short-term need to remove the snow and ice that creates the ice dam itself, as well as the water that pools behind it. Longer term, the cause must be investigated. If leaks have occurred, the roof should be evaluated. Then there are the repairs that are necessary in light of this investigation. What follows are some thoughts about where to look for the money to pay for these things.

A. Insurance.
If an ice dam causes damage to the interior of a structure, this often will constitute an insured loss. Pursuant to most applicable policies, and certainly under Chapter 515B of Minnesota Statutes (also known as the Minnesota Common Interest Ownership Act, or MCIOA), the association’s insurance policy is to provide primary coverage for the loss. However, the association usually is entitled to allocate the deductible under its own policy against the owners whose units are involved in the claim or whose actions or inactions resulted in the loss. Ideally, owners will have HOA policies in place with loss assessment coverage, which will cover the association’s deductible if necessary. There may be reasons not to submit an insurance claim, however, such as avoiding an increase in insurance rates, or because the association intends to pursue the builder or contractor who is responsible for the conditions causing the ice dams.

B. Builder or Contractor.
If ice dams exist in a newer association, or if they began shortly after recent renovations or a re-roofing project, it is quite possible they’re a result of defective construction practices, and an express or implied warranty may cover the condition. As mentioned above, providing written notice to the builder and any applicable subcontractors is one step in preserving the right to obtain a recovery for the defect. However, there are several statutes of limitations that apply to claims for defective construction and breach of warranty. In addition, depending on the nature of your claims or the provisions of applicable purchase documents and governing documents, you may have to navigate potential restrictions or limitations on your ability to pursue a recovery. If you have any doubt whether you have a right to pursue a claim for recovery from your association’s builder or from your contractor, you should still pursue a full evaluation of the situation. Options may still exist even if you did not provide prompt written notice, or if the contractor has gone out of business or filed for bankruptcy, so you should never assume you have no chance at recovery. Of course, the earlier you pursue a complete evaluation, the better.

C. Common Expense: Shared vs. Allocated.
If insurance coverage is unavailable for performing necessary alterations or to correct deficiencies in the roof system, and recovery from the applicable builder is unavailable or unsuccessful, the association and the affected unit owner(s) must explore the proper solution. Associations may, and often do, choose to treat exterior work such as removing snow and ice, investigating the cause and fixing roofing issues, as a common expense borne equally by all owners. Note however, that if the association is governed by MCIOA, it is authorized by statute to allocate the cost of any work to fewer than all the units if only those units are benefitted by the work, as long as this is not prohibited by the declaration. Also, unless the association’s declaration requires otherwise, MCIOA associations that are performing work on limited common elements must allocate the cost of work on such areas to the unit(s) to which the limited common element is allocated. Note that, depending on your association’s declaration, limited common elements may include attics and/or roofs, meaning the cost of all necessary work might be allocated back to the benefited unit owner(s) if the association has reacted reasonably upon receiving notice of the problem.

This does not mean the association may pass along to owners the cost of obtaining an opinion regarding the association’s obligations, and the proper characterization of the area to be addressed (e.g., limited common element, common element, or a portion of a unit). This is not generally a cost directly attributable to maintenance, repair or replacement, and in most cases will not reasonably be considered a cost of enforcing the governing documents. There is no “one size fits all” approach, but this usually is a cost the association must bear as a common expense. Furthermore, if a party receives notice that snow on the roofs is turning into ice dams, that party risks liability for problems that it should have taken steps to avoid, but didn’t. For this reason, the association and its owners should cooperate as much as possible in diagnosing and eliminating the cause of ice dams, keeping in mind that both have something to lose if the problem is not promptly and permanently resolved.

Matt Drewes contributed this post, which is taken from an article appearing in the September/October issue of Minnesota Community Living magazine.  Matt is a Shareholder with Thomsen Nybeck.  He is the head of the firm’s nine-member Community Association Representation Group and the firm’s Creditors’ Remedies Group. and practices in the areas of business and real estate litigation and transactions, employment law, construction litigation, community association law, debtor/creditor law and insurance.  He has been included in Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine’s list of Rising Stars for several years, and has been quoted on issues involving construction litigation, community associations and real property issues in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Lawyer, Habitat Magazine, Minnesota Community Living Magazine, Yahoo!Finance.com, MSN.com, Bankrate.com, and elsewhere.  He can be reached at mdrewes@tn-law.com or by phone at 952.835.7000.

Minnesota Supreme Court Reverses Court of Appeals; Gives Advice On How to Preserve Claims and Avoid Spoliation (An Update on Miller v. Lankow)

4 Aug

On February 25, 2010, I first wrote about the case of Miller v. Lankow.  At the time, I explained why the Minnesota Court of Court of Appeals’ decision that upheld the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s case seemed extreme and inconsistent with existing law.  (Read that post here).  The Minnesota Supreme Court apparently agreed, and on August 3, 2011 it reversed the dismissal and sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings.  (Read the Minnesota Supreme Court’s Opinion here).

Without going into too much detail, the facts of the case involve a property owner who discovered water intrusion problems, which the seller claimed to have fixed, were still causing problems and resulted in mold and other damage.  The buyer provided notice to the seller and the contractors who were involved that he had discovered these defects and that he would pursue legal action if the parties did not reach a resolution.  Several parties attended an inspection at the property where they had the opportunity to view some of the damage.   The contractors and former owners knew they might be sued, but they did not request the ability to conduct further investigation into the cause or extent of the damage.  The owner later repaired the damage without telling the defendants exactly when he planned to start.

After the owner sued the property sellers and contractors for construction defects, water intrusion, fraud and a seller’s failure to disclose defects, the defendants claimed they were not given a sufficient opportunity to inspect the cause and extent of the damage.  They asked the district court to exclude the evidence the plaintiff gathered because they claimed they did not have a similar opportunity to review the same evidence before it was removed and destroyed.  The district court agreed, ordering that the plaintiff may not use any evidence of the defects and damage that the defendants did not see, which was a sanction for “spoliation” (i.e., destroying evidence).  Without this evidence, the plaintiff had no case, and the district court concluded that the case must be dismissed.  The plaintiff appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which held that the district court had not abused its discretion by sanctioning the plaintiff and dismissing the case.

The concern the Court of Appeals’ decision raised for me was the notion that, even if the defendants have notice of the claim of damage and the potential for litigation, the plaintiff might still have to wait to make repairs to his home while the defendants seemed to be in no particular hurry to investigate the claims against them.  Sometimes, particularly where water intrusion is at issue, prompt repairs are necessary to avoid further property damage and even personal injury.

The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed that legitimate concerns about destroying evidence before others have had a chance to inspect it must be weighed against the reasonableness of asking the party in control of the evidence to maintain it.  The Supreme Court held that, as has always been the case, the party with custody of evidence has a “duty” to preserve relevant evidence to permit other parties to inspect the evidence for use in litigation.  It also remains true that  party who breaches this duty may be sanctioned for spoliation, whether or not the breach was committed intentionally or in bad faith.

But a custodial party’s duty to preserve evidence is not boundless.

*     *     *

[T]he duty to preserve evidence must be tempered by allowing custodial parties to dispose of or remediate evidence when the situation reasonably requires it.

The Court identified a three-factor test for evaluating a case of spoliation:

“(1) the degree of fault of the party who altered or destroyed the evidence; (2) the degree of prejudice suffered by the opposing party; and (3) whether there is a lesser sanction that will avoid substantial unfairness to the opposing party and, where the offending party is seriously at fault, will serve to deter such conduct by others in the future.”

(citing Schmid v. Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp., 13 F.3d 76, 79 (3d Cir. 1994)).  “[S]anctions are not appropriate when the custodial party has a legitimate need to destroy evidence, and it appears from the totality of the circumstances that noncustodial parties have received sufficient notice to protect themselves by taking steps to inspect or preserve the evidence and nevertheless do nothing.”

The Court went on to offer recommendations to avoid a sanction for spoliation.  Ideally, an owner will call a meeting or send a letter “indicating the time and nature of any action likely to lead to destruction of the evidence, and offering a full and fair opportunity to inspect.”  Obviously, any notice of the meeting or of an offer to inspect should be in writing.

People might be amazed to realize that this issue is just one hurdle to sustaining a successful case for construction defects.  There also are notice requirements under certain statutory warranties (as well as other requirements to satisfy prior to commencing suit), as well as statutes of limitation which differ from claim to claim and the little-known statute of repose.  There also are agreements by which a party may have reduced the time during which it has to raise a claim for construction defects.  To help navigate the issues that exist, parties should consult with an attorney knowledgeable in the area of construction and construction defects.  At Thomsen Nybeck, we know these issues, and we can help.  Find out more at www.tn-law.com or call us at 952.835.7000.

Entry by Matt Drewes.  Matt Drewes is a Shareholder with Thomsen Nybeck.  He is the head of the firm’s nine-member Community Association Representation Group and co-leads the firm’s construction litigation group.  Matt practices in the areas of business and real estate litigation, construction litigation, community association law, debtor/creditor law, insurance and employment.  He has been quoted in articles appearing in the Minneapolis StarTribune, Minnesota Lawyer, and on websites such as Yahoo!Finance.com, Bankrate.com and HOALeader.com, and has been included in Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine’s list of Rising Stars for several years.  He can be reached at mdrewes@tn-law.com.

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