Caveat Emptor: “All Houses Wherein Men Have Lived and Died Are Haunted Houses.”

person in exercise clothing looking through magnifying glass at damage in home. Illustrating article by Richard A. Klass about Caveat Emptor

The buyer of a Brooklyn building sued the seller for fraud and breach of contract after the closing of title. The buyer made several claims against the seller, including that the roof was leaking, it wasn’t new, and the construction and renovations performed on the building were shoddy and done only to quickly “flip” the property. The buyer also claimed that the tenant’s signed estoppel certificate was false. The buyer’s attorney claimed that no ordinary amount of due diligence would have revealed that the roof was leaking; only destructive testing done prior to closing would have shown water intrusion or mold. The seller’s position was that any alleged defects in connection with the sale of the building could have been raised before the closing of title. Once the closing took place, any alleged defects were waived; the representations in the contract of sale merged with the transfer of title.

Disclaimers in the Contract of Sale

In the contract of sale between the seller and buyer, there were numerous clauses that contained specific disclaimers.[1] Among these disclaimers was the following one (which is fairly typical in real estate contracts):

The Purchaser acknowledges that they have physically inspected the Premises prior to signing this Contract and are aware of the physical condition of the Premises and agree to take the Premises in “AS IS CONDITION” in its present physical condition. Purchaser acknowledges that the Seller has made no representation or warranties and concerning the physical condition of the Premises other than those that are specifically set forth herein.

Doctrine of Caveat Emptor – Buyer Beware!

The seller retained Richard A. Klass, Esq., Your Court Street Lawyer, to defend the lawsuit brought by the buyer. A motion to dismiss the case was filed based on several legal arguments, first and foremost being the defense of caveat emptor (meaning that the buyer was responsible for checking the quality of his purchase).

New York adheres to the caveat emptor doctrine and imposes no duty on the seller to disclose any information concerning the premises when the parties deal at arm’s length, unless there is some conduct on the part of the seller which constitutes active concealment. Platzman v. Morris, 283 AD2d 561 [2 Dept. 2001]. As held by the Second Department in London v. Courduff, 141 AD2d 803 [2d Dept. 1988], “The buyer has the duty to satisfy himself as to the quality of his bargain pursuant to the doctrine of caveat emptor, which in New York State still applies to real estate transactions.”

As held in Simone v Homecheck Real Estate Services, Inc., 42 AD3d 518, 521 [2d Dept 2007], “Where the contract specifically disclaims the existence of warranties or representations, a cause of action alleging breach of contract based on such a warranty or representation cannot be maintained (see Bedowitz v Farrell Dev. Co., 289 AD2d 432 [2001]). Here, the contract of sale specifically provided that the premises had been inspected by the buyer and was being sold ‘as is’ without warranty as to condition, express or implied. Furthermore, a specific merger clause is contained in the rider to the contract and precludes the buyer from claiming that he relied on any of the sellers’ alleged misrepresentations (see London v Courduff, supra). In addition, because title to the property had closed and the deed was delivered, the doctrine of merger extinguished any claim the buyer may have had regarding the contract of sale (see Ka Foon Lo v Curis, 29 AD3d 525 [2006]). Hence, the cause of action to recover for breach of contract cannot be maintained and should have been dismissed pursuant to CPLR 3211 (a) (7).”

Where the contract of sale, as in this case, contains a provision that the plaintiff is fully aware of the condition of the premises based upon his own inspection and is not relying upon any representations of the seller, any subsequent action for fraud is barred. Daly v. Kochanowicz, 67 AD3d 78 [2 Dept. 2009]; Platzman v. Morris, 283 AD2d 561, 563 [2 Dept. 2001] (“Since the contract contained a provision that the plaintiffs were fully aware of the condition of the premises based upon their own inspection and investigation, and not based upon any information or representations, written or oral, made by the sellers, the plaintiffs cannot claim fraud.”).

No ‘latent defect’ exception to the merger doctrine

The buyer argued in opposition to the motion that the merger doctrine did not apply to latent defects (which may only be discovered after occupancy of the premises). He incorrectly cited Fehling v Wicks, 179 Misc 2d 1041 [App Term 1999] as being a decision from the Second Department. It is actually a decision of the Appellate Term, Second Department. More importantly, the Fehling v Wicks decision has been rejected by the Appellate Divisions.

In Arnold v Wilkins, 61 AD3d 1236, 1237 [3d Dept 2009], the court held: “Plaintiffs alternatively contend that the merger doctrine does not apply here because the faulty sewage system was a ‘latent defect.’ In support, they rely on Fehling v. Wicks, 179 Misc.2d 1041, 687 N.Y.S.2d 868 [1999] for the proposition that ‘where the purchaser discovers latent defects which are discoverable only after the purchaser occupies the premises,’ the merger doctrine is inapplicable (id. at 1042, 687 N.Y.S.2d 868). Importantly, however, the purported ‘latent defect’ exception to the merger doctrine has not been adopted by the Appellate Divisions or the Court of Appeals in these circumstances.”

In TIAA Glob. Investments, LLC v One Astoria Sq. LLC, 127 AD3d 75, 85 [1st Dept 2015], the court held (emphasis added):

The merger doctrine in a real estate transaction provides that once the deed is delivered, its terms are all that survive and the purchaser is barred from prosecuting any claims arising out of the contract (Ka Foon Lo v. Curis, 29 A.D.3d 525, 526, 815 N.Y.S.2d 131 [2d Dept.2006] ). The only exception to this rule is where the parties clearly intended that the particular provision of the contract supporting the claim would survive the delivery of the deed (id.). Further, an “as is” clause in a contract to sell real property will ordinarily bar a claim for breach of contract (see Board of Mgrs. of the Chelsea 19 Condominium v. Chelsea 19 Assoc., 73 A.D.3d 581, 581, 905 N.Y.S.2d 8 [1st Dept.2010] ). Plaintiff argues that the merger doctrine does not apply here because of the latent nature of the defects at issue. It further contends that its allegations of deceptive behavior on Seller’s part to mask the true condition of the building render the “as is” clause inoperable.

Although plaintiff cites trial court opinions identifying a latency exception to the merger doctrine, the concept has not been adopted by any of the Appellate Divisions or by the Court of Appeals (see Arnold v. Wilkins, 61 A.D.3d 1236, 1237, 876 N.Y.S.2d 780 [3d Dept.2009]), and we are not adopting it here.

It was urged that the seller was bound to the decisions of the Appellate Divisions, as the Second Department has not opined on the issue yet. See, Summit Const. Services Group, Inc. v Act Abatement, LLC, 34 Misc 3d 823, 831 [Sup Ct 2011] (“The general rule is that trial courts must follow applicable decisions of the Appellate Division in their Department. If there is no decision from the Appellate Division in the Department in which the trial court is located, the trial court must follow the decision of another Department. This is because the Appellate Division is a single statewide court divided into departments for administrative convenience.”)

Seller did not engage in active concealment

The buyer’s attorney also argued that there was active concealment of defects by the seller. The complaint failed to make any allegation that the buyer was somehow thwarted by the seller from conducting any inspections or due diligence which could have discovered the purported defects. It was necessary for the buyer to allege material facts as essential allegations that the seller thwarted any efforts on his part to perform his due diligence. See, Jablonski v Rapalje, 14 AD3d 484, 485 [2d Dept 2005] (“To maintain a cause of action to recover damages for active concealment, the plaintiff must show, in effect, that the seller or the seller’s agents thwarted the plaintiff’s efforts to fulfill his responsibilities fixed by the doctrine of caveat emptor.”)

In Laxer v Edelman, 75 AD3d 584, 586 [2d Dept 2010], the Second Department held:

New York adheres to the doctrine of caveat emptor and imposes no liability on a seller [or the seller’s agent] for failing to disclose information regarding the premises when the parties deal at arm’s length, unless there is some conduct on the part of the seller[‘s agent] which constitutes active concealment” of a defective condition (Simone v Homecheck Real Estate Servs., Inc., 42 AD3d 518, 520 [2007]; see Daly v Kochanowicz, 67 AD3d 78, 87 [2009]; cf. Real Property Law §§ 462, 465). Moreover, even proof of active concealment will not suffice when the plaintiff should have known of the defect (see Richardson v United Funding, Inc., 16 AD3d 570, 571 [2005]). A plaintiff seeking to recover damages for active concealment must show that the defendant “thwarted” the plaintiff’s efforts to fulfill his or her responsibilities imposed by the doctrine of caveat emptor (Kerusa Co. LLC v W10Z/515 Real Estate Ltd. Partnership, 12 NY3d 236, 245 [2009] [internal quotation marks omitted]; see Rozen v 7 Calf Cr., LLC, 52 AD3d 590, 593 [2008]).

Based on the arguments presented, the judge granted the motion to dismiss. The judge held that the “defendants have established that the merger doctrine bars any claims arising out of the contract, requiring dismissal of the plaintiff’s cause of action for breach of contract. In a real estate transaction, the merger doctrine provides that, once title to the property closed and the deed was delivered, any claims that the plaintiff might have had arising from the contract of sale were extinguished.”


End Notes

[1] Section 11(c) stated: Except as otherwise expressly set forth in this contract, none of Seller’s covenants, representations, warranties or other obligations contained in this contract shall survive Closing.

Section 12 stated: Condition of Property. Purchaser acknowledges and represents that Purchaser is fully aware of the physical condition and state of repair of the Premises and of all property included in this sale, based on Purchaser’s own inspection and investigation and not upon any information, data, statements or representations, written or oral, as to the physical condition, state of repair, use, cost or operation or any other matter related to the Premises or the other property included in the sale, given or made by Seller or its representatives, and shall accept the same “as is” except as set forth herein in their present condition and state of repair; subject to reasonable use, wear, tear and natural deterioration between the date hereof and the date of Closing (except as otherwise set forth in paragraph 16(f), without any reduction in the purchase price or claim of any kind for any change in such condition by reason thereof subsequent to the date of this contract. Purchaser and its authorized representatives shall have the right, at reasonable times and upon reasonable notice (by telephone or otherwise) to Seller, to inspect the Premises before Closing.

Section 28 stated: Miscellaneous. (a) All prior understandings, agreements, representations and warranties, oral or written, between Seller and Purchaser are merged in this contract; it completely expresses their full agreement and has been entered into after full investigation, neither party relying upon any statement made by anyone else that is not set forth in this contract.

Rider at Section 12 stated: Tenancies. The purchaser herein agrees to take title to the Premises, SUBJECT TO the following tenancies: NONE. PURCHASER SHALL RECEIVE A CREDIT OF $5,000 FROM SELLER FOR THE LOWER RENT AMOUNTS & SECURITY DEPOSITS.

Rider at Section 15 stated: No representations by Seller. Seller makes no warranties or representations concerning the physical condition, work repairs, renovations, or improvements, if any, income, expenses for operation, taxes or fitness of the Premises except as specifically set forth herein. The Purchaser acknowledges that they have physically inspected the Premises prior to signing this Contract and are aware of the physical condition of the Premises and agree to take the Premises in “AS IS CONDITION” in its present physical condition. Purchaser acknowledges that the Seller has made no representation or warranties and concerning the physical condition of the Premises other than those that are specifically set forth herein. The Seller shall not be bound by or liable for any representations, oral or written, pertaining to the Premises, furnished or made by any real estate broker or salesperson, agent or employee, servant or other, unless same is specifically set forth herein. Notwithstanding, none of the representations, warranties, covenants or other obligations of SELLERS hereunder shall survive the CLOSING, except as expressly provided herein. Acceptance of the deed by PURCHASERS shall be deemed full and complete performance and discharge of every agreement and obligation of SELLERS hereunder, except those, if any, which expressly are stated herein to survive the CLOSING.

Rider at Section 22 stated: Delivery and Acceptance of the Deed. The delivery and acceptance of the deed at closing by the Purchaser shall constitute full compliance by the Seller of all of the terms and conditions of this Contract, and none of the terms and conditions of this Contract shall survive the delivery of the deed unless specifically stated otherwise.

Rider at Section 32 stated: Entire Understanding. This agreement constitutes the entire Contract between the parties. It may not be modified orally or in any other manner except by an agreement in writing signed by the parties hereto.

Rider at Section 38 stated: Property Condition Disclosure Credit. Seller will not provide to the Purchaser the Property Condition Disclosure Statement under Article 14 of the New York Real Property Law. The Purchaser agrees to the $500.00 monetary credit as set forth in section 465(a) of the Property Condition Disclosure Act. By the acceptance of a $500.00 credit, the purchaser waives any failure or misrepresentation whether of not knowing or willful on the part of the Seller. The purchase price reflected herein is net of the $500.00 given by Seller to Purchaser as a credit in lieu of Purchasers receiving a property condition disclosure statement from Sellers.

Richard A. Klass, Esq.
Your Court Street Lawyer

#caveatemptor, #buyerbeware, #realestatelaw

Richard A. Klass, Esq., maintains a law firm engaged in civil litigation at 16 Court Street, 28th Floor, Brooklyn, New York. He may be reached at (718) COURT●ST or RichKlass@courtstreetlaw.comcreate new email with any questions.

Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

© 2021 Richard A. Klass

Scales of justice

Joint Venture Agreements – I would do anything for [my partners] but I won’t do that…

Three business partners arguing to illustrate an article by Richard Klass about Joint Venture Agreements

Acrobat PDF Version

Two partners owned vacant lots in Manhattan and wanted to build on them. They found two developers who pitched building townhouses on the lots. The four of them entered into a joint venture agreement (“JVA”). [1] Essentially, the agreement was that, in return for the developers paying off debts owed on the lots, refinancing an existing mortgage and obtaining a new construction loan, the lot owners would transfer the property to a limited liability company (“LLC”) to be jointly owned by all four of them.

Joint Venture Agreement

According to the JVA, ownership of the new LLC would be equally divided among the four partners (25% each). The LLC was supposed to refinance the property. The funds from the refinance would first be utilized to satisfy the existing mortgage on the property and then finance all of the construction costs for three single-family townhouses. The developers were to use their best efforts to obtain a construction loan to perform the purpose of the joint venture, and the lot owners were to fully cooperate in these efforts.

Formation of the LLC

One of the developers formed an LLC into which title to the lots would be transferred. The LLC was initially formed with him as the sole member for convenience purposes until the prospective refinance and closing were to take place, at which time all four partners would constitute the members.

Lack of cooperation

In order to comply with the mortgage lender’s requests about the property, the developers needed certain back-up documentation from the lot owners concerning expenses. The lot owners did not provide the requested items. Ultimately, they stopped cooperating with the developers. The developers retained Richard A. Klass, Esq., Your Court Street Lawyer, to pursue their rights under the joint venture agreement, including suing for breach of contract and to enforce a constructive trust over the vacant lots.

In response to the developers’ claims, the lot owners contended that they properly rejected the demand to transfer title to the property to the new LLC. They claimed that they were never provided with an operating agreement that named all four of the partners as members. The lot owners declared, “There was no way it was either reasonable or pursuant to the terms of the JVA that we were going to transfer the property worth at least $4,000,000.00 to an LLC in which we had no ownership interest and no control.”

The developers asserted that this defense was pretext — the lot owners never intended on complying with the joint venture agreement from the start. As fully laid out before the arbitrator, both in testimony and documentary evidence, the developers established that this defense was unfounded based on several facts: (1) the transfer tax documents, prepared by the title company, reflected all four joint venturers’ names and respective 25% interests in the new LLC; [2] (2) One of the lot owners himself emailed the title company the names of all four people for the new LLC; (3) the developer emailed the mortgage lender that all four people were partners in the new LLC; (4) the developer informed the lot owner that the mortgage lender needed a draft of the operating agreement, Excel spreadsheet and all checks following; and (5) the developers made various, substantial payments in furtherance of their joint venture prior to any deed transfer.

The developers claimed that the lot owners wrongfully breached their fiduciary duty that was created when they entered into the joint venture.[3] As joint venturers, the developers asserted the lot owners owed them a fiduciary duty to supply financial information which was within their exclusive control and they breached their duty by intentionally failing to cooperate and disclose pertinent information. Cooperation on the part of both sides to a contract is implied in every contract. See, Madison Pictures, Inc. v Pictorial Films, Inc., 6 Misc 2d 302, 324-25 (Sup. Ct. 1956) (“Where a matter is particularly within the knowledge of one party, it is his duty to supply the information.”); see also Weeks v. Rector of Trinity Church in City of New York, 56 App.Div. 195, 67 N.Y.S. 670, 672 (1st Dept. l900) (“The rule of law is that, when the obligation of performance by one party to a contract presupposes the doing of another act by the other party prior thereto, there arises an implied obligation of the second party to do the act which the performance of the contract necessarily…”).

The arbitrator determined that the developers were entitled to compensation from the lot owners for their substantial investment of time and money into the project. The arbitrator awarded half of the value of the property along with reimbursement for all of their expenses.

[1] Under New York law, five elements are necessary to form a joint venture: “(1) two or more persons must enter into a specific agreement to carry on an enterprise for profit; (2) their agreement must evidence their intent to be joint venturers; (3) each must make a contribution of property, financing, skill, knowledge or effort; (4) each must have some degree of joint control over the venture; and (5) there must be a provision for the sharing of both profits and losses.” Dinaco, Inc. v. Time Warner Inc., 346 F.3d 64, 67-68 (2d Cir. 2003).

[2] It was noted that both the Joint Venture Agreement and the NYC Real Property Transfer (RPT) Tax Return served as documentary evidence of the respective LLC ownership interests of the parties. As held in Matter of Pappas v Corfian Enterprises, Ltd., 22 Misc 3d 1113(A) [Sup Ct 2009], affd, 76 AD3d 679 [2d Dept 2010]: “In the real world, particularly that in which close corporations operate, clear evidence of share ownership is often not found in the corporate books and records, for any number of reasons. Other evidence must be found, and the lodestar for admissibility and probative value must be the contractual foundation for shareholder status. A court may consider the intent of the parties, particularly evidence of an agreement to form a corporation. (See Matter of Estate of Purnell v. LH Radiologists, 90 N.Y.2d at 530, 664 N.Y.S.2d 238, 686 N.E.2d 1332; Blank v. Blank, 256 A.D.2d at 689, 681 N.Y.S.2d 377.) * * *

Documentary evidence may be particularly probative when the documents were created under circumstances in which there was no incentive to fabricate. Among the types of documents that courts have considered, and that have been proffered in this case, are corporate and personal tax returns, bank loan documents, and financial statements. (See Matter of Capizola v. Vantage International, Ltd., 2 A.D.3d at 845, 770 N.Y.S.2d 395; Blank v. Blank, 256 A.D.2d at 694, 681 N.Y.S.2d 377; Hunt v. Hunt, 222 A.D.2d at 761, 634 N.Y.S.2d 804.

[3] It is well settled that joint venturers are governed by the same good-faith requirements as co-partners and the creation of a joint venture “imposes a fiduciary relationship, and not a simple contract.” Learning Annex Holdings, LLC v Whitney Educ. Group, Inc., 765 F Supp 2d 403, 412 [SDNY 2011]. In order to demonstrate a breach of fiduciary duty, there must be: “(i) the existence of a fiduciary duty; (ii) a knowing breach of that duty; and (iii) damages resulting therefrom.” N. Shipping Funds I, LLC v Icon Capital Corp., 921 F Supp 2d 94, 101 (S.D.N.Y. 2013)(Citing Johnson v. Nextel Communications, Inc., 660 F.3d 131, 138 (2d Cir. 2011)).

R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer

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Ready, Willing and Able

Blond adult woman, shown in a mirror, putting on lipstick.

I’m ready, willing and able / And honey, now it’s up to you.
So lay your cards on the table / And tell me what you plan to do.
– Doris Day

The owner of a 4-family house was ready to make a quick sale for $1.5 million. The buyer agreed to enter into a contract of sale for the house in “as is” condition in an all-cash deal to close seven days after signing the contract. Right before the closing, however, a dispute arose between the parties regarding the actual closing date. The seller attempted many times to close title, including sending several “time of the essence” notices to set a firm closing date. Each time, the buyer’s attorney responded that it could not close on the date but proposed an alternate closing date.

Alleged Title Issues

More than one month after the closing should have taken place, the buyer finally provided a title report to the seller. In the title report, it was revealed that there were five (albeit small) NYC Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) violations against the house. The buyer claimed that those HPD violations were impediments to closing and ultimately violated the terms of the contract of sale if not resolved.

Based upon the buyer’s course of conduct in delaying the closing date and raising minor title exceptions, the seller decided to declare the buyer in material default under the contract and presented notice that the $152,000 down payment being held in escrow would be forfeited unless the closing took place in 10 days.

Lis Pendens Filed

Threatened with the potential loss of its down payment, the buyer filed a lawsuit against the seller seeking specific performance of the contract, breach of contract and monetary damages. Simultaneously with filing the action, the buyer filed a Notice of Pendency against the property (commonly known as a “lis pendens”). A Notice of Pendency may be filed in any case in which the outcome can affect the title, use or possession of real estate, and serves as notice to the world that a party lays claim to the property. Many times, an aggrieved buyer will file a lis pendens in order to tie up the property in litigation to either force concessions from the seller or protect a down payment from being turned over to the seller when in default under the contract of sale.

Ready, Willing and Able:

Failure to Prove Buyer Was “Ready, Willing and Able” to Close

To defend the lawsuit, the seller retained Richard A. Klass, Esq., Your Court Street Lawyer, who filed a pre-answer motion to dismiss the lawsuit. In the motion, the seller claimed that the complaint failed to state that the buyer substantially performed its contractual obligations and was ready, willing and able to close title.

In determining a motion to dismiss, a court must construe the complaint and accept as true the facts alleged in the complaint and any submissions in opposition to the dismissal motion. 511 W. 232nd Owners Corp. v. Jennifer Realty Co., 98 NY2d 144 [2002]. Further, a court must give the plaintiff the benefit of every possible favorable theory. Leon v. Martinez, 84 NY2d 83 [1994]. Further, a court may consider additional facts contained in affidavits submitted by a plaintiff to remedy any defects in the complaint. Rovello v. Orofino Realty Co., 40 NY2d 633 [2 Dept. 1976].

In an action for specific performance, the elements of the complaint must show that “the plaintiff substantially performed its contractual obligations and was willing and able to perform its remaining obligations, the defendant was able to convey the property, and that there was no adequate remedy at law.” E&D Group, LLC v. Theodore Vialet, 134 AD3d 981 [2 Dept. 2015]. In this case, the judge found that the complaint did not allege all of the elements necessary to establish its right to specific performance. Also, the plaintiff failed to submit any affidavit but only its attorney’s affirmation; and an attorney’s affirmation is of no probative or evidentiary significance (see, Warrington v. Ryder Truck Rental, Inc., 35 AD3d 455 [2 Dept. 2006]).

In deciding to grant the seller’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the judge held, “Notably, [Buyer’s] exhibits tend to show just the opposite, to wit that [Buyer] failed to perform on the contract and may even have been in breach of the contract by attempting to assign the contract to another entity.” Accordingly, the judge dismissed the complaint.

Richard A. Klass, Esq.
Your Court Street Lawyer

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