Articles Posted in Real Estate

The sale of wine on vineyard premises is an integral part of the winery agricultural business. So says the Virginia Supreme Court which has just reversed a Circuit Court decision that forced a Fauquier County vineyard to shut its doors.

Charles and Lori Marterella bought a parcel of land in Bellevue Farms, a Fauquier County subdivision, with the intention of starting a winery. As land purchasers, they agreed to abide by the applicable subdivision covenants. Among these were Article II, Section I, which states “[all] tracts … shall be exclusively used for residential, agricultural, and recreational purposes,” and Article III, Section 3, which states “[n]o commercial enterprises may be undertaken on the property, which, in the [Site] Committee’s opinion, is in conflict with the goals of these Covenants.”

The Site Committee was established to rule on certain property uses of the landowners. In 1994, it created an informal handbook that stated, among other things: “Agriculture is the only commercial activity expressly permitted under the covenants. Any other work whether as a self-employed person or as an employee that causes external change to your property or leads to regular visits by customers, suppliers, business associates, or others is not acceptable. If you wish to engage in WineCellar.jpgnon-agricultural business activity, the Committee will rule on its acceptability and the Board would then approve or disapprove your request.”

Under Virginia law, covenants restricting the free use of land are not favored and must be strictly construed. Restrictive covenants that are unreasonably broad will not be enforced. There is a growing body of case law in Virginia governing noncompete covenants in employment contracts, but does that body of law apply to restrictive covenants in deeds? Earlier this month, the Fourth Circuit answered that question in the negative.

BP Products v. Stanley involved an appeal from the Eastern District of Virginia by BP Products North America, which had lost its motion for summary judgment against Charles V. Stanley and his business, Telegraph Petroleum Properties. BP had sued Stanley and his company to enforce a restrictive covenant in a deed, but the district court found that the restriction was overbroad and unenforceable. The Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed, finding that when analyzed under the appropriate test, the challenged prohibition was too inconsequential to invalidate the entire covenant.

Stanley leased a service station from BP in Alexandria, Virginia, subject to an agreement containing a restriction against selling fuel that was not BP-branded. Following a disagreement regarding the price of the fuel, Stanley stopped selling BP-branded fuel and started selling AmeriGO fuel, prompting the lawsuit. BP Pump.jpg

When a couple of home buyers in Loudoun County filed a lawsuit against Ritz-Carlton and a Loudoun developer, they chose Loudoun County Circuit Court as the forum. The immediate response of the defendants’ lawyers was to remove the case to federal court, where summary judgment is much easier to obtain than in Virginia state court. The home buyers, likely worried about having their case dismissed at an early stage by a federal judge, sought to remand the case back to Loudoun County, pointing to a forum-selection clause which provided: “In connection with any litigation between Buyer and Seller arising out of this Agreement…[t]he sole venue for any litigation shall be Loudoun County, Virginia.” The court refused to send the case back to state court. All of that procedural maneuvering meant very little in the end, however, as the court recently denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and allowed the case to go forward.

In Nahigian v. Ritz-Carlton, LLC, the home buyers (the Nahigians) claim the defendants fraudulently induced them into buying property by making multiple misrepresentations about the nature and extent of the involvement of the prestigious Ritz-Carlton company in the management of the property and its adjoining private golf course. The Nahigians allege they were duped into buying an expensive property at Creighton Farms near Leesburg by various statements by sales agents referring to the development as a “Ritz-Carlton community” and part of the “Ritz-Carlton Life.” As it turned out, they allege, Ritz-Carlton was merely a temporary manager of the golf club and never had any long-term commitment to the neighborhood. In March of 2009, Ritz-Carlton announced they were pulling out of the development.

The Nahigians sued for fraud and related claims, and the defendants moved for dismissal, arguing that the plaintiffs had failed to plead fraud with sufficient particularity, and that they failed to allege all the requisite elements of a fraud claim. The court disagreed and denied the motions to dismiss.

Those considering retaining a Virginia law firm to help stave off a wrongful foreclosure should keep this useful fact in mind: your lawyer’s job will be a lot easier if you take legal action before the bank forecloses on your property. Seek legal advice when you begin to fall behind on your mortgage or when workout negotiations seem to be faltering. Don’t wait until the trustee enforces the deed of trust and kicks you out of the house before going to an attorney, on the assumption that your smart lawyer will be able to “undo” an unfair foreclosure. In the vast majority of cases, Virginia courts will not set the foreclosure aside.

This reality is aptly illustrated by a recent case out of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Horvath v. Bank of New York, (E.D. Va. Jan. 29, 2010). The plaintiff, John Horvath, found himself unable to keep up with his mortgage payments–an unfortunate predicament all too common these days–and the defendants foreclosed on his house. Mr. Horvath admitted he had fallen behind on his mortgage, but asserted a number of different legal theories revolving around the argument that Bank of New York and other companies with an interest in his mortgage acted improperly and did not adhere to the law when servicing his mortgage, foreclosing on his house, and eventually evicting him. The court shot each argument down, one by one, and dismissed the case for failure to state a legally cognizable claim.

The first count was for a declaratory judgment declaring the foreclosure “void.” The court ruled that declaratory relief would serve “no useful purpose” since the foreclosure sale had already taken place. The court noted that declaratory judgments are reserved for “forward looking actions.”

In Virginia, an action for trespass is no longer the only remedy a landowner has against a trespasser. A Norfolk judge recently held that a landowner may sue for rent even in the absence of an express or implied lease agreement. A duty to pay rent can arise under the doctrine known as quantum meruit.

In the case of City of Norfolk v. Muladhara, LLC, Norfolk managed several lots of prime commercial real estate on which the city collected rents. The Defendant, Muladhara, began conducting business on one of the lots without ever receiving permission from Norfolk. Upon discovering the trespasser, Norfolk informed Muladhara that the city managed the land and collected rent for its use. This conversation prompted the Defendant to pay the back rent the city claimed was due. However, Muladhara continued to occupy the space without any further payment.

The court held that Norfolk may base its claim for recovery on two distinct theories. First, the court found that the conversation between the city and OfficeBuilding.jpgMuladhara that led to the payment of back rent could form the basis of an implied contract. Judge Hall clearly laid out the three elements of an implied contract: offer, acceptance, and a meeting of the minds. Simply put, the city offered to overlook the previous trespass if Muladhara paid back rent, and Muladhara accepted the offer. Even though this agreement only covered Muladhara’s past occupation of the parcel, the Defendant’s payment of back rent constituted a meeting of the minds as to the rental value of the land. Should Muladhara continue to occupy the land, the meeting of the minds forms the content of the implied contract. The city, therefore, is allowed to sue for payment of rent due, and the amount will be determined by looking to the parties’ prior agreement.

The Virginia Electric and Power Company (VEPCO) and the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line Company (TrAILCo) plan to build a 265-mile, 500-kilovolt transmission line between Loudoun County, Virginia, and Washington County, Pennsylvania. They claim that due to rapid growth in the Washington, DC metro area, energy consumption along the Potomac will likely continue to grow to levels unsupportable by the current infrastructure, and the anticipated blackouts and line failures would put them in violation of federal regulations. The State Corporation Commission approved the power line, and after a challenge by the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Supervisors of Fauquier County, Prince William County, and Culpeper County, and other interested groups, the Supreme Court upheld the construction permits.

In the case of Piedmont v. VEPCO, the court shed some light on the role of Virginia’s State Corporation Commission in developing an effective and efficient system for energy production and distribution. First, before new lines of that size can be constructed, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) must find that they are needed to avoid regulatory violations. Second, regardless of federal approval, because the proposed placement of the lines was in Virginia, approval must be obtained from the State Corporation Commission, to whom regulatory authority has been delegated by the Virginia legislature.

The plaintiffs argued, and the court acknowledged, that the federal approval process heavily favors new transmission line construction over other possible solutions such as demand-side regulation, new power generation, and conservation efforts. The Commission, on the other hand, is required by the Commonwealth to consider the PowerLine.jpgviability of these other possible solutions. Therefore, the plaintiffs claimed, the Commission’s reliance on the NERC’s findings was flawed because the federal process is biased against alternative solutions. The plaintiffs demanded that the Commission independently investigate alternative solutions and require them to be incorporated into their interstate operations.

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