Florida Series II: RE Broker Can Assert Ownership Interest in Retained Deposits in Priority Dispute with Condo Developer’s Lenders

Plaza Tower v. 300 South Duval Associates, LLC considers whether a real estate broker or a lender has “first dibs” on earnest money deposits held by a property developer.  After nearly 80% of planned condominium units failed to close (no doubt a casualty of the 2008 crash), the developer was left holding $2.4M of nonrefundable earnest money deposits.  The exclusive listing agreement (“Listing Agreement”) between the developer and the broker plaintiff provided the broker was entitled to 1/3 of retained deposits in the event the units failed to close.

After the developer transferred the deposits to the lender, the broker sued the lender (but not the developer for some reason) asserting claims for conversion and unjust enrichment.

The trial court granted the lenders’ summary judgment motion.  It found that the lenders had a prior security interest in the retained deposits and the broker was at most, a general unsecured creditor of the developer.  The broker appealed.

The issue on appeal was whether the broker could assert an ownership interest in the retained deposits such that it could state a conversion claim against the lenders.

The Court’s key holding was that the developer’s retained deposits comprised an identifiable fund that could underlie a conversion claim.  Two contract sections combined to inform the Court’s ruling.

One contract section provided that the broker’s commission would be “equal to one-third of the amount of the retained deposits.”  The Court viewed this as too non-specific since it didn’t earmark a particular fund.

But another contract section did identify a particular fund; it stated that commission advances to the broker would be offset against commissions paid from the retained deposits.  As a result, the retained deposits were particular enough to sustain a conversion action.  Summary judgment for the developer reversed.

Afterwords: Where a contract provides that a nonbreaching party has rights in a specific, identifiable fund, that party can assert ownership rights to the fund.  Absent a particular fund and resulting ownership rights in them, a plaintiff’s conversion claim for theft or dissipation of the fund will fail.

 

Massive Wind Turbine Tower A Trade Fixture, Not Lienable Property Improvement – IL Second Dist.

Q: Does a massive wind turbine tower that can be removed only by detonating several bombs at a cost of over half a million dollars qualify as a lienable property improvement under Illinois law?

A: Not if it’s a “trade fixture” that remains the property of its manufacturer.

Source: AUI Construction Group, LLC v. Vaessen, 2016 IL App (2d) 160009, a recent Second District case that examines the property improvement vs. trade fixture dichotomy and just how impractical removal (of a structure) must be to fall outside mechanics lien protection.

Facts: The property owner and turbine seller signed an easement agreement for the seller to install a turbine on defendant’s land for an annual fee.  The easement provided the turbine would remain the seller’s property and that the seller must remove the structure on 90 days’ notice.  The seller also had to remove the turbine when the easement ended.  The turbine seller then contracted with a general contractor to install the turbine who, in turn, subcontracted out various aspects of the installation.

The owner-general contractor agreement and the downstream subcontracts referenced the easement and stated the turbine system remained the seller’s property.

When the plaintiff sub-subcontractor didn’t get paid, he sued its subcontractor, ultimately getting an arbitration award of over $3M.  When that proved uncollectable after the subcontractor’s bankruptcy, the plaintiff sued the property owner to foreclose a mechanics lien it previously recorded to recover the unpaid judgment.

Trial Court Result: The trial court dismissed the suit on the basis that the turbine was a removable trade fixture that was non-lienable as a matter of law.

Appellate Result: Affirmed

Reasons: The Mechanics Lien Act (770 ILCS 60/0.01 et seq.) protects those who furnish material or labor for the improvement of real property.  The Act allows a lien where a benefit has been received by the owner and the property’s value has increased by the labor or materials’ presence. In Illinois, real estate improvements are lienable; trade fixtures are not.

The factors considered in determining whether equipment is lienable includes (1) the nature of attachment to the realty, (2) the equipment’s adaptation to and necessity for the purpose to which the premises are devoted, and (3) whether it was intended that the item in question should be considered part of the realty.  Crane Erectors & Riggers, Inc. v. LaSalle National Bank, 125 Ill.App.3d 658 (1984).

Intent (factor (3)) is paramount.  Even where an item can be removed from land without injuring it, doesn’t mean the item isn’t lienable.  As long as the parties manifest an intent to improve the realty, a removable item can still be lienable.

Parties are also free to contract that title to equipment furnished to property does not pass to the land owner until fully paid for.  Such an agreement will be enforceable so long as no rights of third parties are unfairly affected.

Applying the three-factored fixture test, the court found the  nature of attachment, and necessity of the item for production of wind energy weighed in favor of finding the turbine lienable.   However, the all-important intent factor suggested the opposite.

The easement agreement specified the turbine seller retained its ownership interest in the turbine and could (and had to) remove it at the easement’s end.  The court wrote: “the easement agreement establishes that the tower was a trade fixture.”  (¶ 20)

The Court also found that plaintiff’s “third party” rights were not impacted since plaintiff’s sub-subcontract specifically referenced the easement and prime contract – both of which stated the turbine would remain seller’s property. (¶ 23)

The Court examined additional factors to decide whether the turbine was lienable.  From a patchwork of Illinois cases through the decades, the Court looked at (1) whether the turbine provided a benefit or enhancement to the property, (2) whether the turbine was removable without material damage to the property, (3) whether it was impractical to remove the item, (4) whether the item (turbine) was used to convert the premises from one use to another, and (5) the agreement and relationship between the parties.

The sole factor tilting (no pun intended) in favor of lienability was factor 4 – that the turbine was essential to converting the defendant’s land from farmland to harnessing of wind energy.  All other factors pointed to the turbine being a nonlienable trade fixture.

The Court noted the property owner didn’t derive a benefit from the turbine other than an annual rent payment and rent is usually not a lienable benefit under the law.  Then the Court pointed out that the tower could be removed even though doing so was an expensive and cumbersome exercise.  Lastly, and most importantly, the parties’ intent was that the turbine was to remain seller’s personal property and for it not to be a permanent property improvement. (¶¶ 38-39)

The Court also rejected the subcontractor’s remaining arguments that (1) the Illinois Property Tax Code evinced a legislative intent to view wind turbines as lienable improvements and (2) it’s unfair to disallow the plaintiff’s lien claim since it could not have a security interest in the turbine under Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC).

On the tax issue, the Court held that Illinois taxes turbines to ensure that wind turbines do not escape taxation and is purely a revenue-generating device.  Taxation of a structure is not a proxy for lienability. (¶¶ 43-44)

The Court agreed with plaintiff that under UCC Section 9-334, security interests do not attach to “ordinary building materials incorporated into an improvement on land.”  And since the turbine was replete with building materials (e.g. concrete, rebar, electrical conduit), the UCC didn’t give the plaintiff a remedy.  The Court allowed that this was a harsh result but the parties’ clear intent that the turbine remain the seller’s personal property trumped the policy arguments.

Afterwords:

This case strikes a blow to contractors who install massive yet removable equipment on land.  Even something as massive as a turbine system, which one would think has a “death grip”- level attachment to land, can be nonlienable so long as the parties’ intend for it to remain the installer’s personal property.

Another case lesson is for contractors to be extra diligent and insist on copies of all agreements referenced in their contracts to ensure their rights are protected from ancillary agreements to which they’re not privy.

The case also portrays some creative lawyering.  The court’s discussion of the taxability of wind turbines, UCC Article 9 and the difference between a lease (which can be lienable) and an easement (which cannot) and how it impacts the lienability question makes for interesting (if not mostly academic) reading.

 

Real Estate Not Subject To Conversion Claim – IL 2nd Dist.

The Illinois Second District recently reversed a trial court’s imposition of a constructive trust and assessment of punitive damages in a conversion case involving the transfer of real property.

In In re Estate of Yanni, 2015 IL App (2d) 150108, the Public Guardian filed suit on behalf of a disabled property owner (the “Ward”) for conversion and undue influence seeking to recover real estate – the Ward’s home – from the Ward’s son who deeded the home to himself without the Ward’s permission.

The trial court imposed a constructive trust on the property, awarded damages of $150K (the amount the Ward had contributed to the home through the years) and assessed punitive damages against the defendant for wrongful conduct. Defendant appealed.

Reversing, the appeals court held that the trial court should have granted the defendant’s Section 2-615 motion to dismiss since a claim for conversion, by definition, only applies to personal property (i.e. something moveable); not to real estate.

The court first addressed the procedural impact of the defendant answering the complaint after his prior motion to dismiss was denied. Normally, where a party answers a complaint after a court denies his motion to dismiss, he waives any defects in the complaint.

An exception to this rule is where the complaint altogether fails to state a recognized cause of action. If this is the case, the complaint can be attacked at any time and by any means. This is so because “a complaint that fails to state a [recognized] cause of action cannot support a judgment.”

However, this exception allowing complaint attacks at any time doesn’t apply to an incomplete or deficiently pled complaint – such as where a complaint alleges only bare conclusions instead of specific facts in a fraud claim. For a defendant to challenge a complaint after he answers it, the complaint must fail to state a recognized theory of recovery.

Here, the trial court erred because it allowed a judgment for the guardian on a conversion claim where the subject of the action was real property.  In Illinois, there is no recognized cause of action for conversion of real property. A conversion claim only applies to personal property.

Conversion is the wrongful and unauthorized deprivation of personal property from the person entitled to its immediate possession. The conversion plaintiff’s right to possess the property must be “absolute” and “unconditional” and he must make a demand for possession as a precondition to suing for conversion. (¶¶ 20-21)

The court rejected the guardian’s argument that the complaint alleged the defendant’s conversion of funds instead of physical realty.  The court noted that in the complaint, the guardian requested that the home be returned to the Ward’s estate and the Ward be given immediate possession of it.

The court also pointed to the fact that the defendant didn’t receive any funds or sales proceeds from the transfer that could be attached by a conversion claim. All that was alleged was that the defendant deeded the house to himself and his wife without the Ward’s permission. Since there were no liquid funds traceable to the defendant’s conduct, a conversion claim wasn’t a cognizable theory of recovery.

Afterwords:

This case provides some useful reminders about the nature of conversion and the proper timing to attack a complaint.

Conversion only applies to personal property. In an action involving real estate – unless there are specific funds that can be tied to a transfer of the property – conversion is not the right theory of recovery.

In hindsight, if in the plaintiff guardian’s shoes, I think I’d pursue a constructive trust based on equitable claims like a declaratory judgment (that the defendant’s deeding the home to himself is invalid), unjust enrichment and a partition action.