Foreclosures in Texas

Texas allows nonjudicial foreclosure under a power of sale granted by a deed of trust for most real estate loans. Nonjudicial foreclosure is not available in Texas for certain loan types, like home equity loans and property tax loans. When nonjudicial foreclosure is unavailable, the foreclosure must be done through either judicial foreclosure or an Expedited Foreclosure Proceeding under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 736. In a judicial foreclosure, a lawsuit must be filed, and the plaintiff’s petition in the lawsuit must ask the Court to grant an order for foreclosure. This is the slowest and most cumbersome method of foreclosure because the case will likely not go to trial for several months or years.

To expedite the process, some loans, like home equity loans under Article XVI Section 50(a)(6) of the Texas Constitution, or reverse mortgages under Article XVI Section 50(a)(7), can be foreclosed in an Expedited Foreclosure Proceeding under Rules 735 and 736 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. The Expedited Foreclosure Proceeding is also known as a Quasi-Judicial Foreclosure because the proceeding bears little resemblance to an actual lawsuit. For example, personal service on the respondent is not required. Instead, all the petitioner needs to do under Rule 736 is mail the application for foreclosure to “each party who, according to the records of the holder of the debt is obligated to pay the debt.” Tex. R. Civ. P. 736(2)(A). Also, no discovery is allowed, the issues that can be raised are strictly limited, and the Court must hold a final hearing on the application within ten business days after a request for hearing by either party. Tex. R. Civ. P. 736(6), (7).

The nonjudicial foreclosure process is governed by Section 51.002 of the Texas Property Code entitled “Sale of Real Property Under Contract Lien.” Generally, the process involves filing a notice of sale with the county clerk’s office and posting it at the courthouse door. Then, on the first Tuesday of the following month, the property is sold at a live auction on the courthouse steps. The trustee conducting the sale will typically open the bidding with a credit bid on behalf of the noteholder. While the trustee may credit bid for the mortgagee, the “trustee is only responsible to the mortgagee in the mortgagee’s capacity as a creditor interested in satisfying the debt out of the proceeds of the sale; he is not responsible to the mortgagee in the capacity as a purchaser seeking to purchase the property for less than its fair value in opposition to the mortgagor’s interest.” Bonilla v. Roberson, 918 S.W.2d 17, 22 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1996). The noteholder’s bid is referred to as a “credit bid” because the noteholder does not actually need to pay for the bid. The noteholder can bid up to the amount owed to the noteholder without needing to pay out-of-pocket since the funds would go to itself. If the credit bid wins the auction, then the creditor becomes the owner of the property. The buyer at the sale should be prepared to pay in certified funds on the spot. The purchaser at the sale acquires the property “as is,” without warranties, and at the purchaser’s own risk. Tex. Prop. Code § 51.009. Also, the purchaser cannot be considered a “consumer” for purposes of consumer-protection laws like the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Tex. Prop. Code § 51.009.

Acceleration of the Underlying Indebtedness on the Promissory Note. Many creditors do not fully understand the importance of the acceleration clause in the note and deed of trust. A typical promissory note provides for installment payments over time. Those payments are not due until the payment obligation matures by the passing of the payment due date. When a promissory note is accelerated, all of the remaining payments mature immediately. Unless a note has accelerated or matured, the creditor cannot demand payment for the full remaining principal balance due on the note. Instead, the creditor can only demand payment for the installments that have matured. The statute of limitations on the debt begins to run upon each installment as the installment matures. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.035(a), (b). The statute of limitations does not run on the remaining balance of the note until the note matures or is accelerated. Hammann v. H.J. McMullen & Co., 122 Tex. 476, 62 S.W.2d 59, 61 (1933); Burney v. Citigroup Global Markets Realty Corp., 244 S.W.3d 900, 903–04 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2007, no pet.); Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.035(e) (limitations, in Texas, do not start running until acceleration or final maturity of the note). The creditor can, however, abandon or rescind acceleration any time, unilaterally, by notice. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.038. Until Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.038 was enacted in 2015, there was some confusion about whether the statute of limitations could be reset by unilateral action of the creditor. Leonard v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, L.L.C., 616 F. App’x 677, 678 (5th Cir. 2015); Callan v. Deutsche Bank, 93 F. Supp. 3d 725, 727 (S.D. Tex. 2015). In the context of foreclosures, acceleration is eminently important because every creditor wants to credit bid at the foreclosure auction. If the loan is not matured or accelerated, then the creditor is, at least arguably (depending on the terms of the note and deed of trust, conduct of the parties, and other circumstances), barred from credit bidding the full remaining balance due on the note at the foreclosure auction. Accordingly, best practice for creditors is to always treat the acceleration process as a very important prerequisite to foreclosure.

Accepting the Arrearage to Cure Default Before Foreclosure. Many creditors are willing to accept the arrearage rather than the accelerated balance, plus attorney’s fees, before the foreclosure sale to reinstate the loan. Some Government-Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) loan documents require the creditor to give various cure options to the borrowers. While the creditor, upon acceleration, may foreclose unless the entire note is paid off in full, the creditor can also waive acceleration and reinstate the loan. Lots of caselaw exists regarding waiver of acceleration or loan workouts and other negotiations with the borrowers. Best practice would be to put any agreements with or offers to the borrower in writing and to make those offers or agreements as clear as possible. If, for example, the borrower raises half of the funds necessary to cure the arrearage and promises to raise the remaining funds within thirty (30) days, and the lender is willing to accept the arrearage in lieu of the accelerated balance, but is willing to delay the foreclosure sale by only one month, then an agreement to delay the sale by one month in exchange for half of the arrearage now and to accept the remaining arrearage to cure default if paid within thirty (30) days, without waiving acceleration, should be put into writing to avoid any confusion. In a wrongful foreclosure lawsuit, clarity and simplicity tend to help the lender. Confusion and complexity open the door for the debtor to make all manner of equitable arguments regarding waiver or estoppel or other legal theories for avoiding the terms of the promissory note, deed of trust, and acceleration notices. When negotiating, the creditor should make clear to the debtor that the negotiations do not result in waiver of acceleration. Still, the creditor should work with the borrower. The creditor should not ignore the borrower or refuse to negotiate solely because the creditor is worried about miscommunications or equitable arguments subsequently raised by the borrower. The creditor who refuses to negotiate a default cure option with the borrower puts itself at greater risk of lawsuits than the creditor who negotiates default cure in good faith.

The Twenty (20) Day Cure Letter. Section 51.002(d) of the Texas Property Code states that “Notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary, the mortgage servicer of the debt shall serve a debtor in default under a deed of trust or other contract lien on real property used as the debtor’s residence with written notice by certified mail stating that the debtor is in default under the deed of trust or other contract lien and giving the debtor at least 20 days to cure the default before notice of sale can be given under Subsection (b).” The Subsection (b) notice is the public notice of sale that must be posted at the courthouse door and filed in the county clerk’s office. The twenty-day cure letter is a requirement that is separate and apart from any requirement to give notice of intent to accelerate and notice of acceleration. The twenty-day cure letter can, however, be combined with the acceleration notices.

Doing Acceleration the Right Way. Notice of intent to accelerate must be unequivocal, and even stating that failure to cure breach “may result in acceleration” is insufficient. Ogden v. Gibraltar Sav. Ass’n, 640 S.W.2d 232, 234 (Tex. 1982). The notices must not only state that the account is in default, but also demand payment for the delinquent installments. Tamplen v. Bryeans, 640 S.W.2d 421, 422 (Tex. App.—Waco 1982, writ ref’d n.r.e.). A proper acceleration notice should contain language tantamount to advising the debtor that the “entire debt [is] immediately due and payable.” EMC Mortg. Corp. v. Window Box Ass’n, 264 S.W.3d 331, 337 (Tex. App.—Waco 2008). While the creditor’s best practice is always to give written notices, oral notice can still be effective. Dillard v. Freeland, 714 S.W.2d 378, 380 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1986). Also, acceleration can be accomplished without written notice of acceleration if the creditor takes “some unequivocal action, such as filing suit, which indicates the entire debt is due.” Burney v. Citigroup Global Mkts. Realty Corp., 244 S.W.3d 900, 903 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008). Even a notice of a trustee’s sale may be sufficient to constitute notice of acceleration if preceded by the required notice of intent to accelerate. Id. at 904.

Waiver of Acceleration Notice Clauses Not Always Effective. “The exercise of the power of acceleration is a harsh remedy and deserves close scrutiny.” Vaughan v. Crown Plumbing & Sewer Serv., Inc., 523 S.W.2d 72, 75 (Tex. Civ. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1975). In a case where the deed of trust provided that the entire indebtedness may, upon default, “be immediately matured and become due and payable without demand or notice of any character,” the Court held that the creditor still needed to give notice of intent to accelerate. Bodiford v. Parker, 651 S.W.2d 338, 339 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 1983). In Shumway v. Horizon Credit Corp., 801 S.W.2d 890 (Tex. 1991), the Texas Supreme Court reached a similar result, holding that when indebtedness could be accelerated “without prior notice or demand,” notice of acceleration was waived, but notice of intent to accelerate was not waived. “Where the holder of a promissory note has the option to accelerate maturity of the note upon the maker’s default, equity demands notice be given of the intent to exercise the option.” Ogden v. Gibraltar Sav. Asso., 640 S.W.2d 232, 233 (Tex. 1982). Best practice for creditors is to always give notice of intent to accelerate and notice of acceleration regardless of what the deed of trust or other instruments say. Giving the debtor an opportunity to cure default before acceleration is particularly important. Abraham v. Ryland Mortg. Co., 995 S.W.2d 890, 894 (Tex. App.—El Paso 1999); Allen Sales & Servicenter, Inc. v. Ryan, 525 S.W.2d 863, 866 (Tex. 1975).

Wrongful Foreclosure Suits. In a wrongful foreclosure suit, the debtor can elect one or the other, but not both, of the following remedies: “(1) set aside the void trustee’s deed; or (2) recover damages in the amount of the value of the property less indebtedness.” Diversified, Inc. v. Gibraltar Sav. Asso., 762 S.W.2d 620, 623 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1988). If the debtor elects to recover monetary damages, then the debtor can only do so if “(1) title to the property has passed to a third party; or (2) the property has been appropriated to the use and benefit of the mortgagee.” Peterson v. Black, 980 S.W.2d 818, 823 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 1998); John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Howard, 85 S.W.2d 986, 988 (Tex. Civ. App.—Waco 1935). If the debtor does not leave the premises, then the debtor has not suffered any compensable damages. Id. If a foreclosure sale is void, then the purchaser bid “at his peril” and may not recover damages for lost profits. Id. Some mistakes, like sending foreclosure notices to the wrong address, can be grounds for undoing the foreclosure sale. Mills v. Haggard, 58 S.W.3d 164, 166 (Tex. App.—Waco 2001) (foreclosure sale set aside because loan servicing company had debtor’s new address, yet notices went to debtor’s old address and debtor did not receive them). The foreclosure notices must go to the debtor’s last known address. Tex. Prop. Code § 51.002(e); Tex. Prop. Code § 51.0001(2) (defining “last known address”). Other mistakes, like calculating the amounts due incorrectly, may be insufficient grounds for rescinding the foreclosure sale. Powell v. Stacy, 117 S.W.3d 70, 75–76 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2003, no pet.).

Borrower in Wrongful Foreclosure Suit Must Tender Amounts Due and Owing. When a borrower files a wrongful foreclosure lawsuit seeking rescission of the sale, the borrower must tender all amounts due and owing into the Court’s registry, and not merely plead that he will make a tender. Lambert v. First Nat’l Bank of Bowie, 993 S.W.2d 833, 835 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 1999); French v. May, 484 S.W.2d 420, 426 (Tex. Civ. App.—Corpus Christi 1972) (“A mere offer to pay does not constitute a valid tender; it is required that the tenderer have the money present and ready, and produce and actually offer it to the other party. The tenderer must relinquish control over the funds for sufficient time and under such circumstances as to enable the tenderee without special effort on his part to acquire possession.”). “Tender of whatever sum is owed on the mortgage debt is a condition precedent to the mortgagor’s recovery of title from a mortgagee who is in possession and claims title under a void foreclosure sale.” Fillion v. David Silvers Co., 709 S.W.2d 240, 246 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1986).

Purchaser’s Liability and Remedies in Wrongful Foreclosure Suit. The foreclosed-upon mortgagor, as a prerequisite to obtaining relief, may need to tender the winning bid to the purchaser at the sale. “A foreclosure sale to a good faith purchaser . . . will only be set aside if the one claiming equitable title tenders the amount of the bid.” Goswami v. Metropolitan Sav. & Loan Ass’n, 713 S.W.2d 127, 130 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1986), rev’d on other grounds, 751 S.W.2d 487 (Tex. 1988); Bracken v. Haid & Kyle, Inc., 589 S.W.2d 501, 502 (Tex. Civ. App.—Dallas 1979), but see Tex. Prop. Code § 51.009(1) (enacted in 2003, effective in 2004); Henke v. First S. Properties, Inc., 586 S.W.2d 617, 620 (Tex. Civ. App.—Waco 1979) (“the doctrine of good faith purchaser for value without notice does not apply to a purchaser at a void foreclosure sale”); Diversified, Inc. v. Walker, 702 S.W.2d 717, 723 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1985) (“Purchasers of land from a substitute trustee’s sale are not relieved from the necessity of inquiring whether the trustee had been empowered to sell.”). If the foreclosure sale is later deemed void by a Court, then the purchaser does not generally have the benefits of being a good faith purchaser for value because the purchaser bids “at his peril.” Henke, 586 S.W.2d at 620–21; Tex. Prop. Code § 51.009(1). If the sale is declared void, then the purchaser may be subrogated to the debt and lien of the foreclosing mortgagee. In re Niland, 825 F.2d 801, 813 (5th Cir. 1987).

Wraparound Note Foreclosures. When foreclosing a wraparound note, there is an implied covenant obligating the trustee to apply the proceeds to the underlying note. Summers v. Consol. Capital Special Trust, 783 S.W.2d 580, 583 (Tex. 1989).

Deficiency Judgments. If there is a deficiency on the note after the foreclosure sale, then the debtor has a statutory right to a fair market value determination and an offset against the deficiency. Tex. Prop. Code §§ 51.003, 51.004, 51.005. Section 51.003 of the Texas Property Code is, however, waivable in the loan documents. Moayedi v. Interstate 35/Chisam Rd., L.P., 438 S.W.3d 1, 8 (Tex. 2014). There are no deficiency judgments in Texas on home equity loans and the lender cannot get attorney’s fees as a personal judgment against the debtor if the debtor litigates the foreclosure. Erickson v. Wells Fargo Bank NA (In re Erickson), 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136501, *38-39 (W.D. Tex. Sept. 24, 2012); Tex. Const. Art. XVI, § 50(a)(6)(C) (no recourse for personal liability on home equity loan unless owner obtained credit by actual fraud). Deficiency suits have a two-year statute of limitations, starting on the date of the foreclosure. Tex. Prop. Code § 51.003(a).

The Dodd-Frank/RESPA 120-Day Foreclosure Cooling Period. Under 12 C.F.R. § 1024.41(f)(i), a mortgage loan servicer should not “make the first notice or filing required by applicable law for any judicial or non-judicial foreclosure process unless . . . A borrower’s mortgage loan obligation is more than 120 days delinquent.” The Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), represented in Regulation X (Reg X), amended the Dodd-Frank Act to include regulations on mortgage loan servicers. Most of Reg X does not apply to small servicers as defined by 12 C.F.R. 1026.41(e)(4), but according to 12 C.F.R. § 1024.41(j), the foreclosure waiting period still applies to small servicers. This rule only applies to a “mortgage loan that is secured by a property that is the borrower’s principal residence.” Reg X, 12 C.F.R. § 1024.30(c)(2), 1024.31 (excluding open-end lines of credit). The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) relied on Government-Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) and National Mortgage Settlement rules in enacting this provision, but the CFPB’s reliance on these rules makes little sense for small servicers. 78 FR 10696, 10833. Failure to comply with this rule is probably not grounds for recission of the foreclosure sale, but there is no caselaw in Texas on this that the author could find as of May 2017. This rule is enforceable “pursuant to section 6(f) of RESPA (12 U.S.C. § 2605(f)).” 12 C.F.R. § 1024.41(a). Section 2605(f) provides for actual damages or statutory damages of no more than $2,000 if there is “a pattern or practice of noncompliance with the requirements of this section,” plus attorney’s fees. There is no provision for unwinding of a foreclosure sale conducted in violation of this rule, nor is there a statutory provision allowing for the foreclosure sale to be delayed, stayed, restrained, or abated. Under Comment 41(f), Supplement I to § 1024.41(d), the “first notice or filing” for nonjudicial foreclosure in Texas would be the “earliest document required to be recorded or published to initiate the foreclosure process,” which would be the notice of sale in Tex. Prop. Code § 51.002(b). 78 FR 10696, 10833; https://www.consumerfinance.gov/eregulations/1024-Subpart-C-Interp/2015-18239#1024-41-d-Interp-4; 78 FR 60381; CFPB Agncy/Docket No. DFPB-2013-0018. Reg X only applies to mortgage loans as defined in 12 C.F.R. § 1024.31, which defines mortgage loans as “any federally related” loan as defined in 12 C.F.R. § 1024.2, which defines “federally related” mortgage loans generally as loans by federally-regulated institutions or loans destined for sale to a GSE, but also as loans by a “‘creditor,’ as defined in section 103(g) of the Consumer Credit Protection Act (15 U.S.C. 1602(g)), that makes or invests in residential real estate loans aggregating more than $1,000,000 per year.” Consequently, some seller-financed notes would not be subject to this rule. 79 FR 74176, 74245. Most of the time, the acceleration process does not start until the borrower is sixty (60) days delinquent, and consequently, another sixty (60) days will pass while the note is being accelerated, which means that the notice of sale will be filed within the 120-Day Rule guideline regardless of whether Reg X applies or not. In many instances, this rule is pointless and would not result in any actual damages given that the rule exists so that “borrowers will have more time to submit loss mitigation applications before a servicer initiates the foreclosure process.” 78 FR 10696, 10803. Seller-finance noteholders do not have to have, and rarely do have, any particular loss mitigation procedures in place. The regulations never should have been drafted so broad that a “federally related” mortgage could be a seller-finance note because there is nothing federal about seller-finance, but we are stuck with what we have for now in terms of badly-drafted CFPB rules. Small businesses in general are probably extremely underrepresented in the rulemaking process as the CFPB tends to summarily dismiss their concerns. Because they are small creditors, they tend to be represented by trade organizations that are not organized or incentivized as effectively as the advocates for large creditors. The CFPB does not appear to go out of its way to ensure that small creditor’s interests are accounted for regardless of whether they are adequately represented. Ultimately, this hurts the consumers by forcing all creditors into a one-size-fits-all model designed solely for large financial institutions and wholly inappropriate for seller-finance.

Notice of Sale to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This is potentially the most important component of a nonjudicial foreclosure sale in Texas, while also being the most easily-overlooked component. IRS tax liens arise under federal law, which means that these federal liens can supersede state lien laws. For example, “Under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, the IRS may obtain a valid federal tax lien and enforce its lien against a Texas homestead.” Benchmark Bank v. Crowder, 919 S.W.2d 657, 660 (Tex. 1996); U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2. However, federal IRS liens can be discharged by foreclosure if proper notice of the foreclosure sale is given to the IRS. 26 U.S.C. § 7425 (April 2017); 26 C.F.R. § 301.7425-3 (April 2017); 26 C.F.R. § 400.4-1(a) (April 2017); IRS Publication 786, with IRS Form 14497. The notice should be in writing, to the correct place, and not less than twenty-five (25) calendar days prior to the sale. Id. The lien notice is generally required when the Notice of Federal Tax Lien has been filed more than thirty (30) days prior to the sale. Id. If the property is sold with the IRS lien, then the seller may consider rescinding the sale, if possible (see Tex. Prop. Code § 51.016), and redoing it, or looking at IRS Publication 783, which is an application to discharge the IRS lien.

Rescission of Nonjudicial Foreclosure Sales. Texas House Bill 2066 (84th Leg. (R) effective Sept. 1, 2015) (codified in Tex. Prop. Code § 51.016) created procedures for a foreclosure trustee to rescind foreclosure sales in certain situations. The rules generally allow the trustee to rescind the sale up to sixty (60) days after the date of sale if the statutory requirements of sale were not met, the default leading to the sale was cured before the sale, or for various other reasons. Before the 2015 law, the foreclosure trustee’s authority ended with the sale and the trustee could not rescind the sale without the mortgagor’s agreement. Bonilla v. Roberson, 918 S.W.2d 17, 22 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1996).

Lawsuit Protections for Foreclosure Trustees. Under Section 51.007 of the Texas Property Code, a foreclosure trustee can be dismissed as a party from a wrongful foreclosure suit if “the trustee was named as a party solely in the capacity as a trustee under a deed of trust.” The trustee must file a verified denial. Id. The other parties must file a verified response within thirty (30) days of the trustee’s verified denial. Id. If a trustee is dismissed pursuant to this section of the property code, however, the dismissal is without prejudice. Id. at (c). Also, a foreclosure trustee may not be “held to the obligations of a fiduciary of the mortgagor or mortgagee” and may not be “assigned a duty . . . other than to exercise the power of sale in accordance with the terms of the security instrument.” Tex. Prop. Code § 51.0074. Issues arising under Tex. Prop. Code § 51.007 tend to be litigated in context of disputes regarding federal diversity jurisdiction because the trustee is going to be a resident of the same state as the plaintiff in a wrongful foreclosure suit.

Copyright 2017, Ian Ghrist, All Rights Reserved.

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. Do not rely on any part of this blog as legal advice. Instead, seek out the advice of a licensed attorney. Also, this information may be out-of-date.

Overview of the Bankruptcy Process for Landlords

Bankruptcy law is federal and bankruptcies are filed and litigated in federal court. Texas landlords who are accustomed to waltzing down to their local justice of the peace court to evict their tenants can be shocked and intimidated by the complexity and difficulty of dealing with a tenant who files for federal bankruptcy protection. As soon as that federal bankruptcy petition is filed, the Texas state courts no longer have jurisdiction to hear an eviction suit until either the bankruptcy stay is lifted or the bankruptcy case is dismissed. Many landlords handle simple evictions in Texas without an attorney, but generally no landlord should try to handle a bankruptcy case, or perform any collections activities against a tenant in bankruptcy, without an attorney.

Generally No Automatic Stay if Eviction Judgment Obtained Before Bankruptcy Filing Date. Generally, if the landlord obtains the eviction judgment, on residential property, before the bankruptcy filing date, then the eviction can proceed. 11 U.S.C. 362(b)(22) and (l). In Texas, the tenant cannot file a non-bankruptcy cure certificate under 11 U.S.C. 632(l), and so, the bankruptcy stay should not apply if the eviction judgment occurred before the filing of the bankruptcy petition.

Property endangerment or illegal use of controlled substances. Under 11 U.S.C. 362(b)(23), the landlord can file a certification that the tenant has endangered the property or used controlled substances on the property and the stay does not apply fifteen (15) days after the date that the certification is filed. 11 U.S.C. 362(b)(23), (m). If the debtor files an objection to the certification, then the stay does apply, but the Court must set the objection for hearing within ten (10) days from the tenant’s objection. 11 U.S.C. 362(m)(2)(B).

My Tenant Filed Bankruptcy, Now What? If none of the above rules apply, then the landlord needs to find out whether the tenant will assume or reject the lease. Outside of Chapter 7 (liquidation bankruptcy), the tenant can choose to assume or reject the lease up till the plan confirmation date. 11 U.S.C. § 365(d)(2). In Chapter 7, residential leases are deemed rejected after sixty (60) days of the filing of the bankruptcy petition. 11 U.S.C. § 365(d)(1). For nonresidential property, the deadline is the earlier of the confirmation date or 120 days from the bankruptcy filing date. 11 U.S.C. § 365(d)(4). If the tenant wants to assume the lease, then the tenant can do so regardless of ipso facto clauses, which attempt to draft around the bankruptcy rules. 11 U.S.C. § 365(b)(2). The tenant who wants to assume the lease must cure any default, other than unenforceable ipso facto defaults. 11 U.S.C. 365(b). The tenant may also need to compensate the landlord for any losses due to the default and provide adequate assurance that the lease will be performed in the future. Id. The tenant’s cure must be “prompt.” 11 U.S.C. § 365(b)(1)(A). The landlord’s idea of “prompt” and the bankruptcy court’s idea of “prompt” are probably different since bankruptcy courts have been known to allow tenants to cure pre-petition arrearages over six months.

Post-Petition Rent. The tenant is required to pay post-petition rent under 11 U.S.C. § 365(d)(3). If the tenant fails to pay post-petition rent, then the landlord should file a motion to lift stay or a motion to compel rejection of the lease. Section 365(d)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code allows the court, on the request of any party to the lease, to request that the lease be assumed or rejected within a “specified period of time,” probably ten (10) days from the date of the court’s order on the motion. On a motion to compel rejection of lease, the landlord should show breach (either pre-petition or post-petition, preferably both), undue delay by debtor in deciding to assume or reject, and prejudice to landlord caused by the delay. In re Physician Health Corp., 262 B.R. 290, 295 (Bankr. D. Del. 2001).

Automatic Stay Lifts Upon Rejection of Contract. If a lease is rejected or not timely assumed, then “the leased property is no longer property of the estate and the stay under section 362(a) is automatically terminated.” 11 U.S.C. § 365(p)(1).

Copyright 2017, Ian Ghrist, All Rights Reserved.

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. Do not rely on any part of this blog as legal advice. Instead, seek out the advice of a licensed attorney. Also, this information may be out-of-date.

Probate Court Jurisdiction in Texas (Its a Mess)

Texas probate court jurisdiction is mind-boggling and yet eminently important. You can go all the way through a trial and have the judgment vacated solely because the Court of Appeals finds that the Trial Court did not have jurisdiction. “Subject matter jurisdiction exists by operation of law and cannot be conferred on a court by consent or waiver.” See Dubai Petroleum Co. v. Kazi, 12 S.W.3d 71, 76 (Tex. 2000). Lack of subject matter jurisdiction renders a judgment void rather than merely voidable. Mapco, Inc. v. Forrest, 795 S.W.2d 700, 703 (Tex. 1990).” Jeter v. McGraw, 218 S.W.3d 850, 853 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2007) (court of appeals vacated the district court’s judgment on a partition lawsuit and dismissed the case because the case should have been brought in the probate court). The last thing that you want to happen is to win a big case in district or county court only to find out that your judgment is invalid because the case should have been tried in the probate court, or vice-versa.

Subject matter jurisdiction in probate and estate administration matters in Texas can be especially confusing and tricky. A major cause for confusion is that, in Texas, jurisdiction over probate and estate administration matters varies from county to county, which means that detailed research into the rules governing the particular county is necessary to determine jurisdictional issues for that county. You should not call the courts or the county clerk for advice. They are not likely to answer your questions. Even if they do answer your questions, you are still ultimately responsible for figuring these issues out on your own and you are not entitled to rely on any legal advice given by the county clerk’s office or any court staff.

Statutory Probate Courts, County Courts at Law Exercising Probate Jurisdiction (aka County Courts at Law with probate jurisdiction), and Constitutional County Courts (aka County Courts). As if the rules were not complicated enough already, the Texas Legislature has even named the probate courts in a highly confusing manner. For example, County Courts at Law are the same thing as Statutory County Courts, but not the same thing as Statutory Probate Courts, and Constitutional County Courts are also called simply County Courts, which means that a County Court is a completely different court from a County Court at Law. Under Tex. Gov’t Code § 25.0003, any statutory county court (aka “county court at law”) has original probate jurisdiction unless otherwise provided. You will want to check Subchapter C, Chapter 25 of the Texas Government Code for any potential exceptions to the general rule that county courts at law have original probate jurisdiction. Also, you can generally check Subchapter C, Chapter 25 of the Texas Government Code to see if your county has any statutory county courts or not. You can also generally use Subchapter C, Chapter 25 of the Texas Government Code to find out whether your county has statutory probate courts or not. Every county in Texas has a constitutional county court (aka “county court”). See Tex. Gov’t Code § 21.009(1); Tex. Const. Art. 5 § 15; Tex. Gov’t Code § 26.041 et. seq. Each county has one County Judge who presides over the county court aka constitutional county court as well as the County Commissioners Court and the county itself. Tex. Const. art. 5 §§ 15, 16, 18.

With that out of the way, you can figure out probate jurisdictional issues by looking at whether (1) your county has a statutory probate court, (2) your county has no statutory probate court or county court at law exercising probate jurisdiction, or (3) your county has no statutory probate court, but does have a county court at law exercising probate jurisdiction. As explained above, most county courts at law do have probate jurisdiction, but you still have to check each county for any exceptions to this general rule.

(1) Your County Has a Statutory Probate Court. In this case, the statutory probate court generally has original and exclusive jurisdiction over any probate proceeding, except for the matters listed in Texas Estates Code § 32.007, which the district courts will have concurrent jurisdiction over. Tex. Estates Code § 32.005. The presence of concurrent jurisdiction can result in disputes over whether the statutory probate court or the district court has dominant jurisdiction. In re J.B. Hunt Transp., Inc., 492 S.W.3d 287, 294 (Tex. 2016) (generally the “court in which suit is first filed” has dominant jurisdiction and the other suit should be abated). The dominant jurisdiction rule applies when inherent interrelation of the subject matter exists in two pending lawsuits. Wyatt v. Shaw Plumbing Co., 760 S.W.2d 245, 247 (Tex. 1988). “It is not required that the exact issues and all the parties be included in the first action before the second is filed, provided that the claim in the first suit may be amended to bring in all necessary and proper parties and issues.” Id. In determining whether suits are inherently interrelated, a court should look at the feasibility of joinder (Tex. R. Civ. P. 39) and the compulsory counterclaim rule (Tex. R. Civ. P. 97(a)). Id. If there is a probate proceeding pending, then the district court generally should not interfere despite having coordinate jurisdiction. Hurtado v. De Jesus Gamez, No. 13-11-00354-CV, 2012 Tex. App. LEXIS 4510, at *10 (App.—Corpus Christi June 7, 2012). Matters related to a probate proceeding must be brought in the statutory probate court unless there is concurrent jurisdiction. Tex. Estates Code § 32.005.

(2) Your County Has No Statutory Probate Court or County Court at Law Exercising Probate Jurisdiction. Some small counties do not even have one county court at law, in which case there is probably no statutory probate court either, which leaves only the constitutional county court with probate jurisdiction. See Tex. Estates Code § 32.002. In this situation, the constitutional county court can refer contested cases to the local district court or request assignment of a probate judge under Tex. Gov’t Code § 25.0022, but you still have to first file your case in the constitutional county court before it can be transferred.

(3) Your County Has No Statutory Probate Court, But Does Have a County Court at Law Exercising Probate Jurisdiction. In this case, the county court at law and the county court have concurrent original jurisdiction of probate proceedings, unless otherwise provided by law. Tex. Estates Code § 32.002(b). In these counties, the county court or county court at law also has jurisdiction over the matters related to a probate proceeding listed in Tex. Estates Code § 31.002(b).

Definition of “Probate Proceeding” and “Matters Related to a Probate Proceeding.” The term “probate proceeding” as used in the Texas Estates Code is defined in Section 31.001 of the Code. Matters related to a probate proceeding include the matters listed in Section 31.002 of the Texas Estates Code.

Original Probate Jurisdiction and Jurisdiction Over Matters Related to the Probate Proceeding Rules. All probate proceedings must be filed an heard in a court exercising original probate jurisdiction. Tex. Estates Code § 32.001. The court exercising original probate jurisdiction also has jurisdiction of all matters related to the probate proceeding as specified in Section 31.002 of the Estates Code for that type of court. Id. Also, the court can exercise pendent and ancillary jurisdiction as necessary. Id. Finally, “The administration of the estate of a decedent, from the filing of the application for probate and administration, or for administration, until the decree of final distribution and the discharge of the last personal representative, shall be considered as one proceeding for purposes of jurisdiction” and the “entire proceeding is in rem.” Tex. Estates Code § 32.001(d). The original probate jurisdiction rules are found in Tex. Estates Code § 32.002.

Copyright 2017, Ian Ghrist, All Rights Reserved.

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. Do not rely on any part of this blog as legal advice. Instead, seek out the advice of a licensed attorney. Also, this information may be out-of-date.

Memorandum of Contract

When a buyer in a real estate sales contract starts to think that the seller is getting cold feet, the buyer may want to file a “Memorandum of Contract” or “Memorandum of Agreement” in the county deed records to cloud title, put subsequent purchasers on constructive notice of the buyer’s equitable title, and ensure that the seller does not try to sell to another buyer. Tex. Prop. Code § 13.002; 12.001. The buyer can claim equitable title through the contract. See Johnson v. Wood, 138 Tex. 106, 157 S.W.2d 146 (1941). A good memorandum should “contain all of the essential elements of the agreement.” Crowder v. Tri-C Res., 821 S.W.2d 393, 396 (Tex. App.—Houston[1st Dist.] 1991). At a minimum, the memorandum should contain the names of the parties to the contract, a description of the property, the date of the contract, and a clause referring to the contract. Because the goal is to put subsequent buyers on constructive notice, the memorandum should contain as much information as possible, however, most people do not want to record the contract itself due to privacy considerations.

The buyer should file the memorandum of contract at his or her own risk. If the buyer and seller become embroiled in a dispute related to the sales contract and the buyer loses the dispute in Court, then the buyer could be liable for attorney’s fees, double and treble damages under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (“DTPA”) (if the property is the owner’s home), mental anguish, and any actual damages suffered by the seller. The buyer could also be looking at an Action on Fraudulent Lien or Claim under Chapter 12 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code and criminal liability if the memorandum is not filed in good faith or is not released in a timely manner when release becomes appropriate. Bowles v. State, 2006 Tex. App. LEXIS 7341, *2-3 (Tex. App.—Houston 1st Dist. Aug. 17, 2006). The buyer could also lose the corporate liability shield by filing a wrongful memorandum of contract because “A corporate agent is personally liable for his own fraudulent or tortious acts. The plain language of the DTPA is in harmony with this rule.” Miller v. Keyser, 90 S.W.3d 712 (Tex. 2002). The DTPA strangely defines “goods” as “tangible chattles or real property purchased or leased,” which makes the DTPA available in residential real estate cases.

Copyright 2017, Ian Ghrist, All Rights Reserved.

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. Do not rely on any part of this blog as legal advice. Instead, seek out the advice of a licensed attorney. Also, this information may be out-of-date.

Overview of the Eviction Suit Process in Texas

Eviction suits in Texas are governed by Rule 510 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and by Chapter 24 of the Texas Property Code. Most of the important laws governing eviction suits exist in either Tex. R. Civ. P. 510 or Tex. Prop. Code § 24.001 to 24.011. The Texas legislature enacted these rules “to provide a speedy and inexpensive remedy for the determination of who is entitled to possession of property.” Johnson v. Fellowship Baptist Church, 627 S.W.2d 203, 204 (Tex. App. Corpus Christi 1981).

In Texas, your local Justice of the Peace Court (frequently known as “JP court,” “justice court,” the “people’s court,” or “small claims court”) has exclusive jurisdiction over eviction suits, known in Texas as forcible entry and detainer suits. In layman’s terms, this means that Texans must file their eviction suits at the local JP court. Usually, the district and county courts will all be located downtown at the largest city in your county, while there will be several justice court subcourthouses spread throughout the county, often sharing office space with your local city hall or the local branch of the tax collector’s office. In 2013, the Texas legislature abolished small claims courts and gave jurisdiction over small claims cases to the JP courts. See Act of June 29, 2011, 82nd Leg., 1st C.S., ch. 3, § 5.07 (repealing former Tex. Gov’t Code ch. 28, governing small claims courts, effective May 1, 2013); Act of April 2, 2013, 83rd Leg., R.S., ch. 2, § 2 (delaying abolition of small claims courts from May 1, 2013 to August 31, 2013); see Misc. Docket No. 13-9049 (Tex. April 15, 2013), ¶ 1. So, the JP courts also function as small claims courts in Texas for claims of under $10,000.00 in monetary damages.

Because the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and the Texas Rules of Evidence do not apply in justice court (See Tex. R. Civ. P. 500.3(e)), Texans are supposed to be capable of adequately representing themselves without the help of a licensed attorney in justice court and they frequently do so. Consequently, many, if not most, eviction suits are filed at the local JP court subcourthouse without the help of an attorney.

Eviction suits in Texas are called “forcible detainer” suits, probably because the tenant to be evicted is forcibly detaining themselves in the property after the lease expired or their lender foreclosed on the property. “The sole issue in a forcible detainer suit is who has the right to immediate possession of the premises.” Aguilar v. Weber, 72 S.W.3d 729, 732 (Tex. App.—Waco 2002). “To prevail in a forcible detainer action, a plaintiff is not required to prove title, but is only required to show sufficient evidence of ownership to demonstrate a superior right to immediate possession.” Id. So, most disputes over the right to possession of real estate in Texas happen in the local JP subcourthouse for the constable precinct that the property is located in. There are, however, other causes of action (lawsuits) over the right to possession of real estate, which can be filed in a county or district court (usually district court for jurisdictional reasons).

Other Possessory Causes of Action and Where to File Them. Trespass to Try Title is an example of a possessory cause of action that must be brought in district court rather than justice court. It’s the Berrys, LLC v. Edom Corner, LLC, 271 S.W.3d 765, 770 (Tex. App. Amarillo 2008). Title suits generally need to be filed in a Texas district court, and not a county court or JP court. Escobar v. Garcia, 2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 5157, *9 (Tex. App. Corpus Christi—May 15, 2014) (county courts generally have no subject matter jurisdiction over title disputes); but see Tex. Gov’t Code § 25.0592 (county courts in Dallas County have concurrent jurisdiction with the district court in civil cases regardless of the amount in controversy and subject matter jurisdictional problems can be cured by retroactive assignment to district court).

Genuine Title Disputes Deprive the Justice of the Peace Courts of Jurisdiction. A title dispute between the landlord and tenant can deprive the JP court of jurisdiction over the eviction case. For a title dispute to deprive the justice of the peace court of jurisdiction, the title dispute must be “genuine.” Padilla v. NCJ Dev., Inc., 218 S.W.3d 811, 815 (Tex. App.—El Paso 2007) (receipt without material elements of transaction and unsigned sales contract not enough to raise a genuine title dispute). A genuine title dispute requires “specific evidence of a title dispute.” Id. Moreover, “A justice court is not deprived of jurisdiction merely by the existence of a title dispute; it is deprived of jurisdiction only if resolution of a title dispute is a prerequisite to determination of the right to immediate possession.” Espinoza v. Lopez, 468 S.W.3d 692, 695 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2015). “To prevail in a forcible detainer action, the plaintiff must present sufficient evidence of ownership to demonstrate a superior right to immediate possession. Ordinarily, a forcible detainer action requires proof of a landlord-tenant relationship. Although such a relationship is not a prerequisite to jurisdiction, the lack of such a relationship indicates that the case may present a title issue. Id. at 695-96.

Even if you wanted to file your eviction suit in county or district court, you cannot do so. Aguilar v. Weber, 72 S.W.3d 729, 731 (Tex. App.—Waco 2002) (“Jurisdiction of forcible detainer actions is expressly given to the justice court of the precinct where the property is located and, on appeal, to county courts for a trial de novo.”); It’s the Berrys, LLC v. Edom Corner, LLC, 271 S.W.3d 765, 769–772 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 2008, no pet.) (justice court has exclusive jurisdiction over the issue of the right to immediate possession). Also, “The appellate jurisdiction of a statutory county court is confined to the jurisdictional limits of the justice court, and the county court has no jurisdiction over an appeal unless the justice court had jurisdiction.” Aguilar at 731. So, even if your county court at law is one of the few in the State of Texas that shares jurisdiction with the district courts over title disputes, then that county court still lacks jurisdiction over the title dispute if the county court is hearing the case on appeal from a justice of the peace court.

Notice to Vacate. A three-day Notice to Vacate must be sent to the tenant before the eviction suit is filed, unless the parties contracted for a shorter or longer notice period in writing. Tex. Prop. Code § 24.005. If the eviction suit is against a holdover tenant after a rental term expired, then the landlord also needs to comply with the tenancy termination requirements of Tex. Prop. Code § 91.001. Id. If the landlord wants attorney’s fees from the tenant, then the landlord should send a ten-day Notice to Vacate, unless a written lease entitles the landlord to attorney’s fees, and the notice should state “that if the tenant does not vacate the premises before the 11th day after the date of receipt of the notice and if the landlord files suit, the landlord may recover attorney’s fees.” Tex. Prop. Code § 24.006. At the eviction hearing, the Judge will ask for proof that the Notice to Vacate was given.  Many, if not most, landowners send the Notice to Vacate by mail or by affixing it to the front door of the property. Surprisingly, both of these methods are wrong or potentially ineffective, despite being the most common methods. Even if the Notice to Vacate is sent by certified and regular mail, the tenant can claim not to have received it and, unless the landowner has the signed green return card, the Judge may or may not agree that the notice was effective.  Gore v. Homecomings Fin. Network, No. 05-06-01701-CV, 2008 Tex. App. LEXIS 640, at *6, 2008 WL 256830 (App.—Dallas Jan. 31, 2008) (mem. op., not designed for publication) (Notice to Vacate sent by regular and certified mail, but both envelopes had notations indicating that they were returned unclaimed—court ruled in favor of the tenant on the grounds that the evidence did not establish that the tenant received the notice); Brittingham v. Fed. Home Loan Mortg. Corp., No. 02-12-00416-CV, 2013 Tex. App. LEXIS 10624, at *6, 2013 WL 4506787 (App.—Fort Worth Aug. 22, 2013) (court ruled in favor of landowner even though the main distinctions from the Gore case were that there was a business records affidavit to go along with the regular and certified letters and that only the certified letter was marked unclaimed). The Notice to Vacate does not have to be received by any particular person, but rather must be sent “to the premises.” Trimble v. Fannie Mae, No. 01-15-00921-CV, 2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 13482, at *13 (App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 20, 2016). “When a letter containing notice is properly addressed and mailed with prepaid postage, a presumption exists that the notice was received by the addressee. Thomas v. Ray, 889 S.W.2d 237, 238 (Tex. 1994).” Id. at *11. Addressing the notice to “all occupants” and mailing it is sufficient to raise the presumption that the notice was delivered to the property. Id. In at least one case, the court held that whether the tenant “received the notice is not determinative of whether notice was given.” U.S. Bank, N.A. v. Khan, No. 05-14-00903-CV, 2015 Tex. App. LEXIS 8388, at *6, 2015 WL 4736839 (App.—Dallas Aug. 11, 2015). If the tenant testifies that the tenant did not receive the notice, then the court is not required to accept the tenant’s testimony. Kaldis v. U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n, 2012 Tex. App. LEXIS 6609, 2012 WL 3229135, at *3 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Aug. 9, 2012, pet. dism’d w.o.j.) (mem. op.).

To be fair regarding Notices to Vacate, most of the time, regular or certified mail works just fine and the landlord does not lose the case due to the tenant claiming not to have received the Notice to Vacate. However, going through a JP court eviction trial and then a county court de novo trial on appeal, just to find out that the landlord’s suit is dismissed due to insufficient evidence of tenant’s receipt of a notice that is no more than a technicality since the tenant clearly knows that the tenant has been sued for eviction and has been litigating the issue for several months is kind of ridiculous. To make it worse, since most landlords handle the JP eviction suit without an attorney, the attorney who gets involved at the county court appeal level is not able to go back and correct any deficiencies in the manner of delivery of the notice to vacate. Clearly, there should be an opportunity to cure any defects in the notice to vacate before the county court appeal trial occurs, but there is not. Under Tex. Prop. Code § 24.005, the Notice to Vacate can be affixed to the “inside of the main entry door.” This has to be one of the worst laws on the books. No sane landlord who is involved in a dispute with a tenant, or even a squatter, wants to open the resident’s front door and risk getting shot. Texas has “castle doctrine,” which means that if someone enters your habitation, then you can, generally and subject to some exceptions, use deadly force against them. Tex. Penal Code § 9.31–.32. This requirement to post notice to vacate on the inside of the main entry door is horribly unsafe and should be repealed immediately. There is a procedure in Tex. Prop. Code § 24.005(f-1) that is an alternative to posting notice on the inside of the front door if the “landlord reasonably believes that harm to any person would result from . . . affixing the notice to the inside of the main entry door,” but the procedure is rarely used, probably because it is so complex that no one seems to understand the procedure or be capable of performing it correctly, primarily because the vast majority of evictions are handled without the assistance of an attorney.

Appeal of Eviction Suit. Whoever loses the JP court eviction suit can appeal to the county court at law. Because JP courts do not employ court reporters to keep a record of their proceedings and because the Texas rules of procedure and evidence do not apply (See Tex. R. Civ. P. 500.3(e)), no record exists for the county court to review on appeal. Consequently, the county court conducts a trial de novo, which means a brand new trial. Whatever evidence the landlord or tenant offered in the JP court case is gone and irrelevant. The judge of the county court, in fact, will know nothing about what happened in the JP court other than the outcome as expressed in the final order signed by the JP court judge, but the county court judge must decide the new case based solely on the new trial, and so most, if not all, county court judges could not care less about what happened in the JP court. In county court at law, the landlord/plaintiff generally does need an attorney because the rules of evidence and procedure apply in full regardless of whether the landlord knows and understands them. The landlord/plaintiff who wins in JP court can easily lose in county court on some technicality that the landlord did not understand. Also, if the landlord is a corporation, then the landlord’s suit will be dismissed if the landlord appears for the county court appeal trial without a licensed attorney. See Wuxi Taihu Tractor Co. v. York Grp., Inc., No. 01-13-00016-CV, 2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 12888, at *21, 2014 WL 6792019 (App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 2, 2014).

Equitable Title. A claim of equitable title can prevent the justice court from having jurisdiction over an eviction suit. “Upon payment of the purchase price and full performance of a contract for sale of real property, a party becomes vested with an equitable title in the land sufficient to enable him to maintain an action for trespass to try title.” Brown v. Davila, 807 S.W.2d 12, 14 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1991, no writ); Also see Johnson v. Wood, 138 Tex. 106, 110, 157 S.W.2d 146, 148 (1941) (performance of a contract for conveyance of title grants equitable title upon the performer). Even an allegation of oral contract for conveyance of property can defeat the jurisdiction of the JP court if an exception the statute of frauds is satisfactorily alleged.  Jennifer Yarto & DTRJ Invs., L.P. v. Gilliland, 287 S.W.3d 83, 94 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2009). The Statute of Frauds is a rule that, in general, requires contracts for conveyance of real estate to be in writing. Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 26.01(b)(4).

Wrongful Foreclosure Generally Not a Defense to Eviction. Claiming that a foreclosure was wrongful due to defects in the foreclosure process, regardless of whether those claims are filed in a separate district court lawsuit, generally does not constitute a sufficient defense to a post-foreclosure eviction suit. Pinnacle Premier Props. v. Breton, 447 S.W.3d 558, 565 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2014); Home Sav. Asso. v. Ramirez, 600 S.W.2d 911, 914 (Tex. Civ. App.—Corpus Christi 1980). Generally, a claim of wrongful foreclosure, and a request to rescind the foreclosure sale and restore ownership of the property to the borrower, may be considered to be a title dispute, but it is not a title dispute that deprives the justice court of jurisdiction because the issue of immediate right to possession of the premises is not dependent on the outcome of the title dispute. Id. If the deed of trust and substitute trustee’s deed do not contain a tenancy-at-sufferance clause and there is no other basis for a landlord-tenant relationship, then a wrongful foreclosure suit claim may constitute a title dispute sufficient to deprive the justice court of jurisdiction over the eviction. Chinyere v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 440 S.W.3d 80, 85 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2012). In a situation, like the Chinyere case, where the justice court lacks jurisdiction over the eviction, the foreclosure sale purchaser would need to file suit in district court and either obtain a trial setting as soon as possible (which will probably be at least five times longer than it would take to get a trial setting in JP court) or set an injunction hearing, prove an imminent, irreparable injury; for which no adequate remedy at law exists (i.e., monetary damages are inadequate); a probable right of recovery and likelihood of success on the merits; and post an injunction bond.

Contracts for Deed. Generally, the justice court does not have jurisdiction over a contract for deed case (also known as an executory contract for conveyance governed by the extensive regulations of Subchapter D of Chapter 5 of the Texas Property Code), but if the contract for deed expressly states that it creates a landlord-tenant relationship, then the JP court might have jurisdiction. Ward v. Malone, 115 S.W.3d 267, 271 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2003); Aguilar v. Weber, 72 S.W.3d 729, 735 (Tex. App.—Waco 2002) (justice court lacked jurisdiction over contract for deed, among other reasons, “because no landlord-tenant relationship was set forth in the contract . . . .”). So, based on the caselaw, if there was an express landlord-tenant relationship in the contract, then justice court jurisdiction may exist. However, if there is a contract for deed and the and the purchaser/tenant has paid “40 percent or more of the amount due or the equivalent of 48 monthly payments,” or if the contract is recorded (which is actually required by Tex. Prop. Code § 5.076, though, the damages for violation are only $500.00 per year), then the seller must perform a foreclosure on the property just as if the transaction were a “deed with a vendor’s lien.” Tex. Prop. Code §§ 5.079; 5.066. At the foreclosure sale, the seller must convey fee simple title and warrant that the property is free from any encumbrance. Tex. Prop. Code § 5.066(d). This tends to be a virtually insurmountable problem for contract for deed sellers that violate Tex. Prop. Code § 5.085 (Fee Simple Title Required) by selling property subject to a pre-existing lien. Unfortunately, many if not most, contracts for deed violate Tex. Prop. Code § 5.085 (Fee Simple Title Required) because one of the primary reasons for selling the property on a contract for deed basis was to avoid recording the contract and, thus, alerting the bank holding the first lien that the due-on-sale clause of the lien note has been violated.

Landlord Gets a Mulligan Due to Lack of Res Judicata. If the landlord makes a mistake and fails to win the eviction suit, then the landlord can, for the most part, simply file the suit again and start the process from scratch. Res judicata, which is a doctrine holding that once a case is resolved, the case cannot be re-litigated again for a different result, does not generally apply to eviction suits. Puentes v. Fannie Mae, 350 S.W.3d 732, 738–739 (Tex. App.—El Paso 2011, pet. dism’d); Fed. Home Loan Mortg. Corp. v. Pham, 449 S.W.3d 230, 235–238 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, no pet.).

The Misnomer Rule and Serving the Correct Parties. Because many eviction suits occur in justice of the peace court without an attorney, people involved often fail to recognize the misnomer rule. The misnomer rule provides that misspellings or even incorrect names do not matter as long as the defendant is not mislead regarding who was sued or the intention to sue the defendant who was actually served with citation was apparent from the pleadings and process. Dezso v. Harwood, 926 S.W.2d 371, 374 (Tex. App.—Austin 1996). Eviction suits are generally made out against a particular defendant “and all occupants.” Pinnacle Premier Props. v. Breton, 447 S.W.3d 558, 561 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2014). Because the Notice to Vacate rules allow for service upon the property itself, the “all occupants” language can effectively evict anyone occupying the property as long as the notice and citation are served pursuant to the rules. Tex. Prop. Code § 24.005. The big exception to the use of “all occupants” language is Tex. R. Civ. P. 510.3(c), which provides that any tenants listed on a written lease must be named and served with citation.

Verification Requirement. Eviction petitions must be “sworn to by the plaintfiff.” Tex. R. Civ. P. 510.3(a). However, an agent or attorney for the plaintiff can verify the petition. Norvelle v. PNC Mortg., 472 S.W.3d 444, 446–449 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2015, no pet.).

Further Appeal. Effective January 1st, 2016, the issue of possession is non-appealable, after the county court at law appeal, in commercial property cases. Tex. Prop. Code § 24.007; 2015 Bill Text TX H.B. 3364 (84th Legislature, As Reported by Committee May 1, 2015). The courts of appeal lack jurisdiction over an appeal on the issue of possession on commercial property. Volume Millwork, Inc. v. W. Hous. Airport Corp., 218 S.W.3d 722, 726 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2006). Accordingly, a writ of possession should issue after county court at law commercial eviction trial regardless of whether a supersedeas bond is posted. If the property is residential, then appeal can be taken from the county court at law, and the supersedeas bond to stop the eviction should take “into consideration the value of rents likely to accrue during appeal, damages which may occur as a result of the stay during appeal, and other damages or amounts as the court may deem appropriate.” Tex. Prop. Code § 24.007.

Post Tax Foreclosure Suit Evictions. Do not bother filing an eviction suit after a delinquent property tax sale. Under Section 33.51 of the Texas Tax Code, the tax sale buyer can simply order a writ of possession from the tax sale court. There is no need to file a separate eviction case.

Payment of Rent During County Court at Law Appeal. The tenant needs to pay rent into the court’s registry during the appeal. The tenant can appeal by filing an appeal bond within five days after the date that the judgment is signed. Tex. R. Civ. P 510.9(a), (b). The tenant can also appeal by filing a pauper’s affidavit within the same time period. Tex. R. Civ. P. 510.9(a), (c)(1), (f); Tex. Prop. Code § 24.0052. The tenant must pay one month of rent into the court’s registry within five days of the filing of the pauper’s affidavit. Tex. Prop. Code § 24.0053(a-2), 24.0054. If the rent is not paid timely, then the landlord can get a writ of possession from the justice court. Tex. Prop. Code § 24.0053(a-2), 24.0054(a), (a-2); Tex. R. Civ. P. 510.9(c)(5)(B)(i). On a sworn motion and hearing, the landlord can get a writ of possession from the county court if the tenant fails to pay rent into the court’s registry during the pendancy of the appeal. Tex. R. Civ. P. 510.9(c)(5)(B)(iv); Tex. Prop. Code § 24.0054(a-4)(b)(c).

Default on Appeal for Failure to File Written Answer. If the defendant does not file a written answer in the justice court, then the tenant must file a written answer within eight days of the transcript being filed in the county court, and if the defendant does not do so, then the plaintiff may take a default judgment. Tex. R. Civ. P. 510.12. A pauper’s affidavit counts as a written answer. Hughes v. Habitat Apartments, 860 S.W.2d 872, 872-73 (Tex. 1993).

Corporate Party Must Have Attorney on Appeal. A corporation or other business entity must have an attorney to represent it in county court on appeal in an eviction suit. McClane v. New Caney Oaks Apts, 416 S.W.3d 115, 120-21 (Tex. App.–Beaumont 2013, no pet.). There is a statutory exception for sworn motions for dismissal or eviction due to non-payment of rent during appeal. Tex. Prop. Code § 24.0054(e).

No Counterclaims or Third-Party Joinder. The only issue in an eviction suit is the right to immediate possession of the property. Tex. R. Civ. P. 510.3(e). No counterclaims can be raised. Id. No third-parties can be joined. Id. Because of this rule, the compulsory counterclaim rule generally does not apply to eviction suits. Id.

Copyright 2017, Ian Ghrist, All Rights Reserved.

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. Do not rely on any part of this blog as legal advice. Instead, seek out the advice of a licensed attorney. Also, this information may be out-of-date.

Texas Trust Fund Statute and Sham General Contractors

The Texas Trust Fund Statute makes general contractors into trustees who have a fiduciary duty to manage payments for the benefit of the subcontractors, who are the beneficiaries of the trust funds held by the general contractor. The most important thing to know about the Texas Trust Fund Statute is that it applies to anyone “who has control or direction of trust funds.” Tex. Prop. Code § 162.002. In other words, the statute dramatically expands liability beyond just the parties to the contract. Anyone who has control of the funds can be liable if the funds are misapplied. Funds are misapplied when the trustee knowingly diverts trust funds without first fully paying all obligations incurred to subcontractors. Tex. Prop. Code § 162.031(a). This means that even employees, family members, or staff of the general contractor can end up liable for the bad actions of the contractor if the employees had “control or direction” of the funds. See Direct Value, LLC v. Stock Building Supply, LLC, 388 S.W.3d 386, 392 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 2012, no pet.). However, the level of control necessary for Trust Fund Act liability to arise is more than just signatory authority over bank accounts. J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, N.A. v. Tex. Contract Carpet, Inc., 302 S.W.3d 515, 541 (Tex. App.—Austin 2009). Even a signatory to bank accounts does not have enough control to be liable under the Trust Fund Act if the person merely co-signs checks, but does not decide whether, when, how, and who will be paid; needs approval from another person to make payment decisions; and is not an officer of the company. Id. at 11-12.

The Texas Trust Fund Statute in Chapter 162 of the Texas Property Code serves as an additional source of protection, beyond the mechanic’s lien statutes, for mechanics and materialmen. It primarily benefits subcontractors. Under the Statute, construction payments are considered trust funds and the recipient is considered to be a trustee who holds the money for the beneficiaries. Tex. Prop. Code § 162.001(a). The trustee owes a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries and must be able to show that the trustee acted towards the beneficiaries with the “utmost good faith,” the “most scrupulous honesty,” placed the beneficiaries’ interests before the fiduciary’s interest, did not use the advantage of the fiduciary’s position to gain any benefit for himself at the expense of the beneficiary, fully and fairly disclosed all important information to the beneficiary, made reasonable use of the confidence that the beneficiary placed in the fiduciary, and that the transactions in question were “fair and equitable.” Tex. Pattern Jury Charges PJC 104.2; Haut v. Green Cafe Mgmt., 376 S.W.3d 171, 182 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2012). Costs and a reasonable fee that is earned under a written contract on specific property before the commencement of construction are not considered trust funds. Tex. Prop. Code § 162.001(c). Anyone who furnishes labor or material for the construction or repair of an improvement on specific real property is a beneficiary under the Trust Fund Statute. Tex. Prop. Code § 162.003. For residential construction contracts, the property owner is also a beneficiary. Id. § 162.003(b).

Exemplary Damages. Exemplary or, in other words, punitive damages can be assessed for breach of fiduciary duty. McGrede v. Coursey, 131 S.W.3d 189, 193 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2004). The fear of potential punitive liability should serve as additional incentive to avoid violation of the Texas Trust Fund Statute. Attorney’s fees can be recoverable under Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 38.001(1), (2), or (3).

Private Cause of Action and Criminal Penalties. The Trust Fund Statute only provides for criminal penalties. Nevertheless, the Texas Supreme Court has “expressly indicated that a private civil cause of action exists under the Trust Fund Act.” Zurich Am. Ins. Co. v. Tejas Concrete & Materials Inc., 982 F. Supp. 2d 714, 724 (W.D. Tex. 2013); Dealers Elec. Supply Co. v. Scoggins Constr. Co., 292 S.W.3d 650 (Tex. 2009). A trustee who misapplies trust funds of over $500 commits a Class A misdemeanor, but if funds are misapplied with intent to defraud, then the violation becomes a third degree felony. Tex. Prop. Code § 162.032.

Bankruptcy. Bankruptcy is not a way to escape the Trust Fund Statute. Under Tex. Prop. Code § 162.001(d), trust funds do not become property of the bankruptcy estate.

Burden of proof. The general contractor accused of misapplication of trust funds under Tex. Prop. Code § 162.031(a) has an affirmative defense in § 162.031(b). The affirmative defense is that the “trust funds not paid to the beneficiaries of the trust were used by the trustee to pay the trustee’s actual expenses directly related” to the project. In Kirshner v. State, 997 S.W.2d 335 (Tex. App—Austin 1999, writ refused), the court held that the contractor has the burden of proof on the affirmative defense and that the beneficiaries do not have the burden of tracing the contractors’ funds to show whether the funds went toward actual expenses directly related to the project. Accordingly, the general contractor should keep detailed records that are separate for each project, so that the contractor can trace all funds expended to actual expenses of a particular project. Also, if the trustee/general contractor withholds funds due to a reasonable dispute over whether the beneficiary/subcontractor is entitled to the funds, then the trustee/general contractor must give notice to the beneficiary. Tex. Prop. Code § 162.031(b). The trustee/general contractor cannot just ignore the beneficiary/subcontractor’s request for payment.

Equitable Subrogation. A contractor or owner who pays unpaid subcontractors of subcontractors can be equitably subrogated to trust fund claims of the paid off subcontractors. The contractor or owner can then pursue whoever failed to pay the subcontractor. Tag Invs., Ltd. v. Monaco (In re Monaco), 514 B.R. 477, 485 (Bankr. W.D. Tex. 2014).

Sham Contracts:

Under Section 53.026 of the Texas Property Code, the owner of real property cannot escape liability by setting up a corporation to act as the owner’s general contractor, and thus, escape liability to subcontractors and suppliers. Specifically, the Property Code provides that if the property owner has the ability to control the person or entity that acts as a general contractor, then the subcontractor is considered to “be in a direct contractual relationship with the owner” and “has a lien as an original contractor.” Tex. Prop. Code § 53.026.

Copyright 2017, Ian Ghrist, All Rights Reserved.

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. Do not rely on any part of this blog as legal advice. Instead, seek out the advice of a licensed attorney. Also, this information may be out-of-date.

Suit for Accounting in Texas and Appointment of Auditor

When a suit for accounting is filed, the appointment of an auditor under Tex. R. Civ. P. 172 can make the case much easier to handle. The auditor’s report is admissible into evidence under Tex. R. Civ. P. 706. The auditor’s fees should be paid by the parties and are generally taxed as a cost against the losing party. Tex. R. Civ. P. 172, 131, 141. However, the Court has discretion to apportion the cost otherwise if the Court has good cause, stated on the record. Tex. R. Civ. P. 141; Villiers v. Republic Financial Services, Inc., 602 S.W.2d 566, 571 (Tex. Civ. App.—Texarkana 1980, writ ref’d n.r.e.) (Court had discretion to tax one-half of the auditor’s fee to each party when the Court stated appropriate reasons for doing so in the Court’s order).

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. Do not rely on any part of this blog as legal advice. Instead, seek out the advice of a licensed attorney. Also, this information may be out-of-date.

What Landowners Need to Know About Subcontractors: Funds-Trapping, Statutory Retainage, and Other Derivative Claims

Texas law protects not only original or general contractors; who automatically obtain a lien upon the owner’s property just by providing materials or performing labor (Tex. Const. art. XVI, § 37); but also subcontractors who the owner may never meet and who may have no contracts or business dealings whatsoever with the owner. Property owners can be shocked to find that these people that they have never met can claim a lien upon the property and cloud the title, thus preventing a sale or hypothecation of the property. The original contractor holds an automatically-arising lien by the Texas Constitution, however, the Texas Constitution provides no protection to derivative claimants like subcontractors. Consequently, subcontractors’ rights come solely through compliance with the statutory mechanic’s lien laws. Generally, this means that if a subcontractor fails, in any way, to send out proper notices or file everything correctly, then the subcontractor loses its lien claim. Thus, the claims of subcontractors against the property owners can fail easily, often due to technicalities.

Derivative Claims. The subcontractors’ rights are called “derivative claims” because the rights of the subcontractors are derived from the rights of the general contractor. The general contractor is in privity of contract with the property owner (meaning that the owner and contractor have entered into a contract between the two of them) while the subcontractor is not in privity of contract with the property owner, but is in privity of contract with the general contractor. Under basic contract law, the subcontractor generally has no claim against the property owner for breach of contract when the subcontractor has not been paid because the subcontractor is only in privity with the general contractor, and so, may sue only the general contractor, and not the property owner. An exception to the general rule that only parties in privity with each other can sue for breach of contract exists when a third-party to the contract is an “intended beneficiary,” but intended-third-party-beneficiary law is complex, not specific to the State of Texas, and goes beyond the scope of this article, and the subject of mechanic’s lien and construction law, since it is a matter of general contract law principals.

A subcontractor’s lien is valid only if the correct written notice is given. If the general contractor has actual notice of a subcontractor’s claim, but does not receive timely written notice, then the subcontractor’s lien is invalid. Moore v. Brenham Ready Mix, Inc., 463 S.W.3d 109, 116 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2015). Even though the mechanic’s lien statutes are “liberally construed” and “substantial compliance” with the statutes can sometimes be sufficient to perfect a lien, derivative claimants tend to have little leeway. Id. at 115, 118 (quoting First Nat’l Bank in Graham v. Sledge, 653 S.W.2d 283 (Tex. 1983). For the most part, the subcontractor who misses notices or sends them late loses its lien. Morrell Masonry Supply, Inc. v. Lupe’s Shenandoah Reserve, LLC, 363 S.W.3d 901, 904–07 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2012, no pet.).

Statutory Retainage. Even unsophisticated Texan homeowners who pay a handyman to do some work on the house need to know about statutory retainage or else face potential derivative liability from unpaid subcontractors of the handyman. Statutory retainage is the amount of holdback funds that are required on every project. Property owners must retain ten (10) percent of the contract price of the work or ten (10) percent of the value of the work (if there is no contract price) for thirty (30) days after the work is completed. Tex. Prop. Code § 53.101. This is called the “required statutory retainage.” Special rules governing contractual retainage claims are found in Section 53.057 of the Texas Property Code. “In order to perfect a statutory retainage lien . . . a subcontractor must file its lien affidavit within thirty days of the time that the original contract is completed, terminated, or abandoned.” Tex. Prop. Code § 53.101; Page v. Marton Roofing, Inc., 102 S.W.3d 733, 734 (Tex. 2003).

Protections for Homeowners. Subchapter K of Chapter 53 of the Texas Property Code protects unsophisticated homeowners from some of the pitfalls of statutory retainage and funds-trapping law. These rules, in Sections 53.251 to 53.260 of the Texas Property Code, apply to properties “used or intended to be used as a dwelling by one of the owners.” See Tex. Prop. Code § 53.001(8)–(10). Generally, Subchapter K notice deadlines for subcontractors on residential projects are one month shorter than the non-residential deadlines. Also, the homeowner must be provided with a list of subcontractors and suppliers. See Tex. Prop. Code § 53.256. Keep in mind that even though a contractor is supposed to provide a homeowner with the disclosure from Tex. Prop. Code § 53.255 that the failure to do so does not invalidate the contractor’s lien, it only gives rise to damages against the contractor if the failure to provide the lien causes damages. Tex. Prop. Code § 53.255(c); See 1997 Texas House Bill 740, Committee Report, April 10th, 1997 (“In connection with the disclosure and disbursement statements, there are no specific remedies provided against the contractor or the lender who fails to provide these statements because the Committee believes that there are sufficient statutory causes of action available to consumers who are injured as a result of the failure to comply with a statutory disclosure requirement.”). The contractor is also required to provide funds disbursal statements, with subcontractors listed, under Tex. Prop. Code § 53.258, but again, the failure to comply does not invalidate a lien. Tex. Prop. Code § 53.258(e).

Final Bills—Paid Affidavit. Homeowners should also be aware that original contractors are required by Section 53.259 of the Texas Property Code to submit a “Final Bills—Paid Affidavit.” In this affidavit, the original contractor should either state that he has “paid each person in full for all labor and materials used” or give the names and amounts owed of anyone who remains unpaid. Additionally, the statute makes it a crime to submit a false final bills-paid affidavit and imposes personal liability on the person signing the affidavit for any incorrect information in the affidavit. Since most homeowners do not know about this law, they probably would not even think to ask for this affidavit.

Homesteads. Homesteads are different from residences. “Homesteads” are defined by Section 41.002 of the Texas Property Code, while “residences” are defined in Sections 53.001(8)–(10). Contractors working on “homesteads” need to follow the specific rules in Section 53.254 of the Texas Property Code. Contractors working on a homestead must obtain a written contract signed by both spouses to have a chance at obtaining a valid mechanic’s lien. This applies to both original and derivative claimants. Additionally, unless the property owner misrepresents the property owner’s marital status on the contract itself, even if the property owner makes misrepresentations elsewhere, a mechanic’s lien probably cannot attach without both spouses’ signatures. The Cadle Co. v. Ortiz, 227 S.W.3d 831, 838-39 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2007). Accordingly, contractors should make sure to list the owner’s name in the contract as “John Doe, a single man,” or something similar, to avoid undisclosed marriages. Id. “It is well-settled that neither a constitutional lien nor a statutory mechanic’s lien may be enforced against a homestead unless a written contract for the work and material to be supplied is signed by all owners prior to the work commencing and is recorded.” Cadle v. Oritz, 227 S.W.3d at 836.; also see Tex. Const. art. XVI § 50(a)(5)(A); Tex. Prop. Code § 53.254(c). Under Tex. Prop. Code § 53.254(e), a construction contract on a homestead must be filed with the county clerk. Ultimately, because of how many rules apply to homesteads, unless the contractor is quite savvy and papered the transaction correctly, the typical homestead owner can probably escape the contractor’s claim for a mechanic’s lien.

Funds-Trapping Letters. “The statutory fund-trapping provision allows subcontractors to ‘trap, in the owner’s hands, funds payable to the general contractor if the owner receives notice from the subcontractors that they are not being paid.’ First Nat’l Bank v. Sledge, 653 S.W.2d 283, 286, 26 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 463 (Tex. 1983). Specifically, the statute provides that an owner who receives such notice ‘may withhold from payments to the original contractor an amount necessary to pay the claim for which he receives notice.’ Tex. Prop. Code § 53.081(a). The statute further provides a remedy if the owner fails to withhold funds from the original contractor: ‘the owner is liable and the owner’s property is subject to a claim for any money paid to the original contractor after the owner was authorized to withhold funds under this subchapter.’ Id. § 53.084(b).” Page v. Marton Roofing, Inc., 102 S.W.3d 733, 734-35 (Tex. 2003). The main difference between residential and nonresidential claims is that residential claims only involve one notice, while nonresidential claims involve two sets of notices. In the nonresidential context, both notices must be sent by the deadlines for the lien to be valid. Morrell Masonry Supply, Inc. v. Lupe’s Shenandoah Reserve, LLC, 363 S.W.3d 901 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2012, no pet.).

The following Matrix shows the funds-trapping notice rules for statutory and contractual retainage claims (known colloquially as “funds-trapping” notices). Please note that Tex. Prop. Code. § 53.058 and § 53.253 contain other rules for specially-fabricated items.

Funds-Trapping Notice Matrix

Statutory Retainage Claim

Contractual Retainage Claim

Residential

If homestead, then also comply with Tex. Prop. Code §
53.254, including giving the homeowner the statutory notice
in subsection (g).

Written notice to the owner and the original contractor of
the unpaid balance.

Deadline is the fifteenth (15th) day of the
second (2nd) month following each month in which
all or part of the claimant’s labor was performed or
material delivered.

Notice must state that “if the claim remains unpaid, the
owner may be personally liable and the owner’s property may
be subjected to a lien unless: (1) the owner withholds
payments from the contractor for payment of the claim; or
(2) the claim is otherwise paid or settled.” Tex. Prop.
Code § 53.252.

Must be sent registered or certified mail and be addressed
to the last known address for the recipient.

The notice should include “A copy of the statement or
billing in the usual and customary form.” Tex. Prop. Code §
53.252(e).

The subcontractor can either follow the rules for statutory
retainage claims, or follow the rules for contractual
retainage claims. Either are effective. Tex. Prop. Code §
53.057(a).

Notice of a contractual retainage agreement must be given
to the owner “not later than the earlier of (1) the
thirtieth (30th) day after the date the the
claimant’s agreement providing for retainage is completed,
terminated, or abandoned; or (2) the thirtieth (30 th) day after the date the original contract is
terminated or abandoned.” Tex. Prop. Code § 53.057(b).

If the contractual retainage agreement is with the original
contractor, then the notice must go to both the owner and
the original contractor by the deadline.

The notice must generally state the existence of a
requirement for retainage and contain the name and address
of the claimant and the subcontractor, if different.

The notice must be sent to the last known business or
residence address of the owner or contractor.

Tex. Prop. Code § 53.057(e) through (g) contain rules for
filing of lien affidavits in lieu of following the
statutory retainage claim rules.

Non-Residential

Subcontractor must give notice of unpaid balance to the
original contractor “not later than the fifteenth (15 th) day of the second (2nd) month
following each month in which all or part of the claimant’s
labor was performed or material delivered.” Tex. Prop. Code
§ 53.056(b).

Subcontractor must give the same notice to the owner, with a copy to the original contractor, not later than the fifteenth (15 th) day of the third (3rd) month
following each month in which all or part of the claimant’s
labor was performed or material delivered. Id.

The notice to the owner must state “if the claim remains
unpaid, the owner may be personally liable and the owner’s
property may be subjected to a lien unless: (1) the owner
withholds payments from the contractor for payment of the
claim; or (2) the claim is otherwise paid or settled.” Tex.
Prop. Code § 53.056(d).

Must be sent registered or certified mail and be addressed
to the last known business or residential address for the
recipient.

The notice should include “A copy of the statement or
billing in the usual and customary form.” Tex. Prop. Code §
53.252(e).

Copyright 2017, Ian Ghrist, All Rights Reserved.

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. Do not rely on any part of this blog as legal advice. Instead, seek out the advice of a licensed attorney. Also, this information may be out-of-date.

How to Get Mechanic’s Liens Removed

The easiest way is to simply wait out the limitations period. Tex. Prop. Code § 53.158. If a suit is not filed by the contractor to foreclose the lien within one (1) year on a residential project or two (2) years on a commercial project, then the lien is automatically discharged of record. Id.; Tex. Prop. Code § 53.157 (listing ways that a mechanic’s lien becomes “discharged of record”). Title companies know about the “Discharge of Lien” statute and will generally insure around lien affidavits after the limitations period runs out.

Somewhat confusingly, a “lien” is defined as a “claim in property for the payment of a debt and includes a security interest.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 12.001, but mechanic’s lien affidavits on homesteads must conspicuously state that “THIS IS NOT A LIEN. THIS IS ONLY AN AFFIDAVIT CLAIMING A LIEN.” Tex. Prop. Code § 53.254. Since a “claim in property” is a lien and since the affidavit claiming a lien still clouds title to the property and prevents the homeowner from conveying the property with title insurance to a buyer, the distinction between a lien and an affidavit claiming a lien seems like a distinction without a difference. Title companies generally do not care that an affidavit claiming a lien is not actually a lien—they still will not insure the transaction without a release of the lien or claim of lien.

Title Companies:

Check with your title company regarding whether the company will “insure around” a lien. Generally, there must be some defect in the lien to do this. The title company will look at each lien claim on a case-by-case basis to evaluate whether to offer any options for insuring around the lien. You will probably need to execute an indemnity agreement with the title company and you may need to make a substantial deposit with the title company to satisfy any potential claims. Doing this can be a great alternative to a remedial bond under Tex. Prop. Code § 53.171. If the property owner insures around the lien, and then the statute of limitations runs out on the lien without the contractor filing suit, then generally, the property owner will be in the clear.

Remedial Bonds Under Section 53.171 of the Texas Property Code:

Under Section 53.171(c) of the Texas Property Code, a mechanic’s lien can be discharged with a bond even after the dispute has arisen and the lien has been filed. The bond must be substantially higher than the lien amounts. See Tex. Prop. Code § 53.172(3). The filing of the bond starts a one-year limitations period against any lien claimants. Tex. Prop. Code 53.175; Stoltz v. Honeycutt, 42 S.W.3d 305 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2001, no writ). The statutory requirements for filing and notice regarding the bond should be followed to ensure that no problems arise.

Summary Motion for Lien Removal:

Section 53.160 of the Texas Property Code allows a property owner to file a “Summary Motion to Remove Invalid or Unenforceable Lien.” Tex. Prop. Code § 53.160. It is called a “summary” motion for lien removal because it allows for the lien to be removed as fast as twenty-one (21) days after the lien claimant answers or appears in the suit. Tex. Prop. Code § 53.160(c). This is obviously much faster than waiting for the Court to schedule a trial date. Getting a trial date; under the most common Discovery Control Plan—Level Two (2) (See Tex. R. Civ. P. 190.3); is going to take at least nine months, probably much longer, since the parties are entitled, in a Level Two case, to a nine-month discovery period starting with the “earlier of the date of the first oral deposition or the due date of the first response to written discovery.” Tex. R. Civ. P. 190.3(b)(1)(B)(ii). Even this “expedited” lien removal process tends to leave aggrieved property owners bitter. No one wants to file a new lawsuit, watch the process server spend a month chasing the defendants down, and then wait another month for the answer to get filed, and then wait another twenty-one days after that, to get an “expedited” hearing, especially in District Court since County Courts at Law in Texas generally do not have jurisdiction over “question[s] of title.” Escobar v. Garcia, No. 13-12-00596-CV, 2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 5157, at *9 (App.—Corpus Christi May 15, 2014, pet. denied); Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 26.043(8).

At the summary lien removal hearing, the lien claimant has the burden of proving that the notice of claim and affidavit of lien were furnished to the owner and original contractor (if applicable) as required. Tex. Prop. Code § 53.160(d). The movant has the burden of establishing that the lien should be removed for “any other ground authorized by this section.” Id. Despite the title of the code section, the lien cannot be removed simply because it is invalid or unenforceable. Instead, the “grounds for objecting to the validity or enforceability of the claim or lien for purposes of the motion are limited to” the seven (7) grounds listed in Texas Property Code § 53.160(b). The seven grounds are:

“(1) notice of claim was not furnished to the owner or original contractor as required by Section 53.056, 53.057, 53.058, 53.252, or 53.253;
(2) an affidavit claiming a lien failed to comply with Section 53.054 or was not filed as required by Section 53.052;
(3) notice of the filed affidavit was not furnished to the owner or original contractor as required by Section 53.055;
(4) the deadlines for perfecting a lien claim for retainage under this chapter have expired and the owner complied with the requirements of Section 53.101 and paid the retainage and all other funds owed to the original contractor before:
(A) the claimant perfected the lien claim; and
(B) the owner received a notice of the claim as required by this chapter;
(5) all funds subject to the notice of a claim to the owner and a notice regarding the retainage have been deposited in the registry of the court and the owner has no additional liability to the claimant;
(6) when the lien affidavit was filed on homestead property:
(A) no contract was executed or filed as required by Section 53.254;
(B) the affidavit claiming a lien failed to contain the notice as required by Section 53.254; or
(C) the notice of the claim failed to include the statement required by Section 53.254; and
(7) the claimant executed a valid and enforceable waiver or release of the claim or lien claimed in the affidavit.”

If the property owner’s reasons for wanting the lien removed do not neatly fit into any of these categories, then the property owner should try simply depositing “all funds subject to the notice of a claim” into the court’s registry, and getting the lien removed under Tex. Prop. Code § 53.160(5). Doing this can be cheaper than a remedial bond since the remedial bond must be substantially higher than the lien amount. See Tex. Prop. Code § 53.172(3).

One potential hiccup with the summary lien removal motion is Tex. Prop. Code § 53.161, which provides that the Court must allow the lien claimant to stay the removal of the lien by posting a bond that is a “reasonable estimate of the costs and attorney’s fees the movant is likely to incur” and that does “not exceed the amount of the lien claim.” The bond must be posted within thirty (30) days of the order. If the bond is not posted by the deadline, then the property owner can file a certified copy of the order along with a certificate from the clerk of court stating that no bond was filed within thirty (30) days after the date the order was entered by the Court and no order staying the order to remove the lien was entered by the Court. Tex. Prop. Code § 53.161(f). Upon filing the foregoing, creditors or subsequent purchasers for valuable consideration can take an interest in the property free of the lien claim. Tex. Prop. Code § 53.161(g). At this point, the property owner should have no problem selling or encumbering the property with title insurance from any title company.

If the lien claim is removed under the summary lien removal statute, but the lien claimant ultimately wins at trial, establishing the validity of the claim and getting an order for foreclosure of the lien, then the claimant can file the final judgment with the county clerk and get the lien revived. Tex. Prop. Code § 53.162.

Action on Fraudulent Lien on Property:

Property owners, real estate developers, and anyone else dealing with mechanic’s liens need to know right off the bat that the “Action on Fraudulent Lien on Property” under Tex. Gov’t Code § 51.903 is NOT a panacea for every mechanic’s lien dispute. In fact, it rarely applies. The Court dealing with this section CANNOT “make a finding as to any underlying claim of the parties involved.” Tex. Gov’t Code § 51.903(a). If a “substantive evidentiary claim” must be decided by the Court, then this procedure is unavailable. Tu Nguyen v. Bank of Am., N.A., No. 01-15-00587-CV, 2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 12595, at *7 (App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Nov. 29, 2016). For the procedure to be available, the fraudulent nature of the claim must, pretty much, be determinable by review of the document alone. Id. (citing David Powers Homes, Inc. v. M.L. Rendleman Co., 355 S.W.3d 327, 339 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2011).

Section 51.903 of the Texas Government Code provides that a property owner with “reason to believe” that a previously filed “document purporting to create a lien or claim” against “real or personal property” is “fraudulent” may submit a “Motion for Judicial Review of Documentation or Instrument Purporting to Create a Lien or Claim” to the District Clerk. The motion, supporting affidavit, certificate of acknowledgement, and order on the motion should all follow the statutory formats listed in Tex. Gov’t Code § 51.903. The motion “may be ruled on by a district judge having jurisdiction over real property matters in the county where the subject document was filed.” Tex. Gov’t Code § 51.903(c). The Court’s review can be “ex parte without delay or notice of any kind.” Id. Moreover, the appellate court should “expedite review” of the trial court’s finding. Id. In filing the motion, keep in mind that documents or instruments meeting the criteria of Tex. Govt’ Code § 51.901(c) are “presumed to be fraudulent.” Tex. Gov’t Code § 51.901(c) provides that instruments are presumed fraudulent when:

“(1) the document is a purported judgment or other document purporting to memorialize or evidence an act, an order, a directive, or process of:
(A) a purported court or a purported judicial entity not expressly created or established under the constitution or the laws of this state or of the United States; or
(B) a purported judicial officer of a purported court or purported judicial entity described by Paragraph (A);
(2) the document or instrument purports to create a lien or assert a claim against real or personal property or an interest in real or personal property and:
(A) is not a document or instrument provided for by the constitution or laws of this state or of the United States;
(B) is not created by implied or express consent or agreement of the obligor, debtor, or the owner of the real or personal property or an interest in the real or personal property, if required under the laws of this state, or by implied or express consent or agreement of an agent, fiduciary, or other representative of that person; or
(C) is not an equitable, constructive, or other lien imposed by a court with jurisdiction created or established under the constitution or laws of this state or of the United States; or
(3) the document or instrument purports to create a lien or assert a claim against real or personal property or an interest in real or personal property and the document or instrument is filed by an inmate or on behalf of an inmate.”

Ordinary Certificate of Acknowledgement Instead of Short Forms for Certificates of Acknowledgement. Interestingly, a “Motion for Judicial Review of Documentation or Instrument Purporting to Create a Lien or Claim,” under Tex. Gov’t Code § 51.903(a), requires use of the “Ordinary Certificate of Acknowledgment,” (See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 121.007) and not the commonly-used “Short Forms” (See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 121.008).

Statutory Damages for Fraudulent Liens. If the Action on Fraudulent Lien on Property applies, then the movant should probably also file for relief under Section 12.002 of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code. Under Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 12.002, anyone filing a claim knowing it to be fraudulent is liable to each person injured by the claim for the greater of $10,000.00 or actual damages, plus court courts, attorney’s fees, and exemplary damages. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 12.002(b). With mechanic’s liens, there is no liability under this section unless the contractor “acts with intent to defraud.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 12.002(c).

This is also a great statute to know about when you pay off a collateralized loan and have a lender or bank that drags their feet in providing the release of lien that is indisputably required. A well-written demand letter that cites the applicable lien release statutes tends to get results.

Criminal Law on Fraudulent Liens. Refusal to execute a release of a fraudulent lien or claim, under Tex. Penal Code § 32.49, is a Class A misdemeanor. Also see Bowles v. State, NO. 14-99-01396-CR, 2001 Tex. App. LEXIS 6311, at *11 (App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Sep. 13, 2001). The owner, holder, or beneficiary of a purported lien or claim that is fraudulent, under Text. Gov’t Code § 51.901(c), who does not provide a release of lien by the twenty first (21st) day after the receipt of actual or written notice by certified mail or fax requesting release of the claim faces criminal liability. If that person fails to execute a release of the claim within twenty-one (21) days, then the person is “presumed to have had the intent to harm or defraud another.” Tex. Penal Code § 32.49(b). The violator could also be looking at a perjury charge depending on circumstances. Tex. Penal Code § 37.01(2)(A).

Copyright 2017, Ian Ghrist, All Rights Reserved.

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. Do not rely on any part of this blog as legal advice. Instead, seek out the advice of a licensed attorney. Also, this information may be out-of-date.

How to Avoid Mechanic’s Liens

Usually, the lawyer gets a phone call when a problem with a mechanic’s lien has already arisen. However, there are preventative measures that property owners can take to avoid getting into mechanic’s lien situations in the first place. One method is to obtain advance or periodic mechanic’s lien waivers from your contractors. Another is to bond around any potential mechanic’s liens. Both methods require strict compliance with the relevant sections of the Texas Property Code to ensure effectiveness.

Waiver:

Residential Advance Waivers. Statutory mechanic’s liens generally cannot be waived in advance by the contractors. See Tex. Prop. Code § 53.286. However, a big exception to this rule exists for single-family homes. Under Tex. Prop. Code § 53.282(a)(3), a waiver of mechanic’s lien is enforceable if it is in a “written original contract . . . for the construction, remodel, or repair of a single-family house . . .” and is “made before labor or materials are provided under the original contract.” So, generally you can have your contractors waive their rights to file mechanic’s lien affidavits to cloud your title if it is a single-family residential project and the waiver is in the original contract signed before labor or materials or provided. Developers doing residential rehabs should consider including this waiver language in their original contracts with each of their contractors to avoid mechanic’s liens.

Statutory Progress Payment Waivers. Another waiver worth mentioning here is the statutory form waivers for progress payments. In Section 53.284 of the Texas Property Code, property developers can find a form for waiving mechanic’s liens upon the making of a progress payment. In a multi-stage development project, use of these forms contemporaneously with the payment of each draw is a best practice. Keep in mind that you cannot tell the contractor that you will not pay the contractor unless the contractor signs the waiver. You have to pay the contractor first, and then get the waiver signed. See Tex. Prop. Code § 53.283. You could tell the contractor that the contractor may not do any additional work or receive any additional payment until the contractor signs the waiver for the draws that have already been completed and paid. This way, you are waiving liens in stages as the project nears completion so that you do not get stuck with a large lien claim at the end of the project.

Fraudulent Lien Law Issues. One final note on waivers, filing a mechanic’s lien affidavit despite a valid waiver does violate the Texas Fraudulent Lien Law (Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 12.002), but only if the property owner sends “a written explanation of the basis for nonpayment, evidence of the contractual waiver of lien rights, and a notice of request for release of the lien to the claimant at the claimant’s address stated in the lien affidavit” and “the lien claimant does not release the lien affidavit” within fourteen (14) days. See Tex. Prop. Code § 53.282. If the reason for the lien being fraudulent does not relate to waiver, then the Fraudulent Lien Law is violated at the time that the lien claim is filed, not when the claimant refuses to release it. Vanderbilt Mortg. & Fin. v. Flores, 692 F.3d 358 (5th Cir. [Tex.] 2012).

Prompt Payment Act. It should also be noted that liability for 18% interest on unpaid amounts under the Texas Prompt Payment statute cannot be waived in a residential construction contract, but can be limited to payments not made by 60 days after the date that the owner receives the written Tex. Prop. Code. § 28.002(a) request from the contractor. Also, on residential contracts, the prompt pay good faith withholding allowed is 110%, not 100%. Tex. Prop. Code § 28.003.

Bonding Around Mechanic’s Liens:

An appropriate preventative bond will keep mechanic’s liens from arising during a project. After a dispute arises and a lien has already been filed or attempted, however, the cloud on title can still, generally, be cleared with a remedial bond.

The Texas Department of Insurance can be a good place to start looking for the right bonding company:

http://www.tdi.texas.gov/commercial/pcbond.html#type

Preventative Bonds:

Though rarely used for small residential projects, mechanic’s and materialman’s liens can be stopped with a bond that complies with Sections 53.201–53.211 of the Texas Property Code. Under § 53.201 of the Texas Property Code, “If a valid bond is filed, a claimant may not file suit against the owner or the owner’s property . . . .” “If a payment bond meets the statutory requirements, a claimant may not file lien claims against the property owner or seek foreclosure of the claimant’s lien on the owner’s property. Tex. Prop. Code § 53.201. Instead of looking to the property, claimants must look to the payment bond.” Laughlin Envtl., Inc. v. Premier Towers, L.P., 126 S.W.3d 668, 671 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2004). Furthermore, “For a property owner to reap the benefits of Tex. Prop. Code § 53.211 and thereby enjoy the protections it affords, there must be a bona fide attempt to comply with the statutory requirements. Id. Under Section 53.211 of the Texas Property Code, attempted compliance with the bonding requirements of Section 53.202 of the Texas Property Code and other applicable law may be sufficient even if technical compliance is not present. Regardless, the prudent property owner or original contractor will try to strictly comply with the requirements of Section 53.202 of the Texas Property Code.

Remedial Bonds:

Remedial bonds, under Section 53.171 of the Texas Property Code, do not prevent mechanic’s liens from arising. Remedial, or indemnity, bonds can, however, clear title as to a specific lien after the claim has been filed.

Copyright 2017, Ian Ghrist, All Rights Reserved.

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. Do not rely on any part of this blog as legal advice. Instead, seek out the advice of a licensed attorney. Also, this information may be out-of-date.