Category: Real Estate Litigation

Georgia Easement Disputes

For those interested in easements disputes, a new case from the Georgia Court of Appeals is worth reviewing. Patel Taherbhai, Inc. v. Broad Street Stockbridge, LLC, A19A0820 (October 3, 2019). This case involves adjoining landowners, Patel and Broad Street, who got into a dispute regarding an easement the landowners’ predecessor-in-interests had agreed to. The easement was on Patel’s property and allowed Broad Street to go over Patel’s property to reach a public street.

Broad Street complained that Patel was blocking access to the easement. After back and forth between the parties’ attorneys, Broad Street filed an ejectment lawsuit against Patel. The lawsuit alleged Patel had constructed improper and unsafe encroachments on the easement, which were denying Broad Street access and diminishing the value of its property, and therefore the encroachments should be removed. Patel denied the alleged encroachments were blocking access, and, even if access was being blocked, Broad Street had consented to the encroachments by failing to timely object.

The trial judge agreed with Broad Street and ordered the encroachments ejected (i.e., removed) from the easement. An appeal was filed. The appellate court’s analysis focused on whether a party is entitled to file an ejectment lawsuit to remove an encroachment from an easement. Importantly, and in a well-reasoned decision, the appellate court determined that ejectment cannot be used in these situations. Instead, ejectment only applies when a party’s rightful possession to its property is being denied. Here, Patel’s alleged misconduct wasn’t occurring on Broad Street’s property (instead, it was occurring on Patel’s property) and therefore Patel wasn’t interfering with Broad’s Street’s possession of its property. This does not mean Patel is off the hook, only that the correct remedy is these cases is to file an action for damages and/or an injunction.

While many appellate decisions unfortunately provide little guidance, this thoughtful decision arrives at a ruling by carefully examining prior case law (going back to the 1800’s) and opinions expressed by real estate experts. In the end, lawyers (and landowners) now have a definitive understanding of how to handle situations in which an adjoining neighbor blocks an easement.

If you’re in a real estate dispute, please contact us for a free evaluation.

Another Georgia Excess Tax Sale Funds Case

Republic Title Co. v. Freeport Title & Guar., Inc., A19A0274 (May. 29, 2019) concerns entitlement to excess funds remaining following a tax sale pursuant to OCGA § 48-3-3. We’ve discussed this in previous blogs. There isn’t much new here but the case does reinforce some tax deed principles of interest. In this case, the property owner at the time of the tax sale sought to collect excess tax sale proceeds following the tax sale. Also following the tax sale, a security deed holder on the property similarly sought the excess tax funds.

The owner filed a lawsuit seeking the excess tax funds, and, in the same lawsuit, sought to quiet the security deed holder’s lien as a cloud on title. The argument was the loan had matured for more than seven years and therefore wasn’t enforceable at the time of the tax sale. In Georgia, under O.C.G.A. § 44-14-80, title to real property conveyed to secure a debt or debts revert to the grantor the expiration of seven years from the maturity of the debt or debts or the maturity of the last installment thereof as stated or fixed in the record of the conveyance (this is the general rule).

Following the recommendation issued by a special master appointed in the case, the trial court ruled in favor of the owner; awarding the owner the excess tax funds and quieting title against the security deed holder. The Georgia Court of Appeals agreed. The Georgia Court of Appeals rejected the security deed holder’s argument that the special master didn’t have authority to issue a ruling on excess funds. And the security deed holder’s argument that the property owner lacked standing to bring a quiet title was likewise disregarded. Although the quiet title was filed by the owner after the tax sale, it was filed within the time period in which the owner had a right to redeem the property. Thus, the owner’s right to redeem was enough to give the owner standing to quiet title against the security deed holder.

If you have any questions regarding tax deeds, please call us at 404-382-9994.

Does a Foreclosure Sale Determine Fair Market Value in Georgia?

The answer is a resounding yes according to an interesting case that came out recently. SeeDekalb County Board Of Tax Assessors v. Astor Atl, LLC, A19A0516 (April 1, 2019). In that case, the Georgia Court of Appeals rejected DeKalb County’s argument that it could assess property taxes in an amount higher than the price paid for the same property at a foreclosure sale.

Dekalb County argued that a foreclosure sale does not qualify under as an arm’s length, bona fide sale, and that it had appraised the property in conformity with its rules using the sales comparison approach.

In deciding the case, the Georgia Court of Appeals referenced O.C.G.A. § 48-5-2(3), which provides a limitation on the maximum allowable fair market value. Under that statute, “the transaction amount of the most recent arm’s length, bona fide sale in any year shall be the maximum allowable fair market value for the next taxable year.”

The decision concluded by holding that foreclosure sales can be arm’s length, bona fide sales. Moreover, the fact that the sale may not bring in the true market value of the property does not require a different rule; the fact that the sale results in a financial loss is not relevant.

The court noted that foreclosure sales are distinct from tax sales. While foreclosures are considered arm’s length, bona fide sales, tax sales are considered “forced sales” because owner retains a right of redemption, so the tax deed purchaser does not obtain proper title until the redemption period has run.

While this isn’t super helpful in the current market with surging property values, it would definitely help investors should the real estate market turn south down the road. Something to keep in mind.

Please call us at 404-382-9994 for real estate related questions.

Landlord Wins Wrongful Eviction Case

There is a lot of confusion when it comes to evicting a tenant. One of the questions is the amount of damages a tenant is entitled to if wrongly evicted. The issue was addressed recently by the Georgia Court of Appeals in Hart v. Walker, A18A1320. In that case, the landlord clearly wrongfully evicted the tenant by changing the locks when she and the tenant got into a dispute.

Please don’t do this—in almost all instances, a landlord in Georgia must file an eviction in court in order to deprive a tenant of possession. Georgia is not a self-help state.

The tenant sued the landlord claiming wrongful eviction and damage to personal property. He also claimed out-of-pocket expenses.

The trial court ruled that although the tenant was wrongfully evicted, the tenant wasn’t entitled to recover any damages against the landlord. The appeals court agreed. At trial, the tenant had an expert testify to the fair market value of the items, but he was unable to convince the trial court that he in fact owned the items in question. The appeals court explained that the trial court is entitled to evaluate the credibility of a witness, and, if the witness isn’t credible, it can reject the witness’ testimony. Here, obviously, the trial court didn’t believe the tenant that he owned the items in question. Regarding the tenant’s out-of-pocket expenses for food and a motel, the appeal court noted that the tenant would have to incur such expenses regardless of the wrongful eviction. Therefore, these damages were too remote.

While this case addressed damages, as a landlord, if there’s anything you take away from this blog, it should be that changing the locks isn’t the way to go. The landlord in this case was fortunate that the tenant was unable to make a case for damages.

The Insurability of Tax Deed Titles

If you’ve purchased a tax deed in Georgia, what do you need to do to obtain ownership of the property? That’s a question we get frequently. First and foremost, following a tax sale, you need to bar the right of redemption of the owner who didn’t pay taxes and any party who holds an interest in the property. This has been covered in other blogs on this website. But what about after you’ve barred the right to redeem, are you able to put up for sale sign and sell the property?

Generally, if there’s a non-judicial tax sale on the property within the past 20 years, the answer is no. In other words, most title insurance companies won’t title insure such properties. So what to do. There are generally three ways to obtain full title or what is known as “marketable title.”

The first way is to adversely possess the property for more than four years. This means taking full possession of the property in a manner that is (i) hostile (against the right of the true owner and without permission); (ii) actual (exercising control over the property); (iii) exclusive; (iv) open and notorious (using the property as the real owner would, without hiding occupancy); and (v) continuous.

The second way is to get a quitclaim deed from the of the owner who didn’t pay taxes and any party who holds an interest in the property.

The third way is to file a quiet title action in the Superior Court in which the property is located. In such a lawsuit the owner who didn’t pay taxes and any party who holds an interest in the property are named and given an opportunity to object.

Please call with any questions regarding tax deeds or any of the above methods of obtaining marketable title once a barment notices have been completed.