As Real Estate Market Sours, Courts Punish Delayed Projects, Relieving…

Back in the September 9, 2008 edition of The Wall Street Journal, as knowledge of the global financial crisis was both broadening and deepening, I expected that of the myriad lawsuits being filed by real estate buyers in hopes of recovering their initial preconstruction deposits, among those with the highest probability of success were scenarios in which the developer failed to deliver the project on time.

While there is no sure way of testing this forecast, my sense is that for the most part, it is proving itself true. Take, for example, a recent opinion from the Eleventh Circuit — the highest federal appellate court with jurisdiction over Florida, and one which has been instrumental in setting the tone for the latest wave of real estate litigation. In Harvey v. Lake Buena Vista Resort, LLC, 2009 WL 19340 (11th Cir. Jan. 5, 2009), the Eleventh Circuit upheld the lower court’s order refunding deposits paid toward the buy of an Orlando condominium, finding that the developer had breached the buy contract by failing to deliver the unit in a timely manner. Notably, the Eleventh Circuit left the developer zero room for deviation from the promised two-year construction schedule. While the developer obtained a certificate of occupancy just five days after the two-year deadline, the court held that this was too late as a matter of law, already though the defendant testified that the additional five days were attributable to a matter outside of its control –the unusually slow processing of a necessary road permit.

Tellingly, in reaching its conclusion, the Eleventh Circuit sidestepped another issue on which the purchasers had prevailed in the lower court — that is, whether the developer had violated the disclosure provisions of the federal Interstate Land Sales complete Disclosure Act (ILSA) in failing to both register the condo with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and furnish a federal character Report to the buyers. As I have written before, federal courts have been noticeably reluctant to rule for buyers on claims brought under ILSA, violations of which are often viewed as hyper-technical and immaterial in instances where a project is otherwise delivered according to a developer’s stated promises.

In contrast, it is easy to see why courts might have more sympathy for buyers in situations where construction has been unjustifiably delayed. The calculus is simple: the longer a building goes unfinished, the more time a buyer’s deposits will have been tied up in an unlivable and unsaleable project. And every day the real estate market remains mired in a historic slump only serves to strengthen the downside to the buyer. The recent but unsurprising rash of lender foreclosure actions against developers tell a general tale of builders without funds to pay off loans, contractors, or subcontractors. This method that the many however-to-be-finished projects around the country will miss the completion deadlines set forth under contract –if they get finished at all, that is.

As a functional matter, those buyers with possible construction delay claims who have decided that they are without the patience of Job are well-advised to assert their legal claims as quickly and decisively as possible. While construction delay may be a pathway to successful rescission of a buy contract, generally speaking, the longer one waits to take legal action, the greater the chance that the developer will be able to argue that the buyer — by his or her own delay — has waived any legal claims.

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