No Unanimity As To What New ASTM E1527-13 Standard Requires

Some environmental practitioners contend that Phase I site assessments, commonly used in real estate transactions, will now be more costly and time consuming due to the new standard. Seyfarth Shaw counsels in its Client Alert that the new standard requires that, “if the subject property has soil contamination or is underlain by groundwater contamination, unless the risk of vapor intrusion can be screened out, Phase II sampling likely will be necessary.”

But is that really the case? In his article titled, “Confusion on Role of VI in New ASTM E1527-13 Standard,” environmental guru, Larry Schnapf, argues that these law firms’ predictions are “simply incorrect.” Schnapf points out that the revised version of E1527 clarifies that the vapor intrusion pathway is like any other contaminant’s pathway and the potential for vapor intrusion should be evaluated and addressed as part of a Phase I inspection.

However, all a consultant is required to do as part of a Phase I is to recognize environmental conditions – the presence or potential presence of releases of hazardous substances. A consultant that identifies a REC due to an actual or potential source of soil or groundwater contamination will not normally collect samples as part of a Phase I.

Contrary to the interpretation of the new Phase I standard offered by some, Schnapf advises:

From a practical standpoint, the question of whether vapor intrusion should be independently flagged as a REC will only really be an issue for off-site releases where vapor intrusion is the only pathway for contamination to migrate onto the property. When the target property already has soil or groundwater contamination, the consultant would flag that contamination as a REC.

Thus, according to Schnapf, if a consultant determines that there is potential vapor intrusion because of the presence of an REC, the consultant is not required to actually collect sub-slab or indoor air samples as part of its Phase I.

The issue takes on additional importance when one also considers that Phase I diligence is required to protect both landowners and lenders from liability under CERCLA. 

According to USEPA,

"All Appropriate Inquiries," or AAI, is a process of evaluating a property’s environmental conditions and assessing the likelihood of any contamination…..The All Appropriate Inquiries Final Rule provides that the ASTM E1527-05 standard is consistent with the requirements of the final rule and may be used to comply with the provisions of the rule.

The Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act (the “Brownfields Amendments”) amended CERCLA to provide protections from liability for certain landowners and prospective purchasers of properties who can demonstrate compliance with specific statutory criteria and did not cause or contribute to contamination at the property.  

Therefore, if the Phase I diligence the new owner performs does not meet the revised ASTM E1527-13 standard, in the opinion of the Agency, due to the omission of vapor intrusion screening, there may be considerable adverse consequences down the road for both landowners and lenders.

The additional transactional cost to the real estate community in performing many thousands of  vapor intrusion studies in Phase I assessments each year is likely to be considerable. Considering that vapor intrusion is just one of many RECs, does it make sense from an environmental perspective to do these surveys as a matter of course?  More importantly, does the new standard require that these screenings be performed at all? 

No Duty To Disclose To Prospective Homeowners

What is the duty of a real estate developer to disclose to prospective residential purchasers information about the neighborhood that may adversely impact property values? Apparently none if the developer is not in privity with the homeowners, according to the Eleventh Circuit.

 On May 21, 2012, Law 360 reported on the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Luis Virgilio v. Terrabrook Vista Lakes L.P., et al. , Case No. 11-11027 (5/18/12).  We have discussed in a past article the circumstances under which a commercial  real estate broker may be found have a duty to disclose environmental liabilities to a prospective purchaser.  Here, the court was clearly troubled by the question of how far the developer’s potential liablity to disclose "inside information" would extend and how an obligation to disclose this information could be satisfied.. 

By way of background, class action plaintiffs purchased their homes from a builder, The Ryland Group, Inc. (“Ryland”), in a subdivision in Vista Lakes, a residential development in Orlando, Florida. Unbeknownst to the Virgilios (and other members of the class), the homes they purchased from Ryland were located adjacent to Pinecastle,  a World War II bombing range that, to this day, remains laden with unexploded bombs, ammunition, ordinance and related chemicals. Once Pinecastle’s existence became public, the homes in the subdivision lost considerable market value and the Virgilios brought this lawsuit to compensate for their loss.

Plaintiffs entered into a $1,200,000 settlement with Ryland and then turned their attention to the four other defendants involved in the development and marketing of the subdivision. However, on the same day that the district court certified the plaintiff class and approved the Ryland settlement, it dismissed plaintiffs’ claims against the remaining defendants as legally insufficient. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court ruling in all respects.

Plaintiffs pursued four legal theories against the developer defendants, all based on their failure to inform plaintiffs about Pinecastle before they purchased their homes. One developer/defendant, Terrabrook, sold Ryland the undeveloped land that became the subdivision. At the time of the sale, Terrabrook informed Ryland of Pinecastle’s existence. Terrabrook actively marketed Vista Lakes to prospective buyers and received a commission for each home or lot sold.

Count 1 of the Complaint attributed the defendants’ duty to disclose to the Florida Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Johnson v. Davis, which holds that “when a seller of a home knows the facts materially affecting the value of the property which are not readily observable and are not known to the buyer, the seller is under a duty to disclose them to the buyer.”

In Johnson v. Davis, the court overturned the old rule that  “where the parties are dealing at arms length and facts lie equally open to both parties, with equal opportunity of examination, mere non-disclosure does not constitute fraudulent concealment.” The Florida Supreme Court concluded, however, that this rule was “not in tune with the times and did not conform with current notions of justice, equity and fair dealing.” Thus, Florida’s high court held that the law required “full disclosure of all material facts” whenever “elementary fair conduct demands it.”

In rejecting plaintiffs’ argument that Johnson v. Davis should be applied to uphold their claims, the Eleventh Circuit found no facts to support the plaintiffs’ conclusory allegation that the defendants were acting as Ryland’s agent in promoting homes in the development. As the Court noted, “Count 1 is missing an essential allegation – the critical element of an agency relationship – that the principal exercised, or had the ability to exercise, control over the agent.”

Count 2 is silent as to the source of the duty, but suggests that it lies in equity since it is a claim for unjust enrichment. Count 2 alleges that because defendants failed to inform plaintiffs about Pinecastle, it would be inequitable for defendants to retain the benefits. Count 3 locates the duty in the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (“FDUTPA”), FLA Stat. §§ 501.201 et seq., asserting that defendants’ failure to inform plaintiffs about Pinecastle constituted a “deceptive, misleading and unfair trade practice.” Count 4 locates the duty to disclose in common law negligence.

The heart of the Eleventh Circuit’s decision is its refusal to extend Johnson v. Davis.  The court found that the case did not apply because: (1) the defendants were not in privity with the buyer or acting as an agent in privity with the buyer (such as the seller’s real estate broker); and (2) there was no allegation in Count 1 that defendants’ “marketing efforts were at the behest or direction of Ryland, that Ryland exercised any control over [the] marketing efforts, or that [defendants] actually listed any of the homes… on behalf of Ryland.”

Applying the same logic to Count 2, the court held that even assuming the plaintiffs conferred a benefit on defendants, Johnson’s duty to disclose did not extend to defendants. Thus, since defendants did not breach a duty to plaintiffs, plaintiffs had not been wronged and defendants were not unjustly enriched. The trial court dismissed Count 3 because the alleged FDUTPA “deceptive or unfair trade practice” was the breach of an affirmative duty of disclosure. Since the Court determined in dismissing Count 1 that there was no such duty, the FDUTPA claim was dismissed as well.

In essence, the Eleventh Circuit found plaintiffs’ "argument – that because defendants developed and marketed Vista Lakes, they had a duty to warn prospective purchasers of Pinecastle’s existence – without merit."  Rejecting plaintiffs’ logic, the Court observed:

What about those to whom Ryland’s home buyers sold their houses? Would Terrabrook have a duty to them as well? Since Terrabrook was not a party to Ryland’s contracts with the buyers, and thus did not know the buyers’ identities, under Plaintiffs’ approach the only way Defendants could discharge their duty of care would be through marketing: Defendants could not escape liability unless they saturated the market place with the negative information

Would  the case have turned out differently if the developer had prepared brochures that affirmatively misrepresented the environmental condition of the neighborhood?  In granting summary judgment, the district court said that while it was foreseeable that the defendants’ general marketing campaign could lead some members of the public to consider purchasing a home in Vista Lakes, the general marketing had nothing to do with any particular home in Vista Lakes and simply put plaintiffs in face-to-face discussions with Ryland.

  For more on the lower court’s decision and a discussion of developments built on former bombing ranges, see Larry Schnapf’s informative discussion titled "Home on the Bombing Range" and his more recent discussion about the Eleventh Circuit’s decision.

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Was Buyer Of Real Estate “Ready, Willing & Able” To Perform?

Until now, there has been a split of appellate authority in New York concerning what a prospective purchaser must show in seeking damages for a seller’s repudiation of a contract for the sale of real property. It is the general rule that a prospective purchaser seeking specific performance of a real estate contract must demonstrate that it is “ready, willing and able to close.” However, there has been a split of authority concerning whether the purchaser must demonstrate that it is “ready, willing and able” to close in seeking damages for seller’s anticipatory breach of contract.

In Pesa v. Yoma Development Group, Inc. et al., 18 N.Y.3d 527, … N.Y.S.2d … (Feb. 9, 2012), the New York State of Appeals examined the issue whether prospective buyers in a damages suit must show that they were “ready, willing and able” to close the transaction – that is, but for the seller’s repudiation, the transaction could and would have closed. In reversing the Appellate Division, Second Department, the Court held that the burden of proof was the “real question” in a case like this:

"Should the buyers be required to show they would and could have performed? Or should the seller have the burden of showing that they would not or could not? Since the buyers can more readily produce evidence of their own intentions and resources, it is reasonable to put the burden on them."

To New York’s high court, its conclusion was "supported by common sense" Thus, the Court of Appeals held that the buyers were not entitled to summary judgment and that issues of fact needed to be resolved, in favor of the buyers, before the buyers could be found to be actually “ready, willing and able.” In the instant case, for example, the buyers needed to demonstrate that they could secure a mortgage commitment within the required sixty day period.

The take-away from this decision is that buyers seeking redress for a seller’s repudiation of a real estate contract now have the same burden of proof whether they are seeking damages or specific performance.
 

California Nixes CEQA Climate Change Review

In an earlier blog post, we discussed a setback for the consideration of climate change impacts in “Reverse Environmental Impact Statements” as a result of a California Court of Appeal invalidating guidelines to the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). The California guidelines required that a developer’s EIR analyze any significant potential climate change impacts to a proposed mixed use real estate development project in Marina Del Rey in Los Angeles County. In striking down the guidance, the court found held that the purpose of the EIR was to identify significant effects of a project on the environment, not significant effects of the environment on the project. At the time, we were awaiting the California Supreme Court’s decision on appeal.

In March 2012, the California Supreme Court decided not to hear the appeal of the Court of Appeal decision. Thus, at least for the time being, developers in California will not be required to discuss potential climate change impacts on proposed projects in environmental impact statements. Consequently, the Agency will no longer be able to examine the significance of certain impacts, such as potential flooding and earthquake risks, on such projects. The ruling will almost certainly narrow the scope of issues the Agency will consider for an EIR review, which may significantly reduce the time and costs involved.

As I recently discussed with Environmental Law 360, it is now up to the California legislature to decide whether to amend CEQA to permit regulatory consideration of climate change impacts on proposed projects. Developers may factor climate change into their planning regardless because it is likely that prospective long-term commercial tenants will want to know how climate change could impact the property. As California is often a bellwether on environmental issues, it will be interesting to see how other state agencies, with regulatory guidelines similar to California’s, will proceed.
 

The Reverse Environmental Impact Statement

The traditional environmental impact statement (“EIS”) examines the effect of a proposed project, such as a construction project, on the environment. However, various federal, state and local statutes and rules are now looking in the opposite direction – at how environment changes might affect a project.

In an article in the New York Law Journal, dated March 8, 2012, “Reverse Environmental Impact Analysis: Effect of Climate Change on Projects,” Michael B. Gerrard, a distinguished professor at Columbia Law School, examines what he terms “reverse environmental impact analysis.” For example, if during the expected lifetime of a proposed building, the building site may be endangered by sea level rise, should this be disclosed in an EIS?

In a recent case involving a proposed mixed-use real estate development project in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles County, the court invalidated recent guidelines to the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), which is similar to New York’s SEQRA. The California guidelines required that the EIS (or EIR as it is referred to California) analyze any significant environmental impacts the proposed project might cause. In striking down the guidance, the California Court of Appeal held in Ballona Wetlands Land Trust v. City of Los Angeles (November 2011) that this “reverse” analysis was inconsistent with the CEQA statute. The court found that the purpose of the EIS was to identify significant effects of a project on the environment, not the significant effects of the environment on the project. The issue is now before the California Supreme Court, where the case is expected to receive significant attention.

At the federal level, the Counsel on Environmental Quality, which was created by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (“NEPA”), issued a draft guidance in February 2010 urging consideration of the effects of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions on future projects. For example, if climate change studies were to demonstrate that a proposed airport will be underwater in twenty years, the EIS should contain that information.

On the state level, New York DEC in October 2010, issued a policy on climate change directing DEC’s staff to incorporate climate change adapation strategies into DEC programs and activities, as appropriate. Finally, at the local level, New York City’s Environmental Quality Review (“CEQR”) procedure now mandates consideration of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from projects.  

The take-away is that real estate developers will increasingly be required to consider  in their environmental impact statements how changes brought about by climate change may impact their proposed projects down the road.  Ultimately, legal challenges to regulations requiring reverse environmental impact statements will be turned aside and there will be a paradigm shift in how EISs are performed. 

Will Bedbug Litigation Become The Latest Litigation Scourge?

Guest Blogger ANDREA J. LAWRENCE is a Senior Counsel at Epstein Becker & Green in New York.  She provides legal advice and counsel to clients in the real estate industry. Andrea has extensive commercial litigation experience, and has provided legal representation to real estate companies, landlords, developers, property management companies, and commercial tenants  She recently published an article about bed bug litigation in the New York Real Estate Journal.  Despite some recent highly publicized bedbug personal injury litigation involving prominent New York hotels, Andrea concludes on the basis of a recent New York appellate case, that bedbug cases may not fare well in a commercial setting. 

Many people don’t necessarily associate bedbugs with other environmentally hazardous conditions such as toxic mold or oil contamination. However, the reemergence of bedbugs in this country has created unsafe and hazardous living conditions, and has spawned a recent spate of lawsuits throughout the United States. Just recently in New York, the Appellate Division, First Department, shed some light on the issue of liability in the sale of an apartment building with an alleged bedbug infestation. In 85-87 Pitt St., LLC v 85-87 Pitt St. Realty Corp., 83 A.D.2d 446, 921 N.Y.S.2d 40 (1st Dep’t 2011), the appellate court upheld a lower court dismissal of a lawsuit, where a buyer sought damages from a seller after its purchase of a residential apartment building with a prior bedbug infestation. The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the case, predicated upon the contract clause setting forth that the buyer had accepted the building "as is" after having had an opportunity for inspection, as well as the merger clause contained therein that extinguished any claims arising from the seller’s alleged misrepresentations concerning bedbugs. Thus, at least in this jurisdiction, there is not much legal recourse for purchasers of buildings, or even apartment units, with a bedbug history, where such relief is precluded by contract.

 The lesson to be learned from this case is simple – in the course of a buyer’s due diligence in today’s market, it should search building records for reports of a bed bug (or any insect/vermin) infestation, and may want to conduct its own physical inspection with an exterminator to uncover any such infestation, past or present. Moreover, should a buyer wish to have some safeguard against this issue, it should insist on a clause within the contract of sale whereby the seller proffers a representation about the presence or absence of bedbugs so as to be enforceable. 
 

Does Seller’s Real Estate Agent Have A Duty To Purchaser?

A recent Michigan Court of Appeals decision, Alfieri et al. v. Bertorelli et al., dated October 18, 2011 re-visits the issue of whether a real estate agent has a duty to disclose environmental information to a prospective purchaser in the absence of privity. The take-away in this and similar cases is that the  result is often dependent upon the specific facts presented, and even then, the result may vary depending upon the law of the state at issue. For example, New York strongly adheres to the doctrine of caveat emptor, which imposes no liability on a seller (let alone the seller’s agent)  for failing to disclose information regarding the premises in an arms length transaction, unless there is some conduct on the part of the seller which constitutes active concealment.  In New York, the purchaser of contaminated property would arguably have a difficult time, in the absence of some affirmative misrepresentation and a showing of reasonable reliance, holding seller’s agent liable.

Although the Alfieri case is based on Michigan, not New York, law, its holding is instructive. Alfieri arose out of plaintiffs’ purchase of a condominium unit in what had once been an abandoned factory. The factory had been contaminated with trichloroethylene, and in the process of converting it into condominiums, a vapor barrier was installed. Nonetheless, the former factory property was never properly decontaminated. However, plaintiffs were led to believe that the contamination had been cleaned up. In part, plaintiffs relied upon a sales brochure, prepared by Coldwell Banker, the seller’s agent, indicating that the site had been decontaminated. The plaintiffs purchased the condominium without conducting any independent diligence of their own and only learned following the closing that the property was seriously contaminated.

In rejecting Coldwell Banker’s motion for summary judgment, the Michigan court discussed two of plaintiffs’ theories of recovery – silent fraud and negligent misrepresentation. The court explained that common law fraud or fraudulent misrepresentation involves: (1) a defendant making a false representation of material fact with the intention that a plaintiff would rely on it; (2) the defendant either knowing at the time that the representation was false or making it with reckless disregard for its accuracy; and (3) plaintiff actually relying on the representation and suffering damage as a result. Silent fraud is essentially the same, except that it is based on a defendant suppressing a material fact that he or she was legally obligated to disclose, rather than making an affirmative misrepresentation. A silent fraud may be a misleadingly incomplete response to the purchaser’s inquiry concerning a particular concern.

The court did not accept seller’s agent’s argument that Michigan jurisprudence did not impose upon the seller’s agent a duty of disclosure, in contrast to the duty imposed on the sellers themselves. The court held that a duty of disclosure may be imposed on seller’s agent to disclose newly acquired information that is recognized by the agent as rendering a prior affirmative statement untrue or misleading. In this case, there was evidence that the plaintiffs made direct inquiries of defendants about the condition of the property. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality provided information to the seller which suggested that the sales brochure contained inaccurate and misleading information. What is troubling about the court’s holding is that the agent for the seller prepared the sales brochure on the basis of information obtained from the client. Did the agent have reason to believe that the contents of the sales brochure were not true until the plaintiffs filed suit? The decision does not provide a clear answer. However, the court apparently believed that there was a sufficiently genuine issue of material fact to deny the agent’s motion for summary judgment.
 

Can Phase I Reports Hurt Your Client?

In an article titled, “How Phase I Reports Can Hurt Your Clients,” (ALI-ABA Practical Real Estate Lawyer, Vol. 27, No. 6, November 2011), environmental guru Larry Schnapf cautions purchasers of property that an ill-conceived Phase I report may result in their losing CERCLA ability protection or expose them to misrepresentation claims.  The article’s primary concern is that a Phase I report may not necessarily assist a purchaser in establishing a CERCLA:  1) third-party defense; 2) innocent landowner defense; or 3) bona fide prospective purchaser defense, the requirements for each of which are set forth in the statute. 

To qualify for CERCLA liability protection, a property owner or operator must, among other things, demonstrate that it investigated the past use and ownership of the property consistent with the requirement of the EPA “All Appropriate Inquiries” (“AAI”) rule and exercised appropriate care with respect to contamination at the property.  In an earlier article, “The New ‘All Appropriate Inquiries’ Rule,” (ALI-ABA Practical Real Estate Lawyer, January 2007), Schnapf observes that ASTM’s standard practice for environmental site assessments (ASTM E1527-00) may be inconsistent with the statutory criteria set forth in Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act of 2002 (the “2002 Brownfields Amendments”) and spurred EPA to develop the AAI rule.  Thereafter, ASTM worked with EPA to revise E1527-00 to ensure that a revised standard would satisfy the requirements of the AAI rule. When EPA issued the final AAI rule, which became effective November 1, 2006, the agency announced that E1527-05 was now consistent with the final rule so that environmental site assessments consistent with the ASTM standard could be considered compliant with the rule.  Do pitfalls remain?

Schnapf cautions that the absence of a “recognized environmental condition” (“REC”) in a Phase I may not guarantee that there is no “business environmental risk” (“BER”).  For example, over the years, some Phase I reports have come to include environmental issues (e.g., asbestos, lead-based paints, radon mold) that do not fall within the definition of an REC because they do not involve releases of hazardous substances, although they could still be of concern to a property owner, tenant or lender.

  In Bank of New York Mellon Trust Company et al. v. Morgan Stanley Mortgage Capital Inc. (MSMCI), 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69168 (S.D.N.Y. June 27, 2011), a New York federal district court denied a motion to dismiss filed by a mortgage originator who was alleged to have failed to adequately disclose environmental conditions at a shopping center.  In that case, a mortgage loan purchase agreement was entered into in connection with a shopping center that had been constructed on a former landfill.  The landlord at the shopping center was required to monitor methane gas and had been subject to a number of violations.  Just before the loan closed, the largest tenant of the shopping center issued a Notice of Default accusing the owner of failing to properly manage the methane gas and alleging that methane gas levels had reached dangerous levels.  Although the landlord’s Phase I discussed the methane issue, the court declined to grant the defendant’s motion to dismiss finding that the purpose of the report was to identify RECs, that the report had not identified any RECs.  The court held that an “item of environmental concern” was not necessarily congruent with an REC.  Accordingly, the court found there was a legitimate dispute as to whether the Phase I had adequately disclosed the existence of a material environmental threat, which resulted in the loss of the primary tenant.

In addition to providing a caution to due diligence counsel concerning the scope of the Phase I, Larry also raises a concern about the practice of some environmental consultants in providing recommendations for further investigation or remediation in the Phase I report.  If such recommendations are made, and the purchaser fails for any reason to promptly implement them, the purchaser’s bona fide prospective purchaser defense arguably may be jeopardized.  Accordingly, the article recommends that any recommendations for further investigation or remediation be provided by the consultant in a separate letter to counsel and not be transmitted to the client directly.