Daily Development for Monday, January 29, 2007
by: Patrick A. Randolph, Jr.
Elmer F. Pierson Professor of Law
UMKC School of Law
Of Counsel: Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin
Kansas City, Missouri

MORTGAGES; OPTIONS: Where real property is subject to a recorded option interest, any party subsequently obtaining an interest in the optioned property obtains that interest subject to the option rights. Nevertheless, such party=E2=80=99s rights are valid against the title of the original optionor prior to transfer of title pursuant to the option, even though the optionee has given notice of exercise of the option.

Wachovia Bank v. Lifetime Industries, Inc., 145 Cal. App. 4th 1039, 32 Cal. Rptr. 3d 168 (Cal. App. 2006)

An optionee holding a recorded option to purchase certain real property sued a building contractor that had recorded a mechanic's lien against the property. The optionee sought specific enforcement of its purchase option. The appellate court held that there was insufficient evidence to establish that the optionee obtained title to the property pursuant to the option or that such title extinguished the contractor's lien.

Kmart Corporation sold an estate for years on property in Perris, California to Shawmut Bank ("Shawmut") Shawmut (as owner of the estate for years) leased the property to Kmart. Kmart also deeded the remainder interest ("Remainder") to an entity called FGHK. FGHK in turn then sold to Shawmut Bank ("Shawmut") options (1) to lease the land after the estate for years expired and also (2) the option to purchase the Remainder. Shawmut paid $12,843 for the options. The options (at least) were set forth in a single "option and estate for years agreement" ("Option Agreement"). The Option Agreement was recorded on January 3, 1994.

The option to purchase the Remainder could be exercised upon the occurrence of any of several specified events, including default of FGHK's duty to "keep the property 'free and clear of Optionor liens.'" This option was to be exercised by the optionee notifying the optionor of its "desire to exercise" the option. Upon the closing of the purchase of the Remainder, title was to be "conveyed by special warranty deed free and clear of all Liens, except Permitted Liens."

In addition, Shawmut executed a deed of trust in favor of Bank of New York by which Shawmut mortgaged its interest in the property, and a trust indenture by which Shawmut assigned its interest in the Kmart lease and the Option Agreement to Bank of New York. Bank of New York subsequently assigned the beneficial interest under the deed of trust to Wachovia, as the Asset Trustee for Property Acquisition Trust 1993-22 ("PAT").

In 2002, Defendant Lifetime Industries, Inc. ("Lifetime") recorded a mechanic's lien against FGHK's remainder interest in the property.

In 2003 there was a foreclosure of the deed of trust given by Shawmut Bank, and the purchaser of Shawut Bank's estate for years and option rights was PAT. FGHK at that time continued to own the Remainder.

In January 2004, Lifetime obtained a judgment from the County Superior Court against FGHK in the amount of $837,795, including a lien upon the ownership interest of FGHK in the property and an order that the interest of FGHK in the property be sold at public auction ("Lifetime Judgment").

PAT then served on FGHK a written notice of its intent to exercise the option to purchase the Remainder pursuant to the Option Agreement, due to the fact that FGHK failed to release, vacate, or fully bond the Lifetime Judgment. FGHK argued in response that the Kmart lease had terminated and that PAT, as the optionee and owner of the estate for years, had the duty to protect the property against Lifetime's mechanic's lien. PAT, in turn, argued that this response amounted to a rejection of the Option Agreement. PAT then filed a complaint in state court against Lifetime and FGHK, which contained the following causes of action: declaratory relief against Lifetime; quiet title against all defendants; and specific performance against FGHK. PAT also asked the court to compel FGHK to deliver a special warranty deed of the Remainder upon PAT's tender of the purchase price, which title to the Remainder PAT alleged would relate back to January 3, 1994, the date the Option was granted, free and clear of any subsequent liens.

FGHK answered the complaint by alleging that PAT had breached the Option Agreement and that FGHK was not obligated to convey title to the Remainder to PAT. PAT sought a declaration that its interest in the Remainder, as represented by the Option Agreement, the exercise notice, and the FGHK deed (when executed), was prior and superior to Lifetime's purported interest in the Remainder, as represented by the Lifetime Judgment. FGHK further argued that PAT's title to the Remainder related back to the date the option was granted in 1994 and therefore extinguished Lifetime's interest in the Remainder under the Lifetime Judgment.

The matters in dispute between PAT and FGHK apparently were never litigated, and were settled, as they were withdrawn, and PAT and FGHK seemed to be working in concert as of the time of the argument in this case. Thus, this discussion focuses solely on the priority dispute between PAT and Lifetime.

After reviewing the respective parties' arguments and assertions, the trial court granted PAT's motion and entered judgment against Lifetime. On appeal to the appellate court, PAT asserted that the quitclaim deed to the Remainder from FGHK to PAT, which was dated two months after the hearing on the summary judgment motion, triggered the relation-back doctrine, but the appellate court stated that "PAT submitted no evidence showing that its receipt of the quitclaim deed was pursuant to its exercise of the option."

The appellate court noted that under California law, it is the title received by the optionee (and not the mere exercise of the option) that relates back to the date the option was given and extinguishes the interest of the intervening party. According to the court, "Until title is transferred, the optionee, after exercising the option, holds only a right to complete the purchase, enforceable by specific performance; intervening interests, while subject to this right, are not yet extinguished." The court noted that "PAT does not state that FGHK ever delivered a deed to the Remainder to PAT or that PAT otherwise has obtained title to the Remainder . . . At most, the evidence submitted to the trial court shows that PAT gave notice that constitutes an exercise of the option to purchase." The court noted further that "the mere exercise of the option, without the consummation of the purchase and sale transaction, does not provide PAT with title to the Remainder."

The court, relying on PAT's own admission that the Remainder continued to be held by FGHK, ruled that Lifetime's lien against FGHK's interest in the Remainder had not been extinguished. With regard to the quitclaim deed from FGHK to PAT, the court ruled that this deed, without more, was insufficient to support a finding in favor of PAT. The court noted the title that relates back to the option must bear some relationship to the option. The court stated that "while the relation-back rule is well settled, the nature of this rule has not been clearly explained by the California cases that have relied on it." Id. at 1054. The court reasoned that "something more than the mere fact that the optionee subsequently acquired title is required before the purchaser has the benefit of the relation-back rule." Id. at 1054. The court stated that "justification for the relation-back rule does not apply when the optionee obtains title to the property despite the failure of a condition, expiration of the option, or a material breach by the optionee that would preclude specific performance.".

Here, according to the court, the evidence of the quitclaim deed (if the court even decided to take such evidence) did not necessarily comply with the requirements for application of the relation-back rule. This was so because (1) FGHK initially denied PAT's right to acquire the Remainder because PAT had allegedly breached the Option Agreement and was not entitled to specific performance (although the issues in this action were never determined), and (2) FGHK eventually issued a quitclaim deed to PAT, rather than the special warranty deed required by the option agreement. According to the court, "PAT could not have obtained the deed from FGHK by operation of the terms of the option, but was required to fulfill an additional condition - the resolution of the PAT-Lifetime dispute - as part of a new agreement between the parties." Id. at 1056. Based on the record before the court, the court held that there was insufficient evidence that PAT had obtained title pursuant to the option or that the acquisition of such title extinguished Lifetime's recorded mechanic's lien.

Finally, the court rejected Lifetime's argument that a California statute, which protected lenders that granted purchase options in connection with loans secured by real property, applied in the present case. The court held that "there is nothing to indicate that the legal relationship between FGHK and Shawmut Bank was anything more than optionor and optionee under the Option Agreement." The court noted further that the word "collateral" referred to in this statute refers to collateral that secures a debt owed by the debtor-optionor to the secured party-optionee, which was not the case here where no debt between the parties existed.

As noted above, the court ruled that the mere exercise of the option, without consummation of the purchase and sale transaction, did not provide PAT with title to the Remainder -- even with the subsequent delivery of a quitclaim deed to the property. The court, while perhaps reluctant to reach this conclusion, reasoned that otherwise a judgment in favor of PAT based on facts similar to this case could foster collusion on behalf of the optionor and optionee, which should not be encouraged as a matter of public policy. The court gave as an example a situation where PAT exercised its option and was deemed thereby to have extinguished the intervening Lifetime lien, yet subsequently failed to tender the purchase price for the Remainder, or was unable to obtain title to the Remainder because of a failure of a condition to closing or a contractual breach by PAT. Under such circumstances, the court believed that FGHK would unjustly retain title to the Remainder free and clear of the Lifetime lien. The court reasoned that in this case PAT took title to the property "outside the purview of the option," i.e., when the optionee would not have been entitled to specific performance, and therefore the relation-back rule should not apply and "the optionee should be in the same position as any other purchaser of the property, and the ordinary rules of priority should apply." Also, as noted earlier, the court found that PAT had submitted no evidence showing that its receipt of the quitclaim deed was pursuant to its exercise of the option.

Reporter's Comment 1: It was certainly counterproductive of PAT in this case to (1) not resolve the initial issues (the claims were dismissed in a separate action) regarding FGHK's original denial that PAT was entitled to acquire the Remainder pursuant to its option right because PAT allegedly breached the Option Agreement and was not entitled to specific performance; (2) obtain from FGHK a quitclaim deed to the Remainder instead of the special warranty deed required by the Option Agreement; (3) wait to obtain the quitclaim deed until two months after the hearing on the summary judgment motion, and; (4) not specifically state in the deed that it was being granted and delivered pursuant to PAT's exercise of its option right as set forth in the Option Agreement.

Reporter's Comment 2: The court appears to have stretched for an "equitable" result in this case, and was given leeway to do so because of the carelessness and neglect of FGHK and PAT with respect to the exercise and finalization of the option right to purchase the property. This result highlights the importance of carefully drafting option rights and agreements, and strictly complying with the requirements stated therein to exercise the option and actually complete the transaction (including preparing and timely delivering the correct form of deed) to obtain the benefit of the relation-back rule (at least in California).

ReporterE2=80=99s Comment 3: In a footnote, the appellate court states that, "The parties do not dispute that Shawmut Bank's interest in the Option Agreement could be the subject of a deed of trust or mortgage," and noted that "[a]lthough California cases have repeatedly stated that an option to purchase real property does not constitute an interest in real property (citations omitted), there is some authority that an option is nevertheless a mortgageable interest (citations omitted)." But the court did not decide this issue because it was not raised or briefed by any party.

The majority rule, as noted by the court, is that an option to purchase real property, by itself, is not an interest in real estate. Section 9-109(d)(11) of Revised Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code provides that (with certain limited exceptions) Article 9 does not apply to "the creation or transfer of an interest in or lien on real property." If an individual or entity acquires an option to purchase real estate (i.e., an option unrelated to any other existing interest in the real estate), that individual or entity may be deemed by a court not to have acquired an interest in the real property that is the subject of the option.

For an example of a decision holding that the optionee can only obtain an interest in the real estate at such time as the option is exercised according to its terms, and therefore any security interest granted in an unexercised option to purchase would be deemed to be personalty rather than realty and would be governed by Revised Article 9, see In re Merten, 164 B.R. 641, 643 (Bankr. S.D. Cal. 1994). The ability of the holder of a security interest in the optionee's right to purchase real property to retain its security interest in proceeds of the collateral is of special importance if a subsequent bankruptcy proceeding is filed by or against the optionee. If the bankruptcy court permits the debtor-optionee either to sell the option right to a third party or to exercise the option right and then resell the property to a third party, the cash proceeds thereof would be subject to the secured lender's UCC security interest only if it were deemed to be an interest in personal property that remained perfected upon the exercise of the option (as opposed to an interest in real property that would require a filing in the real estate records).

Reporter's Comment 4: In setting forth the "general principles" applicable to the issues raised by this case, the court in Wachovia Bank defines an option (and the rights of the parties thereunder) as follows (by reference to California cases and commentary): "An option to purchase real property, supported by consideration, is a contract by which the owner of the property (the optionor) gives another (the optionee) the exclusive right to purchase the property in accordance with the terms of the option (citation omitted"); An option may provide that it can be exercised only upon the existence of specified facts or the occurrence of specified events (citation omitted); "An option is not a sale of the property, but a sale of a right to purchase the property (citations omitted)"; "Upon exercise of the option, the option ceases to exist and is transformed into a contract of purchase and sale; the optionor becomes a seller and the optionee a buyer (citation omitted)"; "If, after valid exercise of the option, the optionor refuses to perform (i.e., fails to deliver title to the optionee), the optionee-buyer may sue to compel specific performance (citation omitted). However, if an optionee is in default under the option agreement, the optionee is not entitled to specific performance and obtains no interest in the property (citation omitted)"; "Although an option gives the optionee the contractual rights to purchase the property, it is 'merely an offer to sell and vests no estate in the property to be sold'" (citation omitted; emphasis in text); an option contract relating to the sale of the land . . . conveys no interest in [the] land (citation omitted; emphasis in text); "an option 'is not a transfer of the title or any estate in the property.' However, when the option is exercised, the right to purchase the property relates back to the time the option was made (citations omitted)"; "Thus, subsequent purchasers of the property with notice of an option to purchase take subject to the right of the optionee to complete the purchase (citation omitted).

According to the Wachovia Bank court:

"The effect of these rules with respect to competing claims to title to property is summarized by Miller and Starr: "When a purchaser or encumbrancer acquires an interest in the property after the option is given but before it is exercised, and he or she has notice of the option, when the option is exercised the title received by the optionee relates back to the date the option was given and extinguishes the interest of the intervening party." (5 Miller & Starr, supra, =C2=A7 11:108, pp. 283, 285, italics added.) Implicit in this relation-back rule is the fact that the optionee has actually received title to the property pursuant to the exercise of the option. Until title is transferred, the optionee, after exercising the option, holds only a right to complete the purchase, enforceable by specific performance; intervening interests, while subject to this right, are not yet extinguished."

Editor=E2=80=99s Comment 1: Readers may be wondering: "And ? . . . So? . . . ." What is the consequence of all of this? It would appear that Lifetime, if it manages to complete its mechanic=E2=80=99s lien foreclosure prior to exercise of the option, is entitled to receive any option price. If not, then it must figure out a way to attach the option price pursuant to collection of its judgment. Perhaps the interests of third party creditors will interfere with Lifetime=E2=80=99s rights to do one of these things, but not the other.

It may be, also, for reasons internal to PAT, that it has to take title directly from FGHK in order to work out the details of what was almost certainly the satisfaction of a debt, as the court acknowledges. That may be what the fussing is all about. But the editor is just speculating.

EditorE2=80=99s Comment 2: The question of whether an option is mortgageable is indeed an interesting one. Here, the parties originally had a deed of trust on the real estate interest (the term of years) and an assignment for security of the option rights. Later, the amended the deed of trust to include the option rights, and then foreclosed, apparently, only the deed of trust. They seemed of the opinion that this accomplished a valid transfer of the option rights. As they also had an assignment for security, which not treat this as a UCC financing agreement and foreclose that pursuant to Article 9 in addition to the foreclosure? Normally, not a problem - but remember weE2=80=99re in California here - the strange and colorful world of the "one form of action rule." Did that affect the parties=E2=80=99 thinking here?"



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