The Alaska Supreme Court’s decision last week in Mullins v. Oates is a cautionary tale for those selling real estate in Alaska. The case shows that you have to be careful about how your deal gets put together. For just this reason, its always helpful to have a pessimistic, worrywart real estate lawyer in your corner who can point out the pitfalls up ahead.
In the Mullins case, Alice Oates, the owner of some land and a building in the burgeoning metroplex of Tok, Alaska, sold the property to Margret Mullins. Mullins apparently lacked the ability to get a bank loan so Oates engaged in a form of owner financing for the deal. Oates sold the property to Mullins under a contract of sale. (The phrase “contract of sale” should mean that red lights are flashing for all the cynical real estate lawyers out there. The red lights are also probably flashing even for the optimistic, sunny-side-of-the-street real estate lawyers out there, if there actually are any such creatures.)
You see, a sale on a contract means that the seller hangs on to the title to the real estate until the seller is paid in full. The buyer gets the immediate right to occupy the property and can even make improvements to it while its being paid off. But if the buyer fails to make the required payments, the contract says that the seller can take the property back and throw the buyer out into the street. At least, the contract gives the seller that right in theory.
The problem with this arrangement is that the law does not know what to do when a default occurs. Equity abhors a forfeiture and so do most judges. The courts don’t like to see the poor buyer get stiffed on the property after perhaps making years of payments and even erecting a building or two. To complicate matters further, there is no easy remedy available to the seller to enforce the requirement that the buyer get lost after failing to make the payments. The non-judicial foreclosure procedure that is available for deeds of trust does not apply to contract deals. The contract seller ordinarily has to go to court for a judicial foreclosure to actually terminate the buyer’s rights.
(As an aside, I will point out that on occasion one comes across a lower court judge who has no problem enforcing a contract as written, even if it means a forfeiture occurs. These rare and enlightened beings — who are like a fresh summer breeze blowing through the mausoleum that is the courthouse — are almost certain to have the highest reversal rates in the appellate courts.)
So poor Alice Oates had to go to court to throw out Margret Mullins when the required payments were not made. It turned out that the sweet, hard-working Maggie Mullins who Oates originally made her deal with later changed into the buyer from hell. The transformation was one worthy of Large Marge in the movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
Large Marge Mullins represented herself in the lawsuit and battled over nearly everything. The parties eventually struck a settlement, but Mullins disavowed it and went as far as accusing the Magistrate who brokered the deal of coercion. Large Marge also wrapped herself in the Constitution, desperately claiming that she was being deprived of equal protection of the law and due process by being held to the deal she had made.
The Alaska Supreme Court rejected Large Marge’s arguments and upheld the lower court’s judgment in favor of Alice Oates. The end result was a judgment confirming the property belonged to Oates. The only problem was that the confirmation finally came more than six full years after Mullins stopped making payments on the property. This is in contrast to the four or five months that a non-judicial foreclosure would have taken if the original deal had been structured correctly.
But have we heard the last of Margret Mullins? Perhaps not. Its unclear whether the judgment in Alice Oates’ favor is really an order for judicial foreclosure or not. The argument can be made that it has to viewed that way. In a judicial foreclosure setting, Mullins would have a one-year right of redemption through which she could regain the property. We can only hope that Large Marge Mullins does not tumble to this issue.
By the way, the best line from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure comes when Pee-Wee is talking with the cafe waitress, Simone, about her dream to live in Paris one day. Pee-Wee encourages Simone to just go for it, at which point the following dialogue occurs:
Simone: I know you’re right, Pee-Wee. But, . . .
Pee-Wee: Everyone I know has a big “But.” (Sigh.) C’mon, Simone, let’s talk about your big “But.”