July 17, 2014. Update. Today the Indiana Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals. Check back soon on the Indiana Business Law Blog for a discussion of the Supreme Court’s decision.
A ruling in a recent case, Fischer v. Heymann, illustrates the pitfalls one can encounter when selling real estate. By not changing a light bulb and pushing the little red button on a couple of electrical outlets, the seller lost over $90,000!
Gayle Fischer entered into a contract to sell a condominium to Michael and Noel Heymann for $315,000. The buyers could inspect the property and, if they found serious defects, cancel the sale unless she agreed to fix the problems. On February 10, 2006 the Heymanns demanded that Fischer fix some minor problems: a couple outlets weren’t working and a light bulb needed to be changed. Fischer wrote back on Feb. 13th, saying she’d respond by Feb. 28th. The Heymanns wrote back two days later, demanding a response by Feb. 18th. Fischer did not make any further replies until the 19th, when the Heymanns attempted to cancel the contract, and the lawsuit ensued, with Fischer claiming total damages of more than $94,000, including $75,000 in direct damages (which represented the difference between the agreed price of $315,000 and the best offer Fischer later received, $240,000.)
The Court of Appeals applied two standard contract principles but to reach a result that may seem surprising. First, the buyers committed an “anticipatory breach”.or “breach by repudiation,” which occurs when one party declares its intent to breach the contract. Here, the Heymanns’ refused to buy the condo unless Fischer made repairs, which the Court of Appeals held was an anticipatory breach. (The Heymanns would have had the right to cancel the contract if the defects in the condo were serious, but they weren’t.) An anticipatory breach is treated the same as an actual breach. Fischer did not need to wait until Heymanns failed to show up at the closing.
Second, once a breach has occurred (anticipatory or otherwise), the other side has an obligation to mitigate damages, or to take reasonable steps to avoid ‘piling up’ additional damages. One way of mitigating damages when a buyer backs out of a real estate purchase is to attempt to find another buyer. Here, the agreed price was $315,000. If the best price Fischer could get from another buyer was $300,000, the Heymanns would have owed her only $15,000. However, if Fischer passed up the $300,000 offer and later sold it for only $240,000, the Heymanns would still owe only $15,000 because that’s what the damages would have been if Fischer had mitigated.
Although the Court of Appeals did not describe its analysis quite this way, it essentially treated the Heymanns demand for repairs as a breach of the original purchase agreement and a new offer to buy the condo for the same price after the repairs were made, repairs which cost only $117 — the price for an electrician to make a service call to reset the ground fault interruptors and change a light bulb. Certainly, if, immediately after the Heymanns breached, a third person had offered to buy the property for the same price, less $117, mitigation of damages would have required Fischer to accept it. The Court of Appeals held that mitigation of damages required Fischer to make the repairs requested by the Heymanns. Result: The Heymanns owed Fischer $117, not $94,000!
Note that these principles apply to contracts in general, not just to real estate purchase agreements. Does it surprise you that one party can make the other party choose between accepting an amendment to the contract or collecting damages that are worth no more than the amendment? That’s effectively what happened in this case, and it surprised the Court of Appeals judge who dissented from the decision. I don’t know if Fischer’s lawyer has petitioned to transfer the case to the Indiana Supreme Court. If so, it will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court accepts the case. And if the decision stands, it will be interesting to see how later Indiana court decisions apply Fischer to other situations.
If you are considering purchasing or selling real estate or encounter a situation where the other party may have committed an anticipatory breach of contract please contact our office to meet with our contract attorney today.