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NJ: Duties to Third-Parties

O’Brien v. Cleveland, 2010 Bankr. LEXIS 171 (Bankr. D.N.J. Jan. 22, 2010).

Underlying commercial action

Facts: Debtors filed a chapter 13 bankruptcy after falling behind on their mortgage payments. Even after the Chapter 13 filing, however, the debtors were unable to keep up with their payments under the the court ordered plan. Eventually, the first mortgage holder commenced a mortgage foreclosure on the debtors’ home. To avoid a sheriff’s sale of their property, the debtors entered into a mortgage rescue arrangement with Cleveland.

The rescue plan was a scam by Cleveland to defraud the debtors. It required the debtors to transfer title in their property, worth over $800,000, to Cleveland, with an option to buy it back at $650,000. Cleveland was to take out a new mortgage on the property, pay off the debtors’ old mortgage and some other outstanding debts in bankruptcy, and permit the debtors to continue to occupy the house in exchange for a payment of $5,000 per month to be used to service the new mortgage.

Cleveland’s attorney, William E. Gahwyler, Jr., prepared all of the closing documents for this transaction, including the HUD-1 statement. The statement contained a number of misrepresentations, including an incorrect sale price, a misrepresentation of Cleveland’s investment in purchasing the property, and a misrepresentation of the debtors’ proceeds from the sale. Moreover, the transaction was never reported by Gahwyler to the bankruptcy court for approval.

The debtors subsequently learned that Cleveland had mortgaged their property for over $100,000 in excess of the outstanding mortgages for its personal benefit. Likewise, the debtors’ $5,000 monthly payments were not being used to satisfy the debt on the property. Eventually, the lender moved to foreclose on the property, and the debtors filed an adversary complaint against Cleveland and its attorney, Gahwyler, alleging fraud, legal malpractice, conspiracy, and violation of a number of statutes.

Issue: Did Gahwyler owe a duty to the debtors in his capacity as attorney for Cleveland?

Holding: The court held that the debtors were entitled to a judgment against Cleveland based on causes of action arising in fraud, violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, Truth in Lending Act, Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act, and New Jersey Home Ownership Security Act of 2002.

The court further held that the lack of an attorney-client relationship between the debtors and Gahwyler was no bar to obtaining relief against him:

Mr. Gahwyler should have withdrawn from representing Mr. Cleveland as soon as the nature of the transaction became known to him…[a]s an attorney, Mr. Gahwyler had an ethical obligation to prepare an accurate closing statement and should have withdrawn from representing Cleveland rather than create an inaccurate closing statement . . . had Gahwyler fulfilled his ethical responsibilities, Cleveland could not have carried out his plot. Gahwyler’s failure to perform his ethical obligations proximately caused damages to the debtors in the amount of the increased debt encumbering this house.

Lesson: An attorney who knowingly participates in the fraudulent scheme of his client will be held responsible for damages proximately sustained by a third-party as a result of the deceptive conduct.

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Posted in: Commercial, Federal, New Jersey, Standard of Care