The foreclosing lender in Hoang v. California Pacific Bank, 2014 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5230 (July 23, 2014) made some curious decisions and the result was the bank was ordered to pay damages to the purchaser that exceed the sales price of the property. The irony is that the lender probably complied with the CERCLA and state secured creditor exemption by foreclosing and then quickly selling the property. Unfortunately, the lender incurred contractual liability for the cleanup.
In 2000, California Pacific Bank (CBP) had financed the purchase of a commercial real property that had been contaminated with PCE from a dry cleaning solvent packaging and supply business that had formerly operated at the site. At the time of the loan, the known maximum PCE contamination had been 3,200 parts per million (ppm) in the soil and 82,000 parts per billion (ppb) in the groundwater. The highest PCE concentrations were located in areas where product had been offloaded from railcars and trucks to an aboveground storage tank.
A consultant retained by the borrower concluded the remediation could be completed within three years at a maximum cost of $250K. The estimate was based on a limited soil removal and groundwater monitoring. The purchaser/borrower negotiated a reduction in the purchase price from $900K to $850K. In addition, the purchaser agreed to release and indemnity the seller as well as to covenant to obtain a no further action letter from the water board. An escrow was established equal to the $250K estimate.
Despite the high PCE concentrations, the bank made its first judgment error when it accepted what proved to be a woefully inadequate estimate without retaining its own consultant to independently vet the estimate. The bank then committed its second error when it approved an escrow equal to the estimated cleanup costs. Most lenders will require escrows to be at least 125% and often 150% of the estimated costs to obtain closure.
After excavating 130 cubic yards of contaminated soil and pumping 5,000 gallons of groundwater, the borrower’s consultant sought regulatory closure form the State Regional Water Quality Control Board (Water Board). In October 2001, though, the Water Board required further groundwater and soil remediation.
In November 2002, borrower defaulted on its loan and eventually filed for bankruptcy. In March 2003, the bank acquired title through a non-judicial foreclosure. In another curious decision, CPB retained the same environmental consultant who had underestimated the cleanup and did so two months AFTER CPB too title. The consultant reportedly told the bank that he could he could obtain Water Board closure for $45K of additional remediation. However, at trial he testified he had informed the CPB that other environmental consultants probably would have estimated that it would cost over $1 million to obtain Water Board closure. Another lender might have wondered if it was provided with a low-ball bid but CPB appears to have elected to proceed with the environmental equivalent of a “Hail Mary” pass. The Water Board approved the workplan for quarterly monitoring but required submission of a remedial investigation and proposed remedial action by the end of 2003.
CPB then agreed to sell AND finance the acquisition of the property to the plaintiff for $1.14MM. Paragraph 29 of the amended agreement provided that CPB agreed to fund the remedial work up to $45K consisting of additional source removal and installation of additional groundwater wells. If additional remediation was required to obtain an NFA letter, the Bank had the discretion to authorize additional remediation work up to a maximum cost of $100K, with plaintiff paying half of the additional costs. Any costs in excess of $100K were to be the sole responsibility of CPB. The bank covenanted to obtain the NFA letter within three years of the August 6, 2003 closing.
After the closing, the bank’s consultant conducted groundwater monitoring and requested regulatory closure in 2004 and 2005 based on natural degradation of the PCE concentrations but each time the Water Board denied the request.
In 2005, the purchaser/plaintiff refinanced the property for a higher amount ($1.2MM) at 8.25% as opposed to the existing loan of $868K at 5.25%. The refinance allowed the purchaser/plaintiff to recoup its original down payment and pocket an additional $60K. In addition, the purchaser/plaintiff was able to lease the property for approximately $20K a month. By the time the lawsuit was filed, plaintiff had received nearly $290K in rental income.
Meanwhile, a dispute had risen between CPB and the original seller over ownership of the original $250K escrow. The seller demanded the escrow to be released since the original purchaser had failed to obtain the NFA letter. In 2009, the parties settled this lawsuit whereby CPB agreed to remediate the property and obtain an NFA letter by April 2014 (subsequently extended to April 2016) and to pay the seller’s counsel fees of approximately $330K.
In July 2010, plaintiff filed a breach of contract action asserting CPB had failed to remediate the property within three years from the date of purchase. As a direct result of CPB’s failure to perform, plaintiff claimed it has suffered the loss of use of the property, was unable to enter into a lower interest rate when it refinanced the property , and had lost a sale for a portion of the property that would have netted it $650K.
In August 2010, the Water Board issued another directive requiring additional investigation and requiring submission of remedial alternatives. The remedial investigation revealed maximum PCE soil samples at 8800 ppm in the soil and 28,000 ppb in groundwater. Maximum TCE concentrations in groundwater were 41,000 ppb, DCE at 61,000 ppb and vinyl chloride at 21,000 ppb. The report also revealed concentrations of PCE and TCE in the soil gas of 8,529,800 ug/m3 and 5,591,070 ug/m3, respectively. As a result, the Water Board also became concerned about vapor intrusion.
A trial was conducted in two phases. First, a bench trial was held to interpret the contract. In April 2012, the trial court found that the agreement did not require the Bank to obtain a NFA letter by any specific date. Instead, the court ruled that the bank had simply promised to complete the tasks set forth in the agreed upon scope of work but did not include a guarantee that the scope of services would result in regulatory closure before the third anniversary after the close of escrow. The plaintiff then filed an amended complaint alleging that CPB’s failure to obtain an NFA letter within a reasonable time constituted a breach of contract for which Plaintiff sought damages of $4.5MM.
In the second phase of trial, a jury awarded plaintiff approximately $2.3MM for the bank’s failure to complete the cleanup in a reasonable time period. The jury based its damage award on expert testimony proffered by the environmental consultants who had conducted the original investigation. These experts had testified based on contaminant levels, it could cost from $1,332,990 to $3,235,770 to achieve the environmental screening levels (ESL) of 0.69 ppm in soils and 5 ppb in groundwater.
On appeal. CPB argued that paragraph 28 of the agreement stating that the bank “shall have no liability to buyer for any known or unknown hazardous contamination on the property” limited plaintiff’s remedy to an indemnity. Since the plaintiff had yet to incur any cleanup costs, CPB asserted that the jury erred when it awarded damages. However, the appeals court noted that CPB had not raise this issue with the trial court prior to or during the trial, did not assert this ground as an affirmative defense and had not objected to the jury instruction on damages until after the jury had returned its verdict. Thus, the court concluded CPB had waived the indemnity issue.
Even if the bank had not waived the indemnity issue, the appeals court went on to say the two contractual provisions do not operate to limit plaintiff’s contractual remedies to indemnity. The court held that Paragraph 28 was an “as is” clause that simply limited the bank’s liability in connection with any representations. This provision, the court continued, could not be reasonably understood to limit plaintiff’s remedies for failing to complete the remediation in a in a reasonable time period as required in Paragraph 29.
Turning to the damage award, CPB contended the evidence was insufficient to support the $2.3MM damage award. The damage claim was based, in part, on plaintiff’s testimony that 1600 tons of contaminated soil would have to be excavated. The bank said the plaintiff’s experts did not explain how they reached the 1600 ton figure. CPB noted that only two of the 15 soil borings relied upon by plaintiff’s experts had PCE concentrations over the ESL, suggesting plaintiff’s expert opinions on the quantity of soil that needed to be removed was unfounded. However, in yet another questionable trial tactic, the court noted that the bank’s counsel did not ask plaintiff’s expert on cross-examination to explain why he would recommend the removal of soil in areas where the borings showed contamination levels below the ESL. Moreover, the court observed, CPB did not offer any expert witness testimony to contradict plaintiff’s expert testimony.
The court found that it was uncontroverted that at least a portion of property contained very high levels of PCE contamination and that while plaintiff’s expert testified that the precise extent of the contamination could not be determined without more testing, his remediation scenarios contemplated excavating soil from the three known hot-spots to resolve the contamination. Moreover, the court said that while it did appear only one or two of the samples were above the ESL, plaintiff’s expert relied on other evidence in forming his opinions. Again, the court highlighted more questionable trial strategy by the bank, noting that CPB did not raise any evidentiary objections to plaintiff’s expert testimony and did not challenge the proffered jury instructions on how to evaluate expert testimony.
The appeals court said while there was uncertainty on the disposal costs of the excavated soil, the evidence was sufficient to support the plaintiff’s estimates on the cost of each element of remediation that would be needed to obtain an NFA letter. Once again, the court noted that the bank did not object before or during the plaintiff’s expert testimony that estimates were based on speculation, either. Since the jury’s award fell within his estimates, the court ruled that the award was not is unduly speculative.
CPB also objected to the amount of the award because it exceeded the purchase price of the property. However, the court noted that the Bank did not argue in advance of the jury’s verdict that there was a ceiling on damages based on the purchase price. The court said the evidence supported the conclusion that plaintiff purchased the property with the understanding that the Bank would remediate the property and obtain an NFA letter would be obtained within a reasonable time. The court said the remediation costs were not awarded based on injury to the property, but to enable plaintiff to be in as good a position as if the bank had remediated his property according to its promise in the contract. Additionally, the court noted that because the state had a firm policy in favor of environmental remediation, it could not say an award of remediation costs was unreasonable just because it exceeds the amount that the present owner paid for the property.
The plaintiff had asserted at trial that he was unable to refinance his property in 2005 at a lower interest rate of 6.75 percent, and instead elected to take a loan at 8.25 percent, allegedly due to the Bank’s breach of the contract in failing to obtain a NFA letter prior to 2005. CPB asserted there was no evidence showing that it breached the contract in 2005 because it had until August 2006 (three years from close of escrow in August 2003) to complete the work. Even if there had been a breach, the Bank argued, any claim for breach would have been barred by the statute of limitations. However, the court ruled that the action involved an executory contract where the plaintiff had fully performed and was waiting for the bank to complete its performance. In such situations, the court said an injured party can wait until the time for complete performance by the other party to bring an action for damages. The court said the party waiting for performance was not required to treat the contract as abandoned on the first breach but could elect to wait for performance, and the statute of limitations will not begin to run until the injured party has made its election. Since the trial court found that the time for the Bank’s performance was not three years, but was instead “reasonable time, there was no error.