July 22, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Agent’s Error in Proceeding with Closing Despite Lack of Proof of Compliance with Underwriter’s Terms Constituted Violation of Contract

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Fidelity National Title Co. v. First American Title Insurance Co. on Thursday, May 23, 2013.

Contractual Duties of a Real Estate Closer.

Defendant Fidelity National Title Company (Agent) appealed the trial court’s judgment in favor of third-party defendant First American Title Insurance Company (Underwriter). The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment.

Agent issued title insurance policies underwritten by Underwriter pursuant to an underwriting agreement (contract). Under the contract, Agent was to perform title and closing services. Toward the end of 2007, Agent wrote two title insurance commitments underwritten by Underwriter, each of which committed to insure a different bank as the first-position lienholder for the same parcels of real estate. The policies were issued in 2008.

The first commitment was issued with respect to Brown Financial, LLC (Brown), which loaned money to the developer of the parcels (Developer). Brown assigned its deed of trust to Academy Bank (Academy), and Brown serviced the loan by collecting money from Developer and forwarding it to Academy. The policy insured Academy as the first-position lienholder.

Two months after Agent had issued the commitment for the Brown title policy, it issued a commitment to insure the interest of Colorado East Bank & Trust (CEB&T) as first position lienholder on the same parcels in connection with a new loan from CEB&T to Developer. The CEB&T commitment had a requirement that the previous deed of trust be released, and noted it had been assigned to Academy.

Agent closed both loans within two months. Agent failed to pay Academy from the closing proceeds of the CEB&T loan and failed to obtain a release of Academy’s deed of trust on the parcels. Both Academy and CEB&T were insured in their respective policies as first position lienholders for the same parcels. Agent did not notify Underwriter of this fact.

After Academy began foreclosure proceedings on the parcels in 2009, CEB&T sought to enjoin the foreclosure. Because the Academy lien had not been paid or released, Academy asserted a claim against Underwriter under the Brown title policy, and CEB&T asserted a claim against Underwriter under CEB&T’s policy. Underwriter paid CEB&T $986,000 to resolve the latter’s claims in foreclosure and $55,000 to reimburse CEB&T for its attorney fees.

The claims in this appeal are by Underwriter against Agent under the terms of the contract. The trial court found in favor of Underwriter.

On appeal, Agent argued the trial court misconstrued section 7.3 of the contract and erroneously found Agent liable for committing “[an] error, fault, or negligence in handling funds in connection with [an] escrow.” Requirement G of the title commitment required that the deed of trust on the property be released. It indicated that Academy would need to release the deed of trust. A letter from Brown was received before closing, stating it would provide a release of the deed of trust and the original promissory note marked “paid in full” within fourteen days of the closing. No mention was made of Academy. The closer was not happy with this, but her branch manager authorized her to proceed. The trial court found this was negligent handling of funds in connection with an escrow by Agent, in violation of section 7.3 of the contract.

Agent argued it was not “handling funds,” but simply performing a title search and completing a closing. Also, Agent contended that any errors occurred in the context of a real estate closing and that those services do not fall within the meaning of “escrow.” The Court held that the record and the plain meaning of those terms supported the trial court’s finding that Agent’s error was a breach of section 7.3 of the contract.

Agent also argued that under CRS § 38-35-124.5, the letter it received from Brown was a “payoff statement” on which Agent was entitled to rely. The Court found the letter was not a payoff statement within the meaning of the statute. The testimony of the expert witnesses and the plain language of the statute support the finding that a payoff statement is a statement that a certain sum of money would need to be paid at closing in exchange for release of a deed of trust. The Brown letter was simply a statement that no money was due to Brown; it did not specify how much was due to Academy, which was the holder of the indebtedness.

Agent argued that the trial court misconstrued section 7.4 of the contract by ruling that Agent had knowledge of a claim or loss stemming from a title report, and its failure to give notice of such a claim or loss caused Underwriter to sustain “actual prejudice.” The Court disagreed. Agent contended that it didn’t know about the claim or loss because parts of the knowledge were held by various employees. The Court found that Agent must be held accountable for the knowledge of its employees. Agent knew and therefore had a duty to report to Underwriter that it was ensuring two different entities as the first priority lien holders with respect to the same parcels of property. Clearly, Underwriter suffered “actual prejudice” as a result of the lack of this knowledge. Had it known of the potential claim in advance, it could have taken proactive steps to mitigate the damages it ultimately had to pay. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here.

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