21. Options – Indemnity costs – Injunction against caveating

Pollard v Pollard [2019] VSC 21 (8 February 2019) Daly AsJ. 

Kuipers v Harrington (No 2) [2019] VSC 190 (25 March 2019) Derham AsJ.

 

These two cases are in contrast.  Pollard illustrates that a well drawn option to purchase creates a caveatable interest.  Kuipers illustrates a badly drawn option clause, no caveatable interest, and consequential award of indemnity costs and enjoining of the caveator. 

Pollard v Pollard [2019] VSC 21 (8 February 2019) Daly AsJ.  This was not a case under the TLA s. 90(3) but was a trial in which, if the defendant succeeded (as she did), she would have a caveatable interest.  The facts were –

·       In 2004 the parties entered into a deed inter alia concerning a property owned by a company and later by the plaintiff which included (cl. 5.7) that if the plaintiff wished to sell it he must first give the defendant the option to purchase it: at a value calculated by multiplying the annual gross rent paid by the tenants at such time by 10 times; but if it was untenanted, then at current market value established by sworn valuation; and the defendant was to be given at least 30 days’ prior notice in writing of such intention to sell, with her then to exercise her option to purchase within 21 days of receipt of such notice;

·    In 2009 the defendant lodged a caveat on the grounds of “As beneficiary of an option to purchase pursuant to a written agreement” then describing the agreement;

·    In February 2018 the plaintiff informed the defendant that the property was going on the market, stated its market value according to a real estate agent, and asked her intentions.  At that time the property was leased to a tenant;

·      Initially the defendant stated that she was not interested in purchasing the property and that the caveat would only be lifted at settlement of a sale.  Subsequently she confirmed that she wished to exercise her right to purchase at 10 times the current annual rent; 

·       The plaintiff commenced proceedings seeking removal of the caveat.   

Daly AsJ found or held –

1.    The plaintiff was obliged to give the defendant the option to purchase the property at the price calculated in accordance with the Deed, ie to give 30 days’ notice of intention to sell and concurrently to give the option to purchase the property at ten times the annual rental receivable at the time of the notice.  The obligation to offer the property to the defendant for sale at market value only arose if the property was untenanted. [32]

2.    The defendant was only obliged to respond to an offer made in accordance with the Deed.  No such offer was ever made.  She was not required to enquire whether the property was tenanted. [35]

3. The defendant was entitled to an order for specific performance of the plaintiff’s obligations. [34], [37]-[46]

 

Kuipers v Harrington (No 2) [2019] VSC 190 (25 March 2019) Derham AsJ.

The chronology was –

·         The plaintiffs owned a 38.38 ha. property at West Rosebud.  On 4 April 2014 they and the first defendant executed a Heads of Agreement and a Deed of Agreement”.  Under the Deed the first defendant was to facilitate development of the property by subdividing it into ten acre lots, in return for transfer to him of one such lot.  Clause 7 of the Deed purported to give the first defendant the plaintiffs’ consent to the lodgement of a caveat over the land to ‘better secure the opportunity’ for the first defendant to develop it;

·         The Heads, described by his Honour as “an ill drawn document ([14]) –

·         Recited that:

·    the seller has agreed to grant to the option holder a three-year call option for the properties to either purchase the properties, source a joint venture partner or investor, source a funder to develop them or to source an ultimate buyer/buyers.  This was the only reference in the document to a period of three years for exercise of the call option;

·     if the option holder exercised the call option, the seller and the ultimate buyer and/or their nominees must enter into an unconditional contract of sale;

·     the option holder was entitled to earn the profit margin between the seller and buyer less any relevant costs, fees, and commissions due to third parties.

·         Defined:

·    “Expiry Date” of the Heads as “three years from the commencement date” (but the term “Expiry Date” was not subsequently used in the document);

·      “Option Call” as an irrevocable offer to enter into a REIV sale contract with an ultimate buyer.

·      Provided, in a Payment Agreement”, that for facilitating the subdivision the first defendant would receive a ten acre parcel;

·         Provided that “the seller grants to the option holder an irrevocable right and option: (a) to require the seller to enter into a contract of sale with either the option holder or the ultimate buyer (cl. 2.1(a)); (b) to nominate a person or entity as selected buy (sic) the option holder to enter into a contract as the ultimate buyer, to purchase the property or properties listed on this agreement and on the terms contained in this agreement”; (cl. 2.1(b));

·   Provided: that the “call option” may be exercised during the term of the agreement by notice (cl. 2.2); the option holder, the first defendant, must pay the seller (the plaintiffs) $1 which is deemed to be a holding deposit towards the purchase of the properties” (cl. 2.8); “This agreement can only be terminated by either of; the expiry of this agreement, or by mutual consent of both parties (cl 2.11);

·       Provided that (cl. 4):

“The seller consents and grants to the option holder and the ultimate buyer, an interest in the property for the purpose of securing the development approval, and when a Contract is offered, the option holder and/or the ultimate buyer are authorised to lodge a caveat on the title of the property, a) but the caveat shall be discharged in favour of mortgages to be lodged for a contract of purchase, b) the caveat will protect any equitable interest of the option holders until settlement of the contract by the ultimate buyer; c) cost of removal will be paid by the lodger of the caveat”.

·     Nothing then occurred until 2018 when, after the plaintiffs had entered into a contract to sell the land to someone else, the first defendant lodged a caveat claiming a freehold estate in the land pursuant to an agreement dated 4 April 2014;

·     On an application by the plaintiffs to remove this caveat Daly AsJ found that the caveator’s prospects of maintaining a claim for an interest in the land were modest at best and on the  balance of convenience the caveat should be removed;

·       A month after this removal the first defendant lodged a second caveat claiming an interest as chargee apparently on the ground that the Heads created a charge;

·    The plaintiffs applied under the Transfer of Land Act s. 90(3) to remove the caveat.  Before filing the summons the plaintiffs’ solicitors wrote foreshadowing an application for indemnity costs. 

Derham AsJ held –

1.    On its proper construction, the option right, if any, conferred by the Heads was limited to three years from the date of the agreement. [20]

2.    However the Heads were uncertain, and therefore void and unenforceable, because 

(a)    it was unclear who was responsible to pay the option holder the ‘profit margin’, how it was to be calculated or what if any costs were to be taken into account;

(b)     the price at which the land was to be sold was to be determined by later agreement;

(c)     many terms of the subsequent REIV sale contract were unknown;

(d)     the nomination provision was uncertain in its reference to “on the terms contained in this agreement” which were unidentified; and

(e)   it was unclear whether the contract of sale to be entered into was to be between the plaintiffs, the option holder and the ultimate buyer under which the option holder was to be paid some unidentified profit margin. [21]

3.    The wording of clause 4 (consent to caveat) was unclear as to what interest in the property was purportedly granted and it appeared that the right to lodge a caveat did not arise until a contract was offered to the sellers. [23]

4.    There was accordingly no serious question to be tried that the Heads gave the caveator a caveatable interest because:

(f)      there was no charging clause;

(g)     the call option was void for uncertainty;

(h)     the time for exercise of the call option had expired; and

(i)   the sellers’ consent to caveat was little better than a contractual consent to lodge a caveat in certain circumstances, which had not arisen and, if they had, would not give rise to an interest in the land. [24] 

5.    The balance of convenience also favoured removal of the caveat. [26]

6.    Indemnity costs were awarded against the caveator.  His Honour comprehensively recited the principles governing an award of indemnity costs.  An order for indemnity costs warranted by: the nominated basis for lodging the caveat, ie a charge, was untenable; the pre-summons warning; the caveator was attempting to use the caveat as a bargaining chip. [33]-[35]

7.    The first defendant would be enjoined against lodging any further caveat on the basis of the Heads or the Deed because the lodgement of the second caveat was frivolous, vexatious and an abuse of process.  The caveator had shown a profound disregard of the absence of any underlying basis for the second caveat and displayed that he was ready, willing and able to continue to disrupt any sale.  There was accordingly a prima facie case that he would continue to lodge caveats if not restrained. The balance of convenience also favoured the grant of an injunction. [36]-[37]

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