30. Vendors agreeing to extend settlement date through act of agent with actual or ostensible authority – Not a formal variation of contract of sale required to comply with Instruments Act s. 126 but a waiver or estoppel – However caveator by withdrawing previous caveat had elected not to sue for specific performance but only to claim damages or was estopped from asserting the contrary – Caveat removed.

Chan & Anor v Liu & Anor [2020] VSCA 28 (25 February 2020) was a successful appeal from a decision of Forbes J [2019] VSC 650 upholding a caveat.  The facts were –

  • By a contract dated 21 July 2018 the first respondent Zhenzhu Liu agreed to purchase a property in Burwood Highway, Burwood, from the applicants for $2,450,000 with settlement due on 22 July 2019.
  • Most of the discussions concerning the sale were between Mr Liu’s wife Yumei Feng and Xuehang Cheng who was a sales consultant employed by the selling agents.  Soon after the contract was entered into she asked through him whether the vendors would agree to extend settlement to 15 September 2019 without penalty.  After speaking to the second vendor he conveyed that the vendors would only agree to an extension to 22 August 2019.  Ms Feng again sought an extension to 15 September, Mr Cheng again sought the vendors’ consent and again confirmed that the vendors would extend settlement to 22 August 2019.  Further interaction to similar effect then occurred between the purchaser’s solicitors and the agents, and on 10 August 2018 the agents again stated that the vendors had agreed to extend the settlement date to 22 August 2019.
  • Mr Liu deposed that he and Ms Feng believed that the extension to 22 August 2019 was confirmed and that only the further request to extend settlement to 15 September 2019 was not, and that they were preparing their finances for settlement on 22 August 2019 in reliance on the agent’s representation.
  • On 10 August 2018 Mr Liu caveated claiming an interest in the property pursuant to the contract of sale.
  • In late 2018 the vendors requested the purchaser to temporarily ‘lift’ the caveat so that they could refinance.  The caveat was accordingly withdrawn and on 21 December 2018 a second caveat was lodged.
  • Between 12 June and 22 July 2019 the solicitors for both parties engaged in manoeuvres and negotiations including: the purchaser’s solicitor asserting that the vendors had previously agreed to a penalty free extension to 22 August 2019 and the vendors’ solicitor disagreeing; the vendors’ solicitors seeking more money; the purchaser’s solicitor stating his client had difficulty obtaining finance and asking that the vendors consider an extension of the settlement date and a deferred payment of part of the price.
  • On 22 July, following no settlement by 4.00 pm, the vendors’ solicitor at 5.19 pm served a 14 day notice of default and rescission.
  • On 9 August the vendors’ solicitor wrote to the purchaser’s solicitor confirming termination of the contract and forfeiture of the deposit.  No response was received.
  • On 20 August the vendors’ solicitor wrote again noting that as a result of the purchaser’s default his clients needed to re-sell and demanding withdrawal of the second caveat.  In response, on 22 August the purchaser withdrew the second caveat and his solicitor advised the vendors’ solicitor of this.  However, next day the purchaser’s solicitor wrote again stating that the withdrawal of the caveat was ‘without prejudice to any of the [respondent’s] rights under the contract or at all, which rights are fully reserved’.  The vendors’ solicitor responded that day stating that his clients were attempting to re-sell quickly and requesting that the purchaser not jeopardise or delay this re-sale.
  • On 27 August the vendors entered into a contract of re-sale to a third party.
  • On 3 September 2019 the purchaser lodged a third caveat claiming an interest in the property pursuant to the (original) contract of sale and next day his solicitor sent a notice to complete by 19 September 2019.  The vendors subsequently disputed the validity of these actions.  They subsequently applied under the Transfer of Land Act s. 90(3) to remove the caveat.

The court (Beach, Kyrou and Kaye JJA) gave leave to appeal and allowed the appeal, holding –

  1. The power of the court under s. 90(3) was discretionary and so to obtain leave to appeal the applicants must establish material error by the judge in the exercise of that discretion of the kind described by the High Court in House v The King (1936) 35 CLR 499. [41]
  2. The principles applicable under s. 90(3) were as stated by Warren CJ in Piroshenko v Grojsman [2010] VSC 240, (2010) 27 VR 489, ie that the caveator must persuade the court that:

(1)  there is a probability on the evidence before the court that he or she will be found to have the asserted equitable rights or interest; and

(2)  that probability is sufficient to justify the caveat’s practical effect on the ability of the registered proprietor to deal with the property in accordance with normal proprietary rights.

But that these propositions were qualified by the fact that the discretion conferred by s. 90(3) was expressed broadly and enjoined the court to make such order as it thinks fit, and so the test adopted by the court ought not to restrict the statutory power.   Further, (1) and (2) are not mutually discrete: the exercise of the court’s discretion ultimately involved a synthesis of the Court’s conclusions on each. [42], [43], [75], [76]

  1. Where a purchaser had a right, in equity, to specifically enforce a contract of sale the purchaser thereby had an interest in the land, akin to an equitable interest, which may be protected by a caveat. [53]
  2. The parties had agreed that the specified settlement date be extended to 22 August 2019. Even if the vendors had insisted that the agent Mr Chan impose a condition on the extension of time, which he failed to do, for the purpose of the summary application under s. 90(3) it was appropriate to proceed on the basis that he had, at least, ostensible if not actual authority to enter into such an extension arrangement on behalf of the applicants.  Accordingly there was a serious issue to be tried that that ‘arrangement’ did not constitute a formal variation of the contract of sale (which would have been required to comply with s. 126 of the Instruments Act) but, rather, was a waiver of the stipulated settlement date of 22 July 2019 or founded an estoppel precluding the vendors relying on that date (instead of 22 August 2019). [55], [56]
  3. However, as to whether there was a serious issue to be tried that the purchaser, when he lodged the third caveat, had and continued to have the right to specifically enforce the contract, notwithstanding failure to pay the balance of purchase monies on 22 July 2019, as a consequence of which the vendors purported to rescind the contract –

(a)  Under the doctrine of election, a party confronted by two truly alternative or inconsistent rights or sets of rights (such as the right to avoid or terminate a contract and the right to affirm it and insist on performance of it) may lose one of those rights by election by acting in a manner which is consistent only with that party having chosen to rely on the other alternative or inconsistent right; [60]

(b) Ordinarily, a caveat removal application, being in the nature of an application for an interlocutory injunction, was not an occasion for the final determination of disputed factual issues, or of the substantive claims which the caveat sought to protect, and so it was not appropriate or necessary for the court to determine conclusively whether there was a binding election.  In the circumstances of the case, it was sufficient that there were strong grounds for concluding that the purchaser had made an unequivocal election not to retain his right to specific performance but, rather, to treat the contract of sale at an end, and pursue a claim for damages ([57], [59], [63], [67], [71]) for the following reasons –

(i)       the purpose of the lodgement of the second caveat was to protect the right of the purchaser to specific performance; [64]

(ii)   on 9 August the purchaser was placed on clear notice that the vendors took the position that the contract had been terminated.  Then, in the context of neither seeking to rebut nor respond to that position, he on 22 August withdrew the second caveat in response to the demand that he do so that the vendors could re-sell.   At this point it was strongly arguable that, in those circumstances, the purchaser’s conduct in withdrawing the caveat was an election no longer to claim a right to specific performance, which was an essential pre-condition to maintaining the second caveat.  That proposition was reinforced by the email of 23 August reiterating that the vendors were attempting to re-sell the property.  There was no assertion by the purchaser at any time before the re-sale on 27 August that the vendors were precluded from doing so because the purchaser had a right to specific performance; [65]

(iii)  the context in which the purchaser’s solicitor emailed on 23 August stating that the withdrawal of the caveat was done ‘without prejudice’ etc militated strongly against the proposition that the purchaser thus preserved his right to specific performance.  The only purpose served by the removal of the second caveat was to enable the applicants to re-sell the property, which re-sale would be directly inconsistent with any potential right of the purchaser to specific performance, and the email of 23 August did not suggest that the rights sought to be preserved included a right to specific performance or that the vendors could or should not re-sell. [66]

(c) For the same reasons there was a strong basis for concluding that the purchaser, by his conduct between 9 August and 27 August 2019, was estopped from contending that he continued to have a right to seek specific performance of the contract of sale.  He represented that he did not seek to maintain a caveatable interest in the property, so implying that he no longer sought to pursue a right to specific performance; by his withdrawal of caveat on 22 August, and his conduct at that time, he enabled the vendors to re-sell; if he was now permitted to depart from this representation the vendors would suffer detriment, namely, the loss of the contract of re-sale and exposure of them to a claim in damages (or other relief) by the new purchaser. [69], [71]

6.   The degree of likelihood of success in the proceeding was relevant to evaluation of the balance of convenience.  The above conclusions on election and estoppel were  of critical significance in an assessment of the balance of convenience against the fact that retention of the caveat would prevent completion of the contract of re-sale.   The balance of convenience accordingly favoured removal of the caveat. [73], [74], [77]

7.    The vendors’ further argument that, insofar as the parties had arranged, in August 2018, for the settlement date to be extended to 22 August 2019, nevertheless the conduct of the respondent between June 2019 and 22 August 2019 in some way rendered the extension of time nugatory, raised a question of fact which the court could not determine. [79]-[82]

Comment:

This case is interesting for the following reasons –

1.     In cases of contracts of sale the caveator/purchaser will often win or lose depending on whether there was a contract at all or if there had been whether it had been repudiated.  In this case the caveator lost because by the withdrawal of the second caveat he had given up the right to specific performance by affirmation or by estoppel.

2.    The court (paragraph 3 above) states that the right to specific performance is an “interest in land, akin to an equitable interest”.  The words “akin to” are interesting and are based mainly on Tanwar Enterprises Pty Ltd v Cauchi (2003) 217 CLR 315 at 332–3.  Older cases simply said that a specifically enforceable contract of sale confers an equitable interest on the purchaser (eg Bunny Industries Ltd v FSW Enterprises Pty Ltd [1982] Qd. R. 712, based on earlier authorities). 

3.   The principle that on a caveat removal application it is not appropriate or necessary for the court to determine conclusively whether a particular legal event would happen (see paragraph 5(b) above) is normally applied in favour of caveators, ie that the caveator has only to show a serious question to be tried.  In this case the Court of Appeal turned this principle on its head by applying it in favour of the registered proprietor, ie it was sufficient that the registered proprietor showed only “strong grounds” for there being a binding election. 

Philip H. Barton
Owen Dixon Chambers West
7 April 2020

28. Contracts of sale – No caveatable interest.

Gold Road No. 3 Pty Ltd v Platt [2019] VSC 714 concerned a completed contract of sale as to which the erstwhile vendor caveated on the ground of no consideration, repudiation, and misleading or deceptive conduct.  Jovanovski & Anor v T Square Investments Pty Ltd & Anor [2019] VSC 641 concerned a caveat lodged by a purchaser who had nominated a substitute purchaser.  The caveats were removed.

Gold Road No. 3 Pty Ltd v Platt [2019] VSC 714, Ginnane J (17 October 2019)

The facts were:

·        In March 2017 Mr and Mrs Platt entered a contract of sale of their bayside property to Evergrande Properties Pty Ltd, controlled by Michael Elliott.  The contract did not proceed, Evergrande sued for specific performance and the Platts counterclaimed. 

·     The proceeding was settled.  The settlement documents included a deed which inter alia: substituted the plaintiff, being another company controlled by Elliott, as purchaser, and affirmed the 2017 contract; and contained mutual releases.  The Platts had legal advice.  The proceeding was subsequently dismissed without any right of reinstatement.

·      On 27 September 2018 the sale settled including by Gold Road paying approximately $2 m. to a bank to discharge its mortgage, Gold Road having borrowed this from AusFinance Group Pty Ltd, who it must now repay.  Evergrande also advanced the Platts approximately $100,000 to repay money owing to another company.  Gold Road became registered proprietor.

·   The parties also entered into a Development Rights Agreement (‘DRA’).  Its recitals included that the Development Manager (Gold Road) and the Platts had agreed that the Development Manager would develop the land and that the Platts would have the right to purchase a lot in the development. 

·   On the ground, disputed by the Platts, that the development was commercially unviable and that a condition precedent was not met, Gold Road terminated the DRA and asserted the right to deal with the land at its discretion. 

·    The Platts caveated claiming a freehold estate and an absolute prohibition on Gold Road dealing with the land.  The Platts contended that the consideration for the transfer had been illusory, that Gold Road had repudiated the DRA, and that Elliott and his company may have engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct.  As to the consideration argument the Platts argued inter alia that: the DRA effectively enabled the Development Manager to acquire land for an undervalue; the DRA did not require the Development Manager to attempt to develop the land; that the settlement was a ‘hoodwink’ of Mrs Platt’s rights;

·        Gold Road applied under s. 90(3) for removal of the caveat.

Ginnane J. held –

1.    The settlement deed was supported by consideration in the form of mutual releases and the payment by Gold Road on behalf of the Platts. [14], [31]

2.    The Platts’ case, if proved, would probably provide a remedy in damages for breach of the DRA or other agreements based on their repudiation by Gold Road or for damages caused by misleading or deceptive conduct.  This did not create a prima facie case of a caveatable interest: the possibility of a remedy under the Australian Consumer Law, particularly under s 243, did not create an estate or interest in land. [28], [29], [32]

3.   The balance of convenience also favoured removal of the caveat, in particular Gold Road needed to repay the loan to AusFinance and the fact that it was registered proprietor normally carried the right to sell the property. [34]-[35]

 

Jovanovski & Anor v T Square Investments Pty Ltd & Anor [2019] VSC 641,
Cameron J (20 September 2019).

The plaintiffs and first defendant entered into a contract of sale under which the price was payable in four instalments.  The first defendant caveated.  It failed to pay the third instalment and did not comply with a rescission notice.  About a year before the third instalment was due it nominated a nominee purchaser and her Honour stated that from that date the nominee “became exclusively liable for the due performance of all the obligations of the First Defendant pursuant to the Contract”.  Her Honour held that as the first defendant had nominated another purchaser there was no serious issue to be tried that the first defendant had a caveatable interest. 

Comment: The fact that the first defendant no longer had a caveatable interest appears to hinge on the form of the nomination, ie that the nominee became “exclusively liable”. By contrast in Six Bruce Pty Ltd v Milatos and Ors [2017] VSC 784 (Blog 8) the plaintiff contracted to sell a property to the first defendant Milatos. He nominated a substitute purchaser AM Land. The first defendant eventually rescinded the contract and caveated on the ground of a lien to secure repayment of money paid under the contract. The caveat did not name the substitute purchaser. An argument that the caveat was defective, at least as to part of the monies paid because the nominee was not named was rejected by Keogh J: after nomination A M land did not acquire rights as purchaser against Six Bruce. The rights and obligations as purchaser remained with Mr Milatos. Keogh J. referred to: Tonelli v Komirra Pty Ltd [1972] VR 737 at 739; Commissioner of State Revenue v Politis [2004] VSC 126, [11]; 428 Lt Bourke St Pty Ltd v Lonsdale St Cafe Pty Ltd & Ors [2009] VSC 133, [24]-[25].


Further, General Condition 18 in the REIV/LIV contract of sale provides that despite nomination the name purchaser remains personally liable for the due performance of all the purchaser’s obligations under the contract.

 

 

6. Three County Court Cases

Today’s blog looks at three County Court cases from 2017, one on whether a contractual right to caveat created a charge/caveatable interest, one on whether a contract of sale existed so giving rise to an equitable and thus caveatable interest, the third on costs.

  • A mere contractual right to caveat, insufficient in this case: Tannous and Anor v Abdo [2017] VCC 304 (31 March 2017) Judge Macnamara.

The plaintiffs alleged that they agreed with Mr Abdo to purchase an interest in a bakery and paid money towards this, which went into the purchase of land by Mrs Abdo. At one point in the litigation to recover the sum paid towards the bakery the parties entered a document which included an undertaking by the Abdos not to sell this land and to permit the plaintiffs to lodge a caveat over it. They caveated claiming “an equitable interest as chargee”. His Honour held that whether, absent an express charging clause, an equitable interest in the nature of a charge was created by a contractual entitlement to lodge a caveat depended on the interpretation of the particular contractual provision: there was no principle establishing what implication must be drawn in all cases from authority to lodge a caveat in connection with an obligation to pay money. No charge was created here: for the plaintiff to succeed here there must be implied not just a charge but also a guarantee by Mrs Abdo of Mr Abdo’s alleged debt. The contractual language did not support creation of a charge. The agreement created at best a negative covenant not the deal with the property, creating no caveatable interest. 

  • No contract, no caveatable interest: Matthews v Knight & Anor [2017] VCC 1537 (27 October 2017) Judge Anderson.

 The facts of this case could be used in a University Exam Paper on whether or not a contract existed. The facts broadly were: delivery by an agent of three contracts (one for each of three properties) to a prospective purchaser; receipt by the agent of $1,000 partial deposit for each contract; the creation of three further contracts, partially reusing the former contracts, signed by the parties, requiring payment of a full 10% deposit by 15 September 2017, if necessary enforceable by reason of part performance; the solicitors acted as though there were enforceable contracts; the purchaser caveated; the balance of deposit was not paid; the vendor’s solicitors rejected a proposal to vary the contract and issued a rescission notice which was not complied with; the erstwhile purchaser engaged in an “opportunistic ploy” to suggest that contracts were still on foot; a further caveat.

The caveats were removed under TLA s. 90(3). The purchaser failed to satisfy the onus of demonstrating a serious issue to be tried that a contract and so an equitable interest in the land existed. There was no contract following the second contracts because: the second contracts were not intended as offers but if they had they were revoked or had lapsed; the purchaser’s purported acceptance of an alleged offer constituted by the delivery of the second contracts (ie the “opportunistic ploy”) did not accept the terms offered but proposed variation which variation the vendor never accepted.

  • Indemnity costs: Hooi & Anor v Lim & Anor [2017] VCC 949 (13 July 2017) Judge Cosgrave.

The first defendant caveated over land of which the plaintiffs were registered proprietors.  He alleged a constructive trust.  He subsequently stated that the basis of the caveat was wrongful diversion of monies and work from a partnership, but also acknowledged that he had no evidence that these monies (or what monies) had been used to purchase the land.  The plaintiffs requested removal of the caveat, asserted that the caveator had no caveatable interest, and foreshadowed indemnity costs.  Subsequently they applied for removal under the TLA s. 90(3).  The first defendant removed the caveat on day before hearing.    

Judge Cosgrave reiterated the legal principles for caveatable removal in conventional terms (roughly as set out in Blog 1) and noted that there was never any serious question to be tried that the defendant had the interest in land claimed.  As to costs his Honour held:

1. Awarding costs involved a discretionary exercise of the court’s powers. The relevant factors to consider in this context included: :

·   whether the caveat was maintained in circumstances where the defendant, properly advised, should have known there was no chance of success;

·    whether the caveat was being used as a bargaining chip;

·    whether the party lodging the caveat was a lawyer.

2.  Indemnity costs would be awarded for several reasons:

·  The first defendant had lodged the caveat without any proper basis, and knew or should have known this;

·  Unjustified allegations of fraud, in this case that land had been purchased with allegedly misappropriated funds, attracted liability for indemnity costs.  One solicitor should not make such an allegation against another without proper basis, exacerbated here because the defendant believed that the plaintiffs had to consent to the lodgment yet had lodged unilaterally.  This increased the likelihood that lodgment was for a collateral or improper purpose; 

·   The first defendant had ignored warnings to remove the caveat; 

·    The interest claimed in the caveat was exaggerated.  

 

4. Antidotes to repeat caveats: enjoining the caveator and Registrar of Titles.

Andrews Family Holdings Pty Ltd v Yellow Tractor Pty Ltd [2017] VSC 682 (8 November 2017); Andrews Family Holdings Pty Ltd v Yellow Tractor Pty Ltd (No 2) [2017] VSC 695 (14 November 2017).  Ginnane J.  

Mr Annesley entered a contract to purchase land from the plaintiff (“Andrews”).  In purported payment of the balance of price he tendered a document entitled ‘Promissory Note’ which was neither a permitted method of payment nor indeed in law a promissory note.  Andrews rescinded the contract.  The defendant (“the company”), of which Annesley was a director and which he had intended to nominate as purchaser, subsequently caveated, the caveatable interest being based on the rescinded contract.  The company was subsequently deregistered.  Andrews applied to remove this caveat under the TLA s. 90(3).  Ginnane J:

  1. Found no serious question to be tried that the company, even if still registered, had a caveatable interest: it was not a party to the contract and had no legal or equitable interest in the property.
  2. Also enjoined Annesley from lodging further caveats in respect of the land without leave. He noted that there was both authority for this course in the caveat context, ie Maryvell Investments Pty Ltd v Velissaris [2008] VSC 19, and the general curial power to grant injunctions given by the Supreme Court Act 1986 s. 37.  This case merited an injunction because Annesley had already lodged two caveats and did not foreswear lodging more.

Undaunted, on the day after this decision Annesley caveated in his own name claiming a purchaser’s lien.   The Titles Office had a copy of the court order but accepted the caveat albeit apparently issuing a requisition requiring Annesley to establish within 14 days that he had the court’s leave.   On an application for removal if this caveat Land Use Victoria argued that it had justifiably given Annesley ‘the benefit of the doubt’, the Registrar having a duty to accept a caveat for lodgment.   Ginnane J:

  1. Held this practice of giving the benefit of the doubt inappropriate for caveators whose previous caveats had been removed or had lapsed or were now subject to injunction. The Registrar’s statutory obligations included giving effect to directions of the Supreme Court (TLA s. 103).
  2. Permanently enjoined Annesley from lodging caveats in respect of the property, with indemnity costs.
  3. Enjoined the Registrar of Titles so that must forthwith reject and not record any caveat by Annesley over the property.

Commentary: This case is a rare case of the Registrar registering a caveat after an injunction was granted.  Otherwise, it succeeds previous cases such as where: the court orders the Registrar not to register any caveat without its leave or further order (Westpac Banking Corporation v Chilver [2008] VSC 587), or any caveat by any person other than a purchaser from the successful plaintiff without its leave for a certain period (Lettieri v Gajic [2008] VSC 378) or enjoins the lodging of further caveats (Marchesi v Vasiliou [2009] VSC 213; Wells v Rouse & Ors [2015] VSC 533).