Blog 45. Getting your priorities straight.

This Blog deals with two recent caveat cases also involving priorities between interests in land, one simple, one complex. 

In Capital One Securities Pty Ltd v Lesic & Anor [2020] VSC 781, Ginnane J, 13 November 2020, the facts were –

  • Vongsa and Suzana Soch were registered proprietors of a property subject to a first mortgage to a bank and a second mortgage to the plaintiff securing a claimed debt of about $149,000.
  • A mortgagee’s auction had occurred.  The sale was not yet completed.
  • On 27 March 2020 the first defendant lodged a caveat claiming an implied resulting or resulting trust.  On 29 October 2020 he obtained a County Court judgment for $349,163.62 against Vongsa Soch for default in making discovery and in not attending a mediation, including a declaration that he had an equitable interest in the property and was entitled to maintain a caveat over the title. 

The plaintiff applied under the Transfer of Land Act s. 90(3) to remove the caveat.  Its director deposed to loan advances and that it would suffer a shortfall at settlement of the sale.   Ginnane J. removed the caveat and ordered the first defendant to pay costs on a standard basis.  Although there was a prima facie case that the first defendant had an equitable interest in the land, the plaintiff’s interest as second mortgagee had priority and the balance of convenience favoured removal of the caveat because it was impeding settlement of the mortgagee’s sale.

Roberts Gray Pty Ltd v Brunner & Ors [2021] VSC 76, Daly AsJ, 9 March 2021.

The facts were –

  • The first defendant (Brunner) owned a disused mining site at Yandoit Creek Road Franklinford worth about $320,000 (‘the land’). 
  • In 2016 a company (‘Vesterdix’) entered a rental agreement with TL Rentals Pty Ltd (‘TL Rentals’).   Brunner guaranteed Vesterdix’s obligations and as security agreed to mortgage the land to TL Rentals.  On 30 March 2017 TL Rentals caveated over the land based on this mortgage.  Vesterdix subsequently defaulted and TL Rentals eventually claimed a debt of about $96,000. 
  • On 11 April 2017 the fourth defendant (‘PG Walton’) registered a mortgage over the land to secure a short term advance. 
  • On 23 June 2017 it was agreed between the third defendant (Kellam) and Brunne that Kellam lend Brunner $30,000 and Brunner charge any freehold land he owned in favour of Kellam (‘June 2017 agreement’).  A copy of this document was in evidence but there was no direct or documentary evidence of the actual advance of monies.
  • Kellam also alleged that in August 2017 he acquired the debt (then standing at $188,065.50) and first mortgage held by PG Walton and made a further advance to Brunner.  There was, however, no direct or documentary evidence of payment to PG Walton.   However, PG Walton’s solicitors subsequently sent to Kellam’s solicitors the certificate of title and a discharge of its mortgage.  Kellam did not lodge these documents for registration. 
  • On 26 September 2017 Brunner executed a mortgage in favour of Kellam (‘Kellam mortgage’) under which Brunner promised to pay the mortgagee on demand all moneys owing by the mortgagor to the mortgagee including the moneys under a loan agreement between the parties executed that day.  However, no loan agreement was in evidence other than the June 2017 agreement.   There was no direct evidence of the sums secured and conflicting evidence about the size of the mortgage debt. 
  • From 2016 to 2018 the plaintiff (Roberts Gray), whose principal was Roberts, acted for Brunner including in a Family Court proceeding fixed for trial on 6 July 2018.  Brunner was non-compliant with financial disclosure orders and had not put Roberts Gray in funds.    
  • On 11 May 2018 Brunner emailed a draft financial statement to Roberts, prepared with the assistance of an accountant (‘the accountant’), which included: under the heading ‘Other mortgage payments’ that Kellam was the lender, that the address of the property was Yandoit Creek Road Franklinford and that the average weekly amount was $360; under the heading ‘Other mortgages’ that Brunner was the borrower, that ‘your share’ was 100% and ‘amount of your share’ was $200,000 (without specifying any security property).  However, the section headed ‘Liabilities’ did not list Kellam as a creditor.
  • On 5 July 2018 Brunner executed a document charging in favour of Roberts Gray ‘all land owned by me … now or in future as security for the payment of all professional fees and disbursements now owing or at any time may be owing by me to Roberts Gray Pty Ltd for legal services provided to me’.  (Roberts Gray subsequently conceded that the charge was ineffective to the extent that it sought an equitable interest in properties not legally and beneficially owned by Brunner, ie any property other than the land).
  • The Family Court trial date of 6 July was vacated.  On 20 July Brunner’s financial statement, in substantially similar form to the draft, was filed.  The reference to the payment of $360 per week to Mr Kellam remained.  However, under the heading ‘other mortgages’, appeared: ‘Jon Brunner borrowed against Yandoit and 308/6 Victoria Street the sum of $600,000’.
  • The plaintiff ceased acting for Brunner, claimed a debt of about $85,000 with interest, and on 30 August 2018 caveated over the land claiming an interest as chargee pursuant to an agreement with Brunner, J. B. & F. Investments Pty Ltd, and Vesterdix.  Brunner was the sole director of both companies and deposed that there was no agreement between Roberts Gray and either company.
  • On 10 December 2018 the Kellam mortgage was lodged for registration.
  • Following notice of this lodgment Roberts Gray commenced a proceeding seeking relief, including: an order under s. 90(2) that the Registrar of Titles delay registering the Kellam mortgage; an order that it have leave to amend the grounds of claim in its caveat by deleting all parties to the agreement with Brunner except itself; a declaration that it held an equitable charge; and an order for sale of the land.
  • Registration of Kellam’s mortgage was ordered to be delayed, eventually until the trial and determination of the proceeding.    
  • On 20 February 2020 Brunner was declared bankrupt.
  • Roberts deposed or gave evidence:
    • that on 25 August 2017 the solicitors for the other party in the Family Court proceeding, Lander & Rogers, sent a copy of the June 2017 agreement to his firm;
    • that on 2 November 2017 Lander & Rogers wrote referring to the June 2017 agreement and to a loan from PG Walton to Vesterdix of $165,000 secured by a mortgage over the land and another property.
    • that on receipt of the draft financial statement on 11 May 2018 he knew of the $30,000 loan by Kellam to Brunner;
    • that when the charge was executed (on 5 July 2018) he believed that this loan had been paid off or (he also deposed) significantly reduced but had not contacted Kellam about this;
    • denying that before execution of the charge he was aware that Kellam had an interest in the land or that Brunner (who deposed to the contrary) had so instructed him, or that the Kellam mortgage existed, and stating that before taking the charge he did not do a title search or attempt to ascertain what interest if any PG Walton or TL Rentals had in the land;
    • denying that Brunner told him, immediately before filing the financial statement on 20 July, of the Kellam mortgage;
    • stating that on 20 July 2018 the accountant told him that the loan of $30,000 had been repaid and had not told him of a mortgage securing $250,000 plus interest.  He denied (contrary to evidence of the accountant) that the accountant had told him that the ‘private client mortgage’ over Yandoit secured $250,000 plus interest and denied that the accountant had met him before 20 July;
    • that he had never seen any document evidencing a loan by Kellam in any amount other than $30,000;
    • that he believed that the sworn financial statement “loaded up” the land to defeat the interests of the other party.
  • Brunner gave evidence that: Roberts did not ask him how much equity he had in the land; and he did not tell Roberts that he had no equity in the land, as there was no need because, having prepared Brunner’s financial statements, Roberts knew this.

Kellam submitted that he held two distinct security interests over the land: a subrogated right to the PG Walton mortgage; and an equitable interest by reason of his possession of the unregistered Kellam mortgage, the discharge of PG Walton mortgage and the certificate of title.  It was common ground that the interest in the land of TL Rentals had priority over any interest of Roberts Gray’s.  TL Rentals abided the outcome of the proceeding.

Daly AsJ held –

  1. On the balance of probabilities Kellam paid out the PG Walton mortgage.  While there was no evidence of the time and amount of funds transferred, the PG Walton loan was by inference discharged before October 2017, when the certificate of title and discharge of mortgage were delivered to Kellam’s solicitors.  The timing of the execution of the epitome of the Kellam mortgage was also consistent with this. [125]-[127]  
  2. Ordinarily, absent evidence that the epitome of mortgage was either a forgery or a sham, its very existence was compelling evidence of the evidence and validity of an equitable mortgage. [129], [133]
  3. The authorities were divided on whether a party claiming to be subrogated to the rights of a prior mortgagee was entitled to the benefit of the terms of the underlying loan contract.  The better view was that the subrogated party did not automatically acquire identical contractual rights to the original interest holder, such as, for example the interest rate payable by the mortgagor to the original lender. [123]
  4. Kellam had discharged the onus of establishing his entitlement to be subrogated to the rights of PG Walton under the PG Walton mortgage to the extent of the sum paid by him to it to discharge its loan to Brunner secured by the mortgage, plus interest. [83], [118], [131] 
  5. As Kellam was entitled to be subrogated to the rights of PG Walton under its mortgage, and this mortgage was registered, Kellam had priority over TL Rentals and Roberts Gray with respect to the amounts paid by him or on his behalf to PG Walton. [131]
  6. Any sums secured by the Kellam mortgage which were not referable to the PG Walton mortgage were thus secured only by an equitable mortgage, which ranked behind the interest of TL Rentals. [131]
  7. As to whether Kellam’s interest as the holder of an equitable mortgage should prevail over Roberts Gray’s later interest as chargee –

    (a)    Where merits were equal, the general principle applying to competing equi­table interests was that priority in time of creation gave the better equity. [118], [141], [160]

    (b)   Where merits were unequal and favoured the later interest, as for instance where the owner of the later interest was led by conduct of the owner of the earlier interest to acquire the later interest in the belief or on the supposition that the earlier interest did not then exist, the later interest would have priority.   It was always necessary to characterise the conduct of the holder of the earlier interest in order to determine whether, in all the circumstances, that conduct was such that in fairness and in justice the earlier interest should be postponed to the later. [141], [143], [144]

    (c)   The mere failure of the holder of a prior equitable interest in land to lodge a caveat did not in itself involve the loss of priority which the time of the creation would otherwise give. [144] (d)    A person taking an interest with actual, imputed, or constructive notice of an earlier interest took subject to that interest, unless the earlier interest holder had engaged in conduct to induce the belief in the later interest holder that the earlier interest no longer existed. [156], [157], [161]

    (d)     A person taking an interest with actual, imputed, or constructive notice of an earlier interest took subject to that interest, unless the earlier interest holder had engaged in conduct to induce the belief in the later interest holder that the earlier interest no longer existed. [156], [157], [161]

    (e)    The onus rested on the holder of a later interest to show that the earlier should be postponed. [84]

    (f)    The evidence was inconclusive on whether Roberts Gray had actual notice of the Kellam mortgage.  However, it would have been open to Roberts Gray (and prudent) to conduct a title search before taking the charge.  This was inexcusable in the context of a priority dispute.  Although a title search at the time the charge was taken would not have disclosed Kellam’s interest in the land the PG Walton mortgage and the TL Rentals caveat would have been revealed.  Upon such a discovery, Roberts Gray would have been in a position to make more fulsome inquiries of PG Walton and/or TL Rentals and Brunner.  Accordingly Roberts Gray had at least constructive notice of Kellam’s interest. [118], [162], [165], [167]-[169]

    (g)     However, even if this finding of constructive interest was incorrect, there was no basis for postponing Kellam’s equitable interest to Roberts Gray’s interest.  Kellam had not so conducted himself as to induce a party in the position of Roberts Gray into believing there was no prior interest holder.  The agreement by Brunner and Kellam to keep their arrangements private did not misrepresent the position to third parties. [118], [170], [171] 

  8. The application to amend the caveat by deleting J. B & F Investments Pty Ltd and Vesterdix would be granted because:

    (a)    it would not alter the estate or interest claimed in the caveat, but amend the grounds of the claim, with no prejudice to anyone; [178]

    (b)    Roberts Gray undoubtedly had an interest in the land as chargee.  The ques­tion of the validity of the charge has fallen away and the only dispute was over priority, which should be determined on the merits; [179]

    (c)    although less latitude was affordable to a caveat lodged by a solicitor, as op­posed to one prepared by a lay person, the prejudice to Roberts Gray of not being able to amend the caveat outweighed this consideration. [118], [180]

  9. Given that Kellam stood in the shoes of the holder of a registered mortgage, he had a prima facie entitlement to take possession of and sell the land, provided the requirements of s. 77 of the TLA had been fulfilled, and subject to his obligations to account to TL Rentals and Roberts Gray.  However, there was no evidence that the threshold requirements of s. 77 had been met, and given that the parties all agreed on sale, the court would appoint the trustee in bankruptcy to do this and account to the interest holders. [118], [183]

Philip H. Barton

Owen Dixon Chambers West

Tuesday, 29 June 2021