Justia U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Real Estate & Property Law
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In 1938, West’s predecessor granted Louisville Gas & Electric’s predecessor a perpetual easement permitting a 248-foot-tall tower carrying high-voltage electric lines. In 1990, Louisville sought permission to allow Charter Communication install on the towers a fiber-optic cable that carries communications (telephone service, cable TV service, and internet data); West refused. In 2000 Louisville concluded that the existing easement allows the installation of wires that carry photons (fiber-optic cables) along with the wires that carry electrons. West disagreed and filed suit, seeking compensation. The Seventh Circuit affirmed that the use that Louisville and Charter have jointly made of the easement is permissible under Indiana law. The court cited 47 U.S.C. 541(a)(2), part of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, which provides: Any franchise shall be construed to authorize the construction of a cable system over public rights-of-way, and through easements, which is within the area to be served by the cable system and which have been dedicated for compatible uses, except that in using such easements the cable operator shall ensure…. The court examined the language of the easement and stated: “At least the air rights have been “dedicated” to transmission, and a telecom cable is “compatible” with electric transmission. Both photons and electrons are in the electromagnetic spectrum.” View "West v. Charter Communications, Inc." on Justia Law

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A New York owner of a fast-food property in Illinois, which was rented by an Arizona tenant, sold the property to buyers in California (Abellan). The tenant declared bankruptcy and never paid rent to its new landlord. Abellan sued. A jury found the purchase agreement rescindable for mutual mistake and the sellers liable for fraud and breach of contract and awarded damages of more than $2 million. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The sellers warranted to Abellan that there was “no default by Seller, or to Seller’s knowledge ... under the Lease.” A critical provision of the lease required the tenant to operate its restaurant business continuously. the jury had sufficient evidence to find a breach of the no-default warranty “to Seller’s knowledge” and Abellan reasonably relied on the no-default warranty. The court rejected claims of waiver and that the jury’s findings on damages and reliance were contrary to the weight of the evidence. View "Abellan v. Lavelo Property Management, LLC" on Justia Law

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Years of heavy industrial use at Wisconsin's Badger Army Ammunition Plant contaminated the soil and groundwater with asbestos, lead paint, PCBs, and oil. Operations ceased in 1975. Remediation has yielded thousands of acres suitable for recreational use. The National Park Service donated 3,000 acres to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. An environmental group sued to halt three activities at the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area: dog training for hunting, off-road motorcycle riding, and helicopter drills by the Wisconsin National Guard citing the Property and Administrative Services Act, which controls deeds issued through the Federal Land to Parks Program, 40 U.S.C. 550. The Act requires the government to enforce the terms of its deeds and that the land be used for recreational purposes. The relevant deeds require that Wisconsin use the park for its originally intended purposes. Dog training and motorcycle riding were not mentioned in Wisconsin’s initial application. The group also argued that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. 4321, required an environmental impact statement. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment. Dog training and off-road motorcycle riding were not mentioned in the application, but are recreational uses. While helicopter training is not recreational, the Service included an explicit deed provision reserving the right to continue the flights, as authorized by the Property Act. The Service reasonably concluded that its approval of dog training and motorcycle riding fell within a NEPA categorical exclusion for minor amendments to an existing plan. The Service was not required to prepare an environmental impact statement for helicopter training because it had no authority to discontinue the flights. View "Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance v. United States Department of the Interior" on Justia Law

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A storm caused minor hail damage at the Winding Ridge condominium complex located in Indiana, which was not discovered until almost a year later when a contractor inspected the property to estimate the cost of roof replacement. Winding Ridge submitted an insurance claim to State Farm. The parties inspected the property and exchanged estimates but could not reach an agreement. Winding Ridge demanded an appraisal under the insurance policy. State Farm complied. After exchanging competing appraisals, the umpire upon whom both sides agreed issued an award, which became binding. Winding Ridge filed suit alleging breach of contract, bad faith, and promissory estoppel. The Seventh Circuit held that the appraisal clause is unambiguous and enforceable; there is no evidence that State Farm breached the policy or acted in bad faith when resolving the claim. Winding Ridge’s own appraiser found no hail damage to the roofing shingles on 20 buildings. The fact that Winding Ridge independently replaced the shingles on all 33 buildings for $1.5 million while its claim was pending does not obligate State Farm under the policy or mean State Farm breached the policy. There is no evidence that State Farm delayed payment, deceived Winding Ridge, or exercised an unfair advantage to pressure Winding Ridge to settle. View "Villas at Winding Ridge v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co." on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs contracted to sell their condominiums. The Illinois Condominium Property Act requires an owner to give the prospective buyer a copy of the condominium declaration and bylaws, the condominium association’s rules, and other documents. The association’s board must furnish the required documents within 30 days of the owner’s written request; it may charge a reasonable fee. Sudler, which managed plaintiffs' buildings under contracts with the condominium associations, contracted with HomeWiseDocs.com, which assembles the required disclosure documents as PDFs, giving condominium owners almost instantaneous electronic access to the material needed to close a resale transaction. HomeWise charged plaintiffs $240 and $365 for PDFs of the disclosure documents. Plaintiffs filed a proposed class action, alleging violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices and Condominium Acts; aiding and abetting a breach of fiduciary duty; civil conspiracy; and unjust enrichment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The Condominium Act does not provide a private right of action, and there is no basis in Illinois law to imply one. Illinois courts have held that charging too much for goods or services is not, alone, an unfair practice under the consumer fraud statute. The complaint does not plead an actionable breach of fiduciary duty, and unjust enrichment and conspiracy are not independent causes of action under Illinois law. View "Horist v. Sudler & Co." on Justia Law

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A Downers Grove ordinance limits the size and location of signs. Leibundguth claimed that it violated the First Amendment because its exceptions were unjustified content discrimination. The ordinance does not require permits for holiday decorations, temporary signs for personal events such as birthdays, “[n]oncommercial flags,” or political and noncommercial signs that do not exceed 12 square feet, “[m]emorial signs and tablets.” The Seventh Circuit upheld the ordinance. Leibundguth is not affected by the exceptions. Leibundguth’s problems come from the ordinance’s size and surface limits: One is painted on a wall, which is prohibited; another is too large; a third wall has two signs that vastly exceed the limit of 159 square feet for Leibundguth’s building. The signs would fare no better if they were flags or carried a political message. A limit on the size and presentation of signs is a standard time, place, and manner rule. The Supreme Court has upheld aesthetic limits that justified without reference to the content or viewpoint of speech, serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample channels for communication. The Village gathered evidence that signs painted on walls tend to deteriorate faster than other signs. Many people believe that smaller signs are preferable. Absent content or viewpoint discrimination, that aesthetic judgment supports the legislation, which leaves open ample ways to communicate. View "Leibundguth Storage & Van Service, Inc. v. Village of Downers Grove" on Justia Law

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Landlords challenged a Hammond ordinance that they either obtain a city license or hire licensed contractors to perform repairs and renovations to their properties. Obtaining a license involves a test, payment of a fee, and a criminal background check. The ordinance does not apply to individual homeowners working on the properties in which they reside. On summary judgment, the district court rejected their argument that the ordinance impermissibly burdens owners who do not reside in Hammond. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The ordinance does not discriminate against non-residents and is supported by a rational basis. The court noted the significant differences between resident owners and landlords and the city’s interests in safety and the habitability of dwellings. View "Regan v. City of Hammond" on Justia Law

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Ahmed co‐owned an LLC that owned a condominium building. Ahmed recruited individuals to pose as buyers for the building's units and to submit fraudulent loan applications to lenders, including Fifth Third. The participants split the loan proceeds; no payments were made on the loans. Kaufman was the seller's attorney for every closing. The closings were conducted by Traditional Title at Kaufman’s law office. Traditional received closing instructions from Fifth Third to notify it immediately of any misrepresentations and to suspend the transaction if “the closing agent has knowledge that the borrower does not intend to occupy the property.” Kaufman concealed the buyers’ misrepresentations and instructed closing agents to complete closings even when buyers were purchasing multiple properties. Ahmed and Kaufman extended the scheme to other buildings. Although Kaufman testified that he was not aware of the fraud, Ahmed testified that Kaufman knew the buyers were part of the scheme. Two closing agents testified that they informed Kaufman about misrepresentations in loan applications. The Seventh Circuit affirmed a fraud judgment for Fifth Third. Kaufman participated individually in each closing as counsel and personally directed Traditional’s employees to conceal the fraud from Fifth Third, for his personal gain. The judgment against Kaufman was not derived solely from Traditional’s liability, based on his membership in the LLC, so the Illinois LLC Act does not bar his liability. Kaufman is not shielded by being the attorney for the seller in the fraudulent transactions. View "Fifth Third Mortgage Company v. Kaufman" on Justia Law

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Valbruna purchased the steel mill at a 2004 bankruptcy auction and began cleanup efforts under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 42 U.S.C. 6901. In 2000, Slater, the site’s then-owner, had unsuccessfully sued Joslyn, which had owned and operated the site from 1928-1981, in state court seeking indemnification under the parties’ contract and costs under Indiana’s Environmental Legal Actions (ELA) statute. In 2010, Valbruna sued Joslyn under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9613(b), and ELA. Joslyn’s fault is undisputed. Joslyn raised claim-preclusion, statute-of-limitations, and contribution defenses. The district court found that the CERCLA claim was not precluded, but the ELA claim was, and that the suit was timely. The court imposed equitable contribution on Valbruna, requiring it to pay for 25% of past and future cleanup costs. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, agreeing that the CERCLA claim was not precluded. If there is no state-court jurisdiction to hear an exclusively federal claim, there is no claim preclusion. The claim was not barred as being filed more than six years after the start of “remedial action.” Slater’s earlier cleanup was “removal.” While the 25% imposition on a no-fault owner "reached the limits" of the court's discretion, there was no abuse of that discretion. Valbruna understood the site’s pollution problems before purchasing it and apparently paid far less than the asking price; the court was rationally concerned about a windfall for Valbruna. View "Valbruna Slater Steel Corp. v. Joslyn Manufacturing Co." on Justia Law

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In the 1990s, Boucher cut down nine trees on his family farm in Indiana. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) claimed that the tree removal converted several acres of wetlands into croplands, rendering the Bouchers’ entire farm ineligible for USDA benefits that would otherwise be available under the “Swampbuster” provisions in the Food Security Act of 1985, 16 U.S.C. 3801, 3821–24. The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court. The USDA repeatedly failed to follow applicable law and agency standards. It disregarded compelling evidence showing that the acreage in question never qualified as wetlands that could have been converted illegally into croplands and has shifted its explanations for treating the acreage as converted wetlands, so its actions qualify as arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion. The agency experts did not attribute the alteration of hydrology to the removal of the nine trees; the agency presented no evidence that the tree removal altered the wetland hydrology. The USDA failed to engage meaningfully with this point, ignoring a crucial factor under the agency’s interpretation of its regulation. View "Boucher v. United States Department of Agriculture" on Justia Law